This story is a part of TSL’s AAPI Heritage Month coverage in an effort to shed light on stories we historically did not cover in-depth in real time.
Although Pomona College would not establish its first Asian Studies program until 1936 and its Asian American Resource Center until 1991, the presence of Asian students existed long before the college reached those milestones.
In 1897, a mere decade after the college’s founding, Pomona admitted its first-ever Asian student: Fong Foo Sec, who went on to become an educator, publicist and chief English editor of the Commercial Press, the first modern publishing organization in China.
Fong Foo Sec — 鄺富灼, alternately romanized as Kuang Fuzhuo — was born in 1869 in Guangdong, China. After growing up in poverty, he decided, at the age of 13, to relocate to the West Coast of the United States, then known to him as the “Gold Mountain,” to seek his fortune.
Fong’s search for a varied education brought him to Pomona for five years — four at its now defunct preparatory school and then one as an undergraduate student. He then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at UC Berkeley.
Although he did not receive his bachelor’s degree from Pomona, he is still considered a “graduate” of the college and an important member of its alumni community.
In 1922, Fong returned to Pomona to attend that year’s commencement ceremony, where James Blaisdell, the fourth president of the College, conferred upon him an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree. It was only the second time Pomona had made such a bestowment.
At Commencement, President Blaisdell praised Fong as being a “citizen of the world” and an “heir by birth to the wisdom of [a] wonderful people.”
Fong arrived in the US in 1882, the same year that the U.S. government passed its first Exclusion Act, barring Chinese laborers from immigrating to the country. Anti-Asian sentiment had been steadily rising in the American West, and Fong found himself facing rampant Sinophobia.
“I was received with bricks and kicks,” Fong said, recalling his experience in his memoir. “Some rude Americans … threw street litter at us to vent their fury.”
Over the next 15 years, Fong accumulated a vast array of experiences in the United States: he worked in a kitchen for a dollar a week, developed a gambling addiction, converted to Christianity, worked for the Salvation Army and battled near-constant racism and xenophobia along the way.
All the while, he remained focused on his education: he attended a mission school, learned shorthand and typewriting and taught himself English, history and archaeology.
The next step in Fong’s academic journey naturally appeared to be a formal college education. “If I could obtain higher learning, I could go back [to China] and be of service to society,” he wrote in his memoirs.
In 1897, Fong met Samuel Hahn and his son Edwin Hahn PO 1898, then a student at the newly established college. The Hahns conveyed Fong’s academic aspirations to Cyrus Baldwin, the College’s first president, who personally invited Fong to attend Pomona.
However, Fong’s years at Pomona were not without struggle. He had to work multiple jobs, such as cooking, cleaning and waiting tables, to pay his way through college. Moreover, prior to his final year at the prep school, he contracted tuberculosis and had to take a year off to recuperate.
After spending five years at Pomona, Fong transferred to UC Berkeley, where he obtained his bachelor’s degree. He then spent a year at Columbia University, where he earned a dual master’s degree in English and education.
In 1906, Fong returned to China, where he settled in Shanghai and took up the position of chief editor of the Commercial Press’s English editorial department. Education remained his main preoccupation and he wrote and published a number of textbooks for Chinese students in English.
Fong’s lifelong commitment to academic and social development made him famous both across China and in the United States. Despite the challenges he faced during his time in the United States, including poverty, illness and xenophobia, he always recalled his time at Pomona with fondness.
“Five years in college and all the assistance from friends,” he wrote, “these I cannot forget.”