By Michael Rainville Jr.

Reprinted with permission from Mill City Times (https://mailchi.mp/e8089bf9e6c5/meandering-through-time-11252021) This article is part of the series Meandering Through Time, a collaboration of the Mill City Times with the Hennepin History Museum.  All photographs were courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society’s collection.

In 2007, CHF awarded a grant to the History Theatre for producing a play on Liang May Seen, called A Hundred Men’s Wife. We worked with several actors in the play on their pronunciation of the Cantonese dialect used in the play. We also celebrated this premiere production with our first CHF Day at the History Theatre and were instrumental in bringing Liang May Seen’s granddaughter (Barbara Woo-Wong Bjornaas) and family from Lacey, Washington, to attend:

1893 wedding portrait of Liang May Seen and Woo Yee Sing

Immigrants from China first arrived in North America before the United States became a nation, working as sailors and merchants on Spanish galleons, sailing between Mexico and the Philippines. The United States acquired much of Mexico’s northern territory in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican – American War. By this time, many small communities of Chinese immigrants in California were already established, and that number only grew during the next few decades as many came to America to test their luck during the California gold rush and to help complete the first transcontinental railroad. By this time, many small communities of Chinese immigrants in California were already established, and that number only grew during the next few decades as many came to America to test their luck during the California gold rush and to help complete the first transcontinental railroad.

One of the first Chinese men to start a new life in Minneapolis was Woo Yee Sing who first arrived in San Francisco in the early 1880s at the age of eighteen. Soon after in 1882, the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which restricted Chinese immigration to America and led to further segregation of Chinese Americans within the communities they have called home for decades. Woo Yee Sing came to Minneapolis in order to escape persecution on the west coast and operated a laundromat. In 1883, he started the first Chinese restaurant in Minneapolis with his brother Woo Du Sing known as the Canton Café. Woo Yee Sing returned to San Francisco in 1892 with the goal of finding a bride, and that’s when he met Liang May Seen who arrived in San Francisco in 1885 at the age of fourteen. Liang May Seen’s parents were approached by a man who said if she went to America, she would be marrying a wealthy Chinese American businessman. However, he sold her to a brothel as soon as they arrived in San Francisco.

Liang May Seen escaped the brothel in 1889 and was taken in by the Presbyterian Mission Home in San Francisco where she became fluent in English and also took classes in housekeeping and mathematics. Once Liang May Seen and Woo Yee Sing

Honeymoon portrait of the couple taken in 1893

were introduced to each other, they married and headed to Minneapolis making Liang May Seen the first Chinese women to call Minnesota home.

Because of Liang May Seen’s excellent grasp of the English language, she quickly made friends in Minneapolis, opening a curio shop in 1904. During her time at the Presbyterian Mission Home in San Francisco, she converted to Christianity, and in Minneapolis, she continued to participate in the faith. She joined the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society where she met suffragist Mabeth Hurd Paige who was one of the first four women to be elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives. Liang May Seen and her husband also joined the Westminster Presbyterian Church, located on Marquette Avenue and South Twelfth Street. The church had a Chinese Sunday School that helped many Chinese immigrants get acquainted with Minneapolis society.

Portrait of Liang with son Howard taken in 1910

In 1906 Liang May Seen and her husband Woo Yee Sing adopted a Chinese boy from San Francisco named Howard and continued to help and strengthen the local Chinese community. This took a lot of resilience and patience, because the persecution of Chinese Americans was only getting worse as the years went on. Their restaurant, the Canton Café, soon changed their name to Yuen Faung Low, colloquially known as John’s Place and was known as a place where anyone could go to enjoy a meal, regardless of race. In an interview in the Minneapolis Journal, the reporter observed this diversity with Woo Yee Sing responding, “They are men like you or me. They have got to eat and there must be some place for them to do so…They are all brothers, and there is no room for race prejudice.” Unfortunately, their restaurant, which was located at 28 South Sixth Street, was the target of a bombing in 1912.

Nonetheless, Liang May Seen and Woo Yee Sing continued to help Chinese immigrants, teaching English and helping families settle into their new home of Minneapolis. Minnie Wong was one of these immigrants. She came here from the Kaiping District of the Guangdong Province in China; the same area Liang May Seen grew up. Together, they taught the first English classes Westminster offered for Chinese women.

Chinese sign for their restaurant reading “Yuen Faung Low,” made in 1913.
John’sPlace interior, 1963
John’s Place menu from 1960

In 1916, John’s Place expanded up. They opened a tearoom on the second floor in order to be more appealing to their patrons that wanted a more elegant setting. The restaurant continued to find success and eventually closed in the 1960s. Woo Yee Sing passed away in 1925 with over 700 mourners attending the funeral, and Liang May Seen passed away in 1946, leaving behind a legacy to be proud of to say the least.

Being a non-European immigrant in the U.S. was, and still is, a challenge, and the early Chinese immigrants who settled in Minneapolis never let racism and prejudice overcome them. From teaching English and starting their own businesses to building a successful Chinese American community, Liang May Seen and Woo Yee Sing were model citizens and have made a lasting mark in this melting pot of a city we all call home.

About Michael Rainville, Jr. A 6th generation Minneapolitan, Michael Rainville, Jr. received his B.A. in History, Graduate Certificate in Museum Studies, and M.A. in Art History from the University of St. Thomas. Michael is a historical interpreter at the Minnesota History Center and has been a lead guide at Mobile Entertainment LLC, giving Segway, walking, and biking tours of the Minneapolis riverfront for 9+ years.   He can be reached at [email protected]


Additional Resources:

  1. An interview with Howard Woo, part of the oral histories series conducted by the Minnesota Historical Society: https://collections.mnhs.org/cms/display?irn=10395108
  2. An article on Liang May See in MNopedia: https://www.mnopedia.org/person/liang-may-seen-c1871-1946