By Thomas Shumaker, PhD
By 1914, when war began in Europe, New Mexico had only been a state for just two years. Despite the relative freshness of its entry into the Union, it was nevertheless open to the wider world, as it always had been. Chinese immigrants had come to the United States in the nineteenth-century seeking economic opportunity. Many worked tirelessly building the railways in the west that linked the region to the Midwest and East Coast. Others, however, pursued business endeavors of various kinds. Chinese immigrants tended to experience discrimination, not only in everyday life but also as enshrined in law. This did not stop Chinese settlement in the western United States. Finding a home in California—San Francisco in particular is famous for its Chinatown—many found opportunities further afield from the Golden State. Some found New Mexico to be a good place to live, work, and raise families. One such immigrant was Kim Fong.
Born in Sun Ming Village, China on January 21, 1891, Kim Fong lived and worked in San Francisco. He then migrated east to New Mexico. Sometime in 1913, Kim found employment as a waiter at the Eagle Café in Silver City. His wife and two sons accompanied him to the confident little town in the southwestern corner of the state. From this vantage point, Kim may have watched the developments in Europe.The late summer and early autumn of 1914 saw the opening battles of the “War to End All Wars”—a conflict that many sincerely believed would be over by Christmas, 1914. This bold confidence disappeared as the war hardened into hundreds of miles of trenches on cold, wet battlefields where men’s feet rotted from being in water nearly all of the time—a condition known as ”trench foot.” The generals of France and Britain measured progress on the Western Front in mere yards gained—all at the cost of millions of lives. The Russian Empire, third member of the Allied Powers, saw millions of its soldiers killed as Germany surged eastward—a thrust so powerful that Russia opted to make a separate peace with Germany in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 3, 1918).
What Kim Fong made of this brutality is unknown. President, Woodrow Wilson appeared committed to a policy of national neutrality, which matched the popular mood in the country at the time. This isolationist mentality was badly shaken as the German Empire launched a campaign of total war that involved targeting civilians and civilian enterprise on land and the high seas. Poison gas, the sinking of civilian passenger liners, mass executions of civilians, and the first aerial bombing raids in history horrified the world and earned the ire of neutral countries. The feeling that “something must be done” to stop the Germans intensified after the May 7, 1915 sinking of the RMS Lusitania—a commercial passenger liner carrying many US citizens and Britons. Britain and France contributed to the change in public opinion about the war by increasing pressure on Washington to join the great cause. The sinking of other civilian ships, carrying US and British citizens, as well as the German Empire’s attempt to meddle in in the Mexican Revolution between 1915 and 1917 further weakened the American resolve to remain strictly neutral.
Wilson held firm, however, until 1917—a fateful year for the world, for the United States, and for New Mexico. On 6 April 1917, four days after his War Message, Wilson signed the formal Declaration of War as it had been drafted by Congress. Nearly two months to the day after the declaration and the general mobilization of the country, Kim Fong, a Chinese immigrant to Silver City, New Mexico, enlisted in the United States Army. Less than one year later, on 29 March 1918, he was formally inducted into the army and sent to serve on the Western Front. Despite the fact that the war only lasted eight more months, Fong saw combat in various places along the vast network of trenches that made up the core of the western theatre. His own words capture the experience with a telling and gripping clarity:
I was assigned to 1st class Private Co. A. 356th Infantry. Although I kept up the fight in the trenches, from start to finish, except a slight scratch on my finger I was not injured in any way.
At one time we fought with our enemies within about 200 yards–on September 12, 1918 fighting for one half day within only 50 feet.
At the time of the armistice we were only within a few feet from our foes, when they raised their hands and said something which we did not understand, not until a few of them was shot down by us before we learned that they meant that the “war was over.”
On November 11, 1918 We walked from where we stopped the fight thru Belgium, Luxembourg and remained there until we returned to U.S. in May 19, 1919.
Date: November 20, 1919 (Signed): Kim Fong.
On June 14, 1919, just over two years since he enlisted for service, Kim Fong received an honorable discharge from the United States Army and returned to civilian life. Presumably, his first stop would have been his home and family in Silver City, New Mexico, where his wife and children surely greated him with great joy. He had, after all, survived a war that had killed tens of millions of soldiers and civilians. And like many of his generation, perhaps Kim Fong fervently hoped that this was indeed the last major war that the world would ever know. Regardless of these facts, or of his personal views, Kim was soon planning and working for his future again. This time, he was not contemplating military service. Instead, he applied for a passport to travel to China. While the historical record is silent as to his itinerary for this business trip, we do know that he decided to relocate himself and his family from Silver City to California. Eventually, the Fongs settled in Sacramento, California’s sunny, green state capital–gateway to the northern part of the state.
There is no evidence that Fong or any member of his family ever returned to New Mexico. Fong did, however, recall his days of service in the Army in the trenches of Belgium and France. Once settled in Sacramento, he joined the San Francisco Cathay Post of the American Legion where he was an active member for many years. Clearly, he was proud of his time in the army and sought both to remember and honor his contribution to the war effort and advance the knowledge of the many veterans of Asian heritage that had fought so heroically for the United States. Indeed, this is one of the key missions of the Cathay Post.
On 1 October 1963, seventy-two year old Kim Fong—husband, father, business person, veteran—passed away in Sacramento. The obituary, published in The Sacramento Bee later that day captured some of the esteem in which his family and friends held this man:
Fong–In this city, October 1, 1963, Kim Fong, dearly beloved husband of Ngon Thin Fong, loving father of Chester and Jong Fong, survived by seven grandchildren, a native of China, aged 72 years [passed away]. [He was] a member of San Francisco, Cathay Post [of the] American Legion…Interment [will be in the] Sacramento County Veterans Cemetery.
In these brief lines, the highpoints of Kim Fong’s life appear clearly. He was a man dedicated to his family and an enthusiastic patriot who was, nevertheless, proud of his Chinese heritage. He was a veteran and active member of the American Legion. He rests now in the Sacramento Veterans' Cemetery where flowers are still placed on his grave—his wife’s stone featuring a photograph of Kim in his uniform of the First World War.
Kim Fong’s life began in a small village in rural China and ended in the lush landscape of Sacramento, California. On his life’s journey, he made stops in San Francisco, at a little café in Silver City, New Mexico, and on the battlefields of the Western Front. His story is an American story, a veteran’s story, and a New Mexico story.
World War I, Chinese