Tye Leung Schulze
"My first vote? Oh, yes, I thought long over that. I studied;
I read about all your men who wished to be president.
I learned about the new laws. I wanted to
know what was right, not to act blindly.”
In May 1887, a gang of seven white men went on a violent spree, murdering 34 Chinese miners working in the mountains and valleys of Oregon’s Snake River. This massacre was a continuation of the brutality inflicted upon the United States’ Chinese immigrant population, both before and after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This act barred all “unskilled” Chinese workers from entering the country—and extended no protections to those already here. The government had declared that Chinese immigrants were a problem and anti-Chinese Americans took it upon themselves to “drive them out.”
In August 1887, Tye Leung was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown. In her crowded, close-knit neighborhood, Tye grew up with seven siblings in an apartment her parents shared with her aunt and uncle. The options were limited for a young Chinese girl in the shadow of the Chinese Exclusion Act. She and her siblings were barred from most grade schools and unwelcome in most trades.
After elementary school, Tye was able to continue her education at a Presbyterian church where she learned English and attended church services regularly. Beyond that, her world was small. “No girls were allowed to go out that much,” Tye recalled. “They must stay home, learn to sew, and housewife’s duties.”
At age nine, around 1896, Tye’s mother sent her to be a servant in another household. The family was kind to her, but Tye did not understood until later that she’d been sold. Tye’s uncle soon discovered this situation, and he enlisted the help of Tye’s teachers to bring her back home.
A few years later, her parents arranged a marriage for her 14-year-old sister to a much older man from Butte, Montana. To avoid this marriage, Tye’s sister ran away from home. Her parents then shifted this marriage agreement to 12-year-old Tye. Tye fled, too, specifically to the care of Donaldina Cameron.
Donaldina was a religious white woman who saw it as her god-given mission to save Chinese girls from sex trafficking. Some called her the “Angry Angel of Chinatown.” Others called her “White Devil.” A condition of her aide was that all the girls resided in her Presbyterian Mission Home, never leaving without an escort, and converted to Christianity.
While some Chinese women resented these demands, others welcomed them eagerly and converted readily. Regardless of individual sentiment, her name was known throughout Chinatown, so when 12-year-old Tye found herself engaged to a man more than three times her age, she ran to Donaldina for help and Donaldina gave it. Over the next few years, Tye would become a star pupil, assisting Donaldina as a translator, and joining her mission to rescue Chinese women and girls from exploitation.
For nine years, Tye worked side-by-side with Donaldina, providing crucial communication assistance to other Chinese people. She helped translate in the courts and police proceedings, becoming known and respected by both. Donaldina affectionately called her “Tiny,” as Tye stood just over four feet tall. Donaldina said at the time, “There is hardly a court in San Francisco or Oakland where Tye Leung is not known and welcome as an excellent interpreter. ... All Chinatown knows her...and nearly all Chinatown loves her.”
In 1910, the Angel Island Immigration Station opened in the San Francisco Bay to process—and often detain indefinitely—foreign travelers trying to enter the United States. Carved into the barracks walls of Angel Island are 220 poems in Chinese. A person called Lee from Toishan District wrote on Sept. 4, 1911, “Sitting alone in the customs office/How could my heart not ache?/Had my family not been poor/I would not have traveled far away from home.” Tye applied for a job at Angel Island and became the first Chinese woman to be employed by the United States government.
This milestone was recognized by the San Francisco Daily News. “Dull?—never,” Tye said when asked about her working days. “Always sitting there listening to my countrymen. I listen for little scraps about the great new movement over the sea that is setting them free over there as I have been set free here.”
Tye garnered press attention again in 1912 when she became the first Chinese woman to vote in a presidential election. California extended voting rights to women in 1911, so when the presidential primary came along, California women went to the polls. “I think it right we should all try to learn, not vote blindly, since we have been given this right to say which man we think is the greatest,” Tye told the press. “I think, too, that we women are more careful than the men. We want to do our whole duty more. I do not think it is just the newness that makes use like that. It is conscience.”
