Yan Phou Lee

British Library digitised image from page 303 of “New York’s Chinatown. An historical presentation of its people and places … Fully illustrated from life” Beck, Louis J., 1898, Bohemia Publishing. British Library shelfmark: Digital Store 10413.d.17

Chinese American, Autoethnography

Yan Phou Lee

(1861-ca. 1938)

Yan Phou Lee was a writer and editor who wrote the first book published in English by an author of Asian descent in the US. His book, When I Was a Boy in China (1887), was an autoethnography of his childhood and included descriptions of social customs, foods, and holidays as observed in 19th century China. Lee’s writings and lectures on Chinese life represent early attempts to explain Chinese culture in order to make it accessible and friendly to Americans during a period of pervasive anti-Chinese sentiment.

Lee was born in 1861 in Guangdong, China, to a family of scholar-officials. When he was 12 years old, he was selected to participate in the Chinese Educational Mission (CEM), a Chinese government program that sent Chinese boys to the US to be educated from grammar school to college with the intent of bringing scientific and engineering training and expertise back to China. Lee attended school in Springfield, MA, and New Haven, CT, and entered Yale College in 1880. However, after he had attended for only one year, China dismantled the program and recalled all the students.

After raising enough funds to return to the US, Lee began writing and lecturing about China as a means to support his return to schooling at Yale. He worked at a children’s magazine which published several essays he had written about life in China. They described family and school life, games, holidays, cooking, religion, and his first experience of traveling to the US as part of the CEM program. These essays served as the basis for his book, When I Was a Boy in China (1887).

Lee led a colorful and complicated life with a widely varying career. Throughout it, he gave lectures about Chinese culture and life to American audiences. Lee was also an outspoken critic of anti-Chinese exclusionist views, delivering a commencement speech for his Yale graduation (1887) that castigated the hypocrisies of the US’s Chinese Exclusion Act, and writing an essay for The North American Review, “The Chinese Must Stay” (1889), that challenged specific points of the legislation. Over the next ten years, he would continue to develop Chinese exhibits for expositions and world fairs, believing that he had a role to play in correcting American misperceptions of Chinese people and culture.In the past, Asian Americanists have critiqued Lee’s work as assimilationist, framing Chinese culture in quaint terms that reinforced stereotypes. More recent scholarship has recognized how Lee used his unique position as both Chinese- and US-educated to serve as a cultural broker to push against anti-Chinese perceptions, and that his writings reflect a pioneering Asian American attempt at documenting Chinese life for an American context. Among his works of interest to folklorists:

When I Was a Boy in China (1887)

“The Chinese Must Stay” North American Review Vol. 148, No. 389 (April 1889)

Nancy Yan