Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Exeter and the Chinese Educational Mission

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, September 16, 2011.

See caption below. Photo courtesy of Phillips Exeter Academy.
The rolls of Phillips Exeter Academy students for the 1880s include the names of seven students from China. Their presence here was a unique experiment of the Qing government called the Chinese Educational Mission, which turned out to be both a great success and a great failure.

The original idea behind the mission was to send Chinese students to educational institutions in the United States to learn about Western technology and military arts. It was hoped that the boys would eventually attend such venerated military institutions as West Point and the Naval Academy, but before they would be eligible for college-level study, the boys had to attend prep schools.

Led by Yung Wing, who had himself studied in the United States, the program was headquartered in Connecticut. The boys were the brightest students in China. Schooled for a time in Shanghai to acquire enough skills in English, the first group of 30 boys set sail for the United States in late 1872. They attended many of New England’s finest prep schools and, in 1879, five boys arrived in Exeter. Two more would come the next year.

The boys boarded in local homes, the largest number staying with retired minister, Jacob Chapman at his house on Middle Street. They were required to return to Connecticut several times each year to continue their Chinese studies, but the remainder of their time was spent in Exeter. Even with the preparation they had received in Shanghai, the boys found life in New England to be very different from that of China, an empire traditionally suspicious of all things foreign. They had been instructed to maintain their Chinese identity and habits. Commissioner Woo Tsze Tun, in a letter to the boys in 1880, reminded them, “since your stay here is brief, as compared with the time you have to spend in China, foreign habits should not become so rooted as that you cannot change them.” They were not to violate Chinese tradition by cutting off their long braided queue. They were not to become U.S. Citizens. They were not to take an American bride. They were not to become Christian. And they were not to succumb to “western” frivolities – especially the playing of sports.

But not all of their time was taken up in study. It was true that they attended to their schoolwork – these were scholarly boys by their very nature – but they also went to baseball games, attended dances and went to church with their host families. Living with a retired minister and attending a school that began each day with prayer, it would have been impossible for them to ignore the importance of the central messages of nineteenth century Protestant theology; that of redemption, personal responsibility and individual saving grace.

Iris Chang, in her book The Chinese in America, noted, “what the Qing government did not recognize until much later was that these American-educated students would be internally transformed.” By 1881, it had become apparent that the boys, although doing well academically, were picking up American customs and habits. It was also becoming obvious that the United States government, far from extending goodwill to China by allowing students to attend public schools, was not going to allow any of them to study at West Point. The United States was on the brink of passing the Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade Chinese immigration into the country. Bad feelings on both sides led to the end of the program. All the boys, regardless of how far they had come in their studies, were recalled to China in 1881.

The Exeter News-Letter sadly announced in early August, “It seems that the cause of the action was report by a dignitary sent to inspect the schools, which stated that the boys were forgetting the customs of their country and becoming rapidly Americanized. No amount of subsequent explanation was able to correct the erroneous impression thus conveyed, and the order to return is preemptory.”

The return to China was difficult for most of the boys. They had been promised a full education and had been looking forward to returning to their country as respectable men. Instead, they were treated as failures – boys who had forsaken their great nation. Kin Ta Ting, who attended Phillips Exeter Academy from 1879 to 1881, wrote to Reverend Chapman, “The Chinese consider denationalization a great crime. This is the chief reason for our recall.” He was bitter and it shows in his early letters.

Most of the Chinese Educational Missionary students went on to do well for themselves in China. A few managed to make it back to the United States, but most did not. Those who remained in China were assigned to military positions or further education. Kin Ta Ting was assigned to the Beiyang Medical School and became a medical officer in the Imperial Army. He was killed in action during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. Of his time in Exeter, he fondly recalled:

“I think the P.E.A. Professors ought to be proud of their pupils in China when they hear of their good standing in various schools. That shows the good instructions have been given by them. Their names will never be forgotten by us so long as we live. We often talk of them. How we would like to see their faces again in classrooms! We all want very much to be present at the hundredth anniversary of the Academy. It make us homesick to think of it.”

Photo: One of the boys from the Chinese Educational Mission joined the Phillips Exeter Academy baseball team and posed for this 1881 photo. Baseball was seen by the Chinese government as a particularly insidious expression of "westernization". The team had a particularly bad year in 1881 - losing to Andover 5 - 13. Courtesy of Phillips Exeter Academy.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Labor Story

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, September 2, 2011.

