Chinese-American Boxers Before 1900

After 1900, there are a number of reasonably well-known Chinese-American boxers that fought in the western boxing tradition including at least two with variations on the name Ah Wing. The handful of Chinese-American boxers that fought in the 19th century are so obscure as to be unknown. Unfortunately they tended to be unknown in their own time as well, and every time a Chinese American boxer received any press, he was billed as the “only” or “first” Chinese to fight in the western style. That trend continued for at least fifty years.

For all practical purposes, Chinese immigration to the U.S. did not begin until 1850 (in 1849 there were less than 100 Chinese in California, by 1876 there were 116,000 in the state). Once the California Gold Rush began in 1849, Chinese flooded into California, eventually resulting in a backlash against the Chinese population in the U.S.

Anti-chinese sentiment

Discoveries of gold in Australia and played-out mines in California caused the unemployment rate to skyrocket. Looking for someone to blame, rabble rousers marched, preaching their views on the “Chinese Question.” The Chinese Question was, of course, what to do about all the Chinese crowding America’s shores. The Chinese were an easy target because they stayed segregated initially by the language barrier and often their own choice. After all, most were present only as sojourners, and intended to return to China after saving enough money.

The Chinese benevolent societies, such as the Six Companies, lobbied long and unsuccessfully for better treatment under the law, but anti-Chinese sentiment was rampant. Even so, some Chinese in America lived, worked, and owned property outside Chinatown ghettos, and generally interacted more than others.

Queen Chinatown Poster

One area where language is no barrier to successful interaction, even today, is in the fight ring. Boxing speaks its own language and quite a few Chinese in America and Chinese-Americans have learned to speak it fluently over the last 150 years.

The First
Of them, the earliest known pugilist was California boxer Ah Bung in 1871. Unfortunately, other than his existence and that he resided in San Francisco (along with the other quarter of the Chinese population in the U.S.) nothing more is known about Ah Bung, other than that his name was a source of amusement. Some newspapermen found it an apt name for a pugilist because “bung” could mean both the stopper in a cask itself or the act of hammering in the stopper.

Battling Laundry Workers
It was in Philadelphia that the headlines were next captured with “A Prize Fight Between Chinamen” in early 1883. Neither of the men involved were professional fighters, but they had a feud brewing and forty spectators were drawn to see the encounter.

Loo Hing was a laundry washer and Hi Sing Foon an ironer in another laundry. Hi Sing Foon had recently arrived from San Francisco with a reputation as a “bad man” and within a month had confirmed that reputation by branding Hing with a hot iron. Hing pressed charges (I couldn’t resist) but Foon produced unscrupulous witnesses to testify that Hing had absently sat down on a hot iron in Foon’s hand. Foon was therefore acquitted.

Understandably chagrined at the results of the trial, Hing sought revenge for his mistreatment. While delivering laundry to Clarke’s boxing gym, Hing proposed to do Red Mooney’s laundry in exchange for lessons in the fistic art. Accepting the proposition, Mooney began giving Hing western-style boxing lessons twice weekly.

Not one to miss a chance for promotion, Mooney contacted fellow sport Dan Reilly who, after informing Foon of Hing’s preparations, offered similar boxing instruction for Foon if he agreed to fight Hing in a bout. Foon refused the instruction, but agreed to fight a boxing match with Reilly as his second.

Mooney and Reilly drew forty spectators (seven of whom were Chinese) at $2 a head into a second floor back room lit by coa-oil lamps; the winner was to receive a share of the gate receipts. The boxers wore hard gloves, which back then were often little more than regular leather gloves, and rarely weighed more than a few ounces. For costume, they both stripped to their blue linen trousers. There was no ring, but men held up barrel staves to keep the spectators out of the way of the combatants.

Like most Chinese of the time, both men wore their hair in queues, and in a common streetfight among Chinese in America, the combatants normally grabbed their opponent’s queue with their left hand, and pummeled their face with the right. For this match, Hing specifically banned hair pulling, hitting below the belt, and scratching, prohibitions to which Foon agreed, and the match was afoot.

Hing brought his arms up in in the prizefighter’s guard and Foon awkwardly mirrored his position. Hing nailed Foon with a straight left that rocked him and followed up with two more punches. Foon shrugged it off and rushed Hing, showering Foon with wild punches before they clinched and fell, thereby ending the round according to prizefight rules.

Unfortunately, poor Hing was probably hindered more than helped by his brief couple weeks of boxing instruction. He was likely in that awkward phase where whatever natural method of fighting with which he was accustomed was being supplanted by the not-yet-learned beginner’s movements in boxing. Foon, on the other hand, judging by the fight descriptions, either knew a bit of Chinese boxing or was just more at home in a rough and tumble.

Hing did his best work at range, ducking and creating distance; Foon ruled the infighting and the grappling component and usually ended up on top when they went down. Both were gassed and bloody by the fourth round and by the fifth Hing had given up on his newfound science and reverted to swinging for the fences.

Rounds six through ten were back and forth, but in the seventh Foon managed to kick Hing in the eye. Hing called foul, but the referee disallowed it, deciding that a kick with a bare foot was not a foul. Then in the eleventh, Foon, gaining his second wind, blasted Hing with a flurry of punches and struck Hing on the top of the head with what may have been a hammerfist (“[Foon] made one tremendous effort, raised his hand high over his head, and brought it down like a pile driver on top of his opponent’s head”), consequently putting Hing down.

Mooney pushed Hing out for the twelfth, but he had finally had enough and sat down on the floor, refusing to continue. The seconds said that both men had wanted to quit a half dozen times each during the match, but had been afraid of being mobbed by the disappointed spectators, which would likely have been the result in that era if they had quit. Hing, again failing to gain the satisfaction he sought, was helped out by his friends while Foon collected his winnings and strolled out with his own happier comrades.

The Contender
In August 1891 Lee Bin Nam, billed as a “noted Chinese pugilist,” passed through Baltimore on his way to San Fransisco from New York. Little more is known about Nam, other than he was about 5’8, 200 lbs., and claimed that he was planning to challenge John L. Sullivan.

Nam spent his time in Baltimore visiting with Ting Yong Moar, the local “mason” leader, and Wong Chin Woo, a visiting New York newspaperman. “Mason” in that context could have meant almost anything: a benevolent organization, trade group, general fraternal order, secret society, or fighting tong.

The Last of the Century
The last Chinese-American boxer of the 19th century was Li Hung Foy, who was matched to fight first Brooklyn boxer Harry Fisher for twenty rounds in early May 1899, and then Tom Williams in Fairview, New York later that month. It is unknown if either bout ever took place.

The pre-1900 bouts were preliminaries in one sense, because it was not until early 1900 when Ah Wing entered the boxing field and became the first Chinese-American to make a career in western boxing. Perhaps one day we will know more about these earlier pioneers who made the first inroads into the field.

Primary sources consulted include:

New York Times, 2-18-1883
Washington Post, 2-19-1883
Washington Post 7-25-1886
Middletown Daily Times, 8-1-1891
The Standard (Ogden, Utah), 8-1-1891
National Police Gazette, 5-6-1899
The Sandusky Star, 5-25-1899

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