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The term “social entrepreneurship” is relatively new. However, social activist entrepreneurs have been pursuing a dual bottom line since the dawn of the industrial age.
Ng Poon Chew immigrated to the US in 1881 at the age of fourteen, alone. He spent most of his adult life speaking out against the injustice of the Chinese American Exclusion Act and the inequity of America’s 20th Century immigration policies towards Chinese.
Helping Lost Voices Find An Audience
I recently expanded my UC Santa Barbara UCTV Innovator Stories series, to include Lost Voices from unsung entrepreneurs of the past. I’ve selected these entrepreneurs from underrepresented groups, whose stories are tragically little known.
The entrepreneurs are portrayed by UCSB theater students, who are coached by PhD candidates with intimate knowledge of the entrepreneurs’ lives. In addition to Ng Poon Chew, the stories of Biddy Mason and Peter Biggs were also recently resurrected in the Lost Voices series.
The Makings Of A Social Entrepreneur
Upon his arrival in norther California, Ng worked for a time as a ranch hand, where he converted to Christianity. He subsequently graduated from the San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1892.
In 1894, Ng moved to Los Angeles, where he became Pastor of the first Chinese Presbyterian Church. Unable to pay his bills through his ministry (his church was destroyed in a fire), Ng launched a weekly newspaper, The Chinese and American News. He used the periodical as a megaphone to spread his dual messages of Christianity and the importance of Western assimilation to LA’s Chinese community, which at that time numbered about 3,000 people.
Six years later, he was appointed the Assistant Pastor at the Chinese Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. Building on the success of his Los Angeles paper, Ng launched the first US-based, Chinese language daily newspaper, the Chinese and Western Daily News. At the time, there were six other Chinese weekly newspapers in San Francisco, which charged five dollars a week. Ng priced his daily at six dollars, thereby providing his readers with seven times the value, for a mere dollar more.
His paper was an immediate success. Within the first six months, he amassed over 3,500 subscribers, more than half of whom resided outside of San Francisco. He began to use his media platform to speak out against the Chinese American Exclusion Act, as well as the deplorable conditions at Angel Island.
In 1905, Ng Poon Chew and Patrick Healy, authored. “A Statement for Non-Exclusion,” which stated, in part, “It is impossible to preserve the integrity of a government like ours, if we deny any class in our community the equal protection of the laws.” On June 6th, 1911 he published his report on Angel Island on the front page of his paper.
Ellis Island Versus Angel Island
Many Americans have an idealized view of the Ellis Island and the experience immigrants had when they passed by the Statue of Liberty. Yet, they have little, to no, knowledge of Ellis Island’s West Coast counterpart, Angel Island.
At Ellis Island, immigrants underwent a brief physical. If they passed, they spoke to a government inspector who checked their documents and asked them a series of reasonable questions, such as “How much money do you have?” and “What is your final destination in America?” The primary ethnic groups entering Ellis Island were European, and it’s estimated about two percent were denied entry, out of approximately 12 million people processed.
The typical experience on Angle Island was different. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and subsequent fire, destroyed most of the city’s immigration records, allowing any immigrant to claim US citizenship. This led to a fear among San Francisco’s residents that immigrant families would sponsor non-relatives as family members.
Politicians stoked this fear and used it to justify detaining and questioning Chinese immigrants for lengthy periods on Angle Island. Immigrants were separated by nationality when the ships arrived. People from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Russia and Japan were also processed through Angel Island, but it was the Chinese who routinely detained the longest.
Even before the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, Chinese entrepreneurs faced significant challenges. In 1851, Wah Lee opened the first Chinese laundry in the US. He soon had 20-employees, working three shifts a day. Due to the emergence of Chinese run laundries, the price to wash a dozen shirts decreased from $8 to $1.20.
By 1880, two-thirds of the laundries in the US were run by Chinese Americans. To combat the Chinese’s dominance, San Francisco passed an ordinance that laundries had to be located in brick buildings. Not surprisingly, exceptions were granted to some businesses in wooden buildings, but such concessions were not granted to Chinese laundries.
Founders of B-corps, which had a duel bottom-line of making a profit while having a social impact, are continuing in Mr. Chew’s tradition. They know that if they want their voices to resonate through the ages, like Mr. Chew’s, their startups must be self-sustaining, and their missions must enlighten and inspire.
You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse.
June 10, 2019 at 03:08PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs