Henry Docfoo Cheu (1900-1984)was born in 1900 in Nam Moon village in China’s Pearl River Delta. His grandfather served as the village doctor, and charged only what his patients could afford to pay. While his generosity meant that his family was not wealthy, they never lacked for basic necessities.
Docfoo’s grandfather recognized the value of traditional Chinese treatments for wounds and illnesses, but also saw the benefits of the Westernized medicine practiced in the nearby cities of Macao and Hong Kong. He was determined to send Docfoo to America to learn medicine in order to return to China to practice. But to accomplish this meant gaining admittance to the United States, despite the Chinese Exclusion Acts that restricted immigration to merchants, diplomats, teachers, and students.
An elaborate family scheme was hatched. First, to better his chances of admission, Docfoo attended school for seven years in Nam Moon village where his uncle, Shun Gee, was the principal. Second, Shun Gee changed occupation by learning the herbalist trade in order to pose as a merchant in the United States. Third, the extended family pooled their resources to cover the extensive expenses involved in traveling, gaining admission, and setting up an herbal store in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Shun Gee left first, traveling to Mexico. There he appealed to the Chinese Ambassador to Mexico, also a member of the Chew clan, for documents to enter the United States. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, Shun Gee established a store that sold herbal medicines. As a merchant, he and his children would be exempt from the Chinese Exclusion laws.
Back in China, fourteen year-old Docfoo prepared to leave for America. The family had decided that he would pretend to be his nine year-old cousin, Yuke Foon—Shun Gee’s actual son. Docfoo and his relatives prepared carefully, traveling to Hong Kong to secure paperwork and photographs. By mid-May of 1914, everything was ready. They purchased a second-class cabin on the SS Korea, an expensive decision but a necessary one, given the story they were trying to tell. Merchants’ sons did not travel in steerage.
When the Korea arrived in San Francisco in June 1914, Docfoo boarded the ferry to Angel Island. He was briefly detained while immigration inspectors investigated his claims as a certified merchant’s son. Docfoo passed inspection even though he was actually a “paper son” using false documents to claim his uncle as his father. He soon joined Shun Gee, living in the back bedroom of his uncle’s combined store and living quarters in Chinatown.
During Docfoo’s first summer in America, his uncle enrolled him in classes to learn English. In the fall, at age 14, he entered the Oriental School on Washington Street as a first grader. Some of his classmates were 7 years old, and some were 17, but all were recent arrivals from China. Docfoo progressed quickly in school and skipped several grades. By 1922, he was a freshman at Stanford University, and two years later, was accepted at the university’s School of Medicine. In 1929, less than fifteen years after leaving China, he was Henry Docfoo Cheu, M.D.
Docfoo was often the only Asian, or one of very few, in his class. He was always worried about money and debts, and worked constantly. He cooked at a Chinese restaurant and worked as a domestic servant for American families. And he studied the whole time. He had to keep his grades high, or his dream of becoming a doctor would be crushed.
He kept diaries in both Chinese and English, sometimes adding cartoons to illustrate how he had spent his days. He wrote frequently about having no social skills after years of living in the all-male world of Chinese America. How, he wondered, do you ask a girl to dance? But he also added sayings or passages from books to help him maintain his focus and energy. One read: There is no such thing as an “easy life.”
Docfoo’s grandfather had one goal in mind when he hatched the elaborate and expensive plan to educate Docfoo in American medicine: to bring him back to China to practice. But Henry Docfoo Cheu, M.D. was never able to return to his village, first because money was so short during the Depression, later because of World War II, and then the revolution in China.
Dr. Cheu found that American racial attitudes made it impossible for him to work in white communities or hospitals. So he spent over forty years practicing medicine on the staff of the San Francisco Chinese Hospital, where some patients were wary of his Western treatments and asked for traditional Chinese medicine instead. In the meantime, he married a Chinese American nurse and they had two sons. During World War II, a few months after the Chinese Exclusion laws were repealed in 1943, Henry Docfoo Cheu, M.D. became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
Photographs and other source materials have been provided by Richard Cheu from his forthcoming book Excluded Americans: The Silent Generation of American-Born Chinese, and from his father’s unpublished autobiography One Man’s Story (1970). We sincerely thank Mr. Cheu for sharing his father’s story.
The Cheu family story is also part of the classroom materials for Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion. Click here for the online curriculum and an expanded version of Dr. Cheu’s story.