In 1899, a shoe worker at the Exeter Boot and Shoe Company earned, at the top pay-scale, two dollars and forty-three cents per day if he could stitch 90 dozen pairs of men’s shoes in one day. Women and children at the factory earned far less.

During the waning years of the 19th century, prices for most manufactured goods dropped. Factory owners responded by cutting costs in the easiest way they could – reducing workers’ pay. In 1898, most New England manufacturers, primarily in the textile and shoe industries, instituted a “cut down” of 10% for the majority of workers.

At the Exeter Boot and Shoe Company, General Stephen Gale notified all the workers in October that the cut down was the only way to keep the factory going. He assured them that it would last no longer than six months. The cut down began in December and the shoe workers tightened their belts, grateful to still have a job.

But by the following summer, it became apparent that there was more to Gale’s strategy than nobly saving their livelihoods. He opened another shoe shop in Hampton and hired workers there, but didn’t restore the cut down rates, as other New England mill owners had. The Exeter Gazette reported in April that, “the restoration in the wages of the employees of many of the mills of New England to practically the same basis as that in existence before the general cut down of a year ago went into effect yesterday, and the result is generally a satisfactory one to all concerned.”

Mills at Lowell, Massachusetts, and the mighty Amoskeag mills of Manchester reinstated pay rates for their workers, but Gale held back. Instead of paying his employees their original wage-rate, he began to play games with the economics of his factories.

The workers at Exeter produced three types of shoes: men’s, boys’ and youths’. According to the workers, in a statement published in both the Gazette and the Exeter News-Letter, “previous to the winter of 1898, the employees were paid the same price for men’s and boys’, while they did 72 pairs of youths’ for the price paid for 60 pairs of men’s or boys’.” But after the cut down, Gale began to pay for the boys’ shoes at the same rate as the youths’. Then he moved the more lucrative men’s shoe division to his new Hampton shop where he paid the workers less than his more experienced Exeter workers. Regardless of the fact that boys’ and youths’ shoes were smaller, they took the same amount of time to produce as the men’s because the tight turns required more accuracy and skill.

In August, the workers had had enough. On August 4th, 300 workers at the factory walked off the job.

Gale was incensed – particularly when it was noted in the Gazette that, “General Gale has a finely trained and well organized body of workers with a reputation outside of Exeter. A representative of a Boston shoe firm was in town yesterday looking after employees and another Boston firm offers positions to 15 stitchers.” Did this prompt him to offer the workers what they demanded: a restoration of pre-cut down wages? Of course not. Instead, he blamed the workers for their own predicament. In a letter sent to the newspapers, he whined that the workers should have put the six month deadline in writing when it was negotiated the previous year, “It would have been better for them to have given notice that it was their intention to ask for an advance to go into effect at some definite time, thereby giving both parties an equal opportunity to adjust themselves to the situation. The reduction of 10 per cent in the Exeter Boot and Shoe Co. was by mutual concession, and before it went into effect ample opportunity was offered the employees to look around and seek other situations where conditions might offer as good or better wages.”

At a mass meeting held at Foresters Hall, the workers issued a response to Gale, “This is unfair to the employees. They are not attorneys to be exact as to forms. They consider that there should be general good faith from employer to employed. If Gen. Gale wishes to remind us that we have been unbusinesslike in not having a written agreement, we shall gladly remedy that mistake in the future.”

Gale stood his ground and, as was usually the case in early labor relations, the workers suffered the most. Facing long-term unemployment, they had to decide whether to fight on for better wages or take whatever they could.

By December, the strike had dissolved. Gale never increased wages and would, in later years, put down any attempts his workers made to unionize. John Donovan, the leader of the strikers, found work in an iron foundry. The Gazette reported in January of the following year that “a party of button hole operatives leave here today for Norway, Maine, where they have secured employment with Spinney Brothers.”

Exeter never became a union town in any of her industries. Stephen Gale went on to serve several terms in Congress – happily elected by the other leaders of industry.

Photo caption: The Exeter Boot and Shoe Company (later Gale Brothers). The business began operations in 1885 and quickly became the town’s largest employer. In 1899, 300 of the 700 employees went on strike due to a reduction in pay.