I was amazed at how much I enjoyed this book! I expected to be mildly entertained, but from Page 1 I was engrossed and rapidly turning the pages. I think I only required a couple hours because I couldn't tear myself away. Ms. McNamara takes on a large cast of characters, their personal issues, plus many local, national, and even global geopolitical dilemmas of the late 19th century. Plus there's a plethora of mystery, and one of the most appealing female protagonists I've encountered. I'm thankful this is a series.
Guest post by Frances Mcnamara
One of the most interesting things about writing historical fiction is the way you discover fascinating characters who really lived. You wonder, why have I never heard of this person? And sometimes they have done things so astonishing that you can’t put them into a work of fiction because people would think you made them up.
I’ve discovered a number of interesting people while writing the Emily Cabot mystery series which is set in Gilded Age Chicago. The turn of the century (nineteenth to twentieth) was a fascinating time with many parallels to our more recent turn of the century. It was a time of change, with conflicts strangely reminiscent of today’s headlines. One topic that was debated then and is now was immigration and immigration reform. Today we hear about the plight of immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. In 1896, the date of the events in Death at Chinatown, the fifth Emily Cabot mystery, a topic of conflict and debate was the immigration of Chinese to America. Researching those debates, I discovered Wong Chin Foo, a rather amazing champion of immigration reform from that time.
Wong Chin Foo was born in China where his family fell on hard times. He was helped by American Christian missionaries, who provided him with an education,and eventually sponsored his move to the United States. It was a time when the old imperial government of China was crumbling away and Western nations were forcing trade and other agreements on a weak central government. Among the “concessions” demanded by force were agreements to allow Christian missionaries to operate in China. Like many things, this was a mixed blessing for the Chinese,as some young people, like Wong Chin Foo, received educations that opened them up to new ideas, while others were deeply offended by the lack of respect for the cultural heritage of China demonstrated in the religious teachings of the foreigners.
Wong was able to continue his education in the U.S. in the 1870s and he evenbecame a citizen. This was fairly unusual. Emigration of Chinese laborers to western states had led to passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited immigration of Chinese workers for ten years. Even at the time it was seen by some as blatant racial discrimination. But in 1892 the Geary Act extended the restrictions and added the requirement for a resident permit strictly for Chinese immigrants. And, for the first time, illegal immigration was made punishable by arrest and hard labor in addition to deportation.
An early supporter of these harsh laws was a California labor leader named Dennis Kearney whose slogan was “The Chinese must go.” When he travelled to the EastCoast in the 1880s he was challenged to public debates by Wong Chin Foo giving Kearney “his choice of chopsticks, Irish potatoes, or Krupp guns.” By this you can imagine that Wong was quite a showman. In fact, he made his living as a journalist and lecturer. He wrote satirical pieces like “Why Am I a Heathen?” challenging the American view of the Chinese but he also wrote many pieces that interpreted Chinese culture to his fellow citizens, covering topics like Chinese food and medicine. He drew crowds to his lectures, indicating an interest in the topics.
He is such a wonderful character that I hope he intrigues readers of Death at Chinatown to learn more. Just as I completed my book, a biography of him titledThe First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo (by Scott D.Seligman) was published. When I heard Mr. Seligman speak he made the point that his book probably could not have been written before the massive digitization of newspaper backfiles, as most of the information about the life of Wong could only be found in newspapers of the time. He is a character well worth discovering, though, I promise you and he plays an important role in Death at Chinatown.
Frances McNamara is author of five Emily Cabot mysteries, Death at Chinatownbeing the most recent. She is a librarian at the University of Chicago and a native of Boston who has lived in Chicago for two decades.