During this already momentous time in Tye’s life, another big change occurred: She fell in love. At Angel Island, she met Charles Schulze, who worked as an Immigration Service inspector. Their grandson Ted writes, “[A]t the immigration detention center, against the backdrop of a multitude of immigrant hopes and dreams, disappointments and tragedies, Charles and Tye, two unlikely but kindred spirits, met and fell in love.”
While Tye could now vote in California, the state’s anti-miscegenation laws did not permit a Chinese woman to marry a white man. In 1913, Tye and Charles went to Washington state where they could seal their union. After, both were forced to leave their Angel Island jobs. Tye commented later, “When two people are in love, they don’t think of the future or what happens.”
The couple settled in San Francisco’s Chinatown where they eventually had four children—two boys and two girls. Charles found work as a mechanic and telephone repairman. Tye continued to help in her community as a translator, and worked stints in a tea garden restaurant, as a bookkeeper, and as a social worker at the San Francisco Chinese Hospital. In 1926, she finally found steady work at Pacific Telephone's Chinese Exchange in Chinatown where she would remain for the next 20 years.
This position didn’t offer a high salary, but it did come with some prestige and reliable hours. “To work on the exchange, operators were required to be able to recall, completely from memory, thousands of phone numbers—at its height, the exchange had more than 3,000 of them,” Geri Koeppel writes in Plugged In: The Fascinating History of The Chinese Telephone Exchange. “Callers would ask an operator to be connected to an auntie, or the local herb shop, or their eye doctor. The women knew names, addresses and workplaces for all the subscribers, and could speak in two or three different dialects.”
During this time, Tye also, notably, became a pinball wizard. When pinball became popular in Chinatown in the 1930s, Tye built a reputation as a champ on the coin-operated machines.
Husband Charles died in 1935, leaving Tye to raise and provide for four children alone. The Chinese Exclusion Act was partially repealed in 1943 when the Magnuson Act permitted 105 Chinese individuals per year to enter the country (it would not be fully repealed until 1965). For a year, 58-year-old Tye again worked for the government as a translator. The War Brides Act of 1945 suspended the 105 Magnuson limit, allowing for the foreign spouses and children of United States soldiers to enter the country. Thousands immigrated to North American shores and Tye was there to welcome and assist her fellow Chinese men and women.
“The thing I remember most about my mom, she was always asked to interpret,” son Fred told The San Francisco Examiner in 1980. “GI brides, immigration, court cases. She never refused to help.”
At age 61, Tye was arrested on suspicion of colluding with an abortion ring. Abortion was illegal throughout the country in 1948, and Tye was accused of driving women to clinics for care. The charges were later dropped.
Tye lived and worked in Chinatown until her death in March of 1972 at age 84. “She repeatedly defied the limitations imposed on her,” writes Robin Kadison Berson in Marching to a Different Drummer: Unrecognized Heroes of American History. “Her legacy is one of determined belief in human worth, in a kinship that transcends artificial borders, in the steady, dedicated assault on prejudice and bigotry.”
Her grandson Ted knows about that Tye, and remembers, also, the one he knew as a little boy. In an article for Immigrant Voices, he wrote, “I grew up in a neighborhood between Chinatown and Nob Hill, not unlike growing up between being Chinese and being American. I am blessed for knowing my grandmother Tye Leung as I was growing up. She never spoke to me in the morning unless I first said ‘Jo Sun, AhMah.’ Then I’d run off and watch the Saturday westerns on TV!”
Wikipedia: Hells Canyon massacre, Tye Leung Schulze, Chinese Exclusion Act, Angel Island Immigration Station, Donaldina Cameron
National Park Service: Tye Leung Schulze
Immigrant Voices: Tye Leung and Charles Schulze, an Untold Angel Island Love Story
Immigrant Voices: Interpreter, Voter, and Pinball Aficionado
Unladylike 2020: Tye Leung Schulze
PBS American Masters: She was the first Chinese American woman to vote in the U.S.
Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation
Plugged In: The Fascinating History of the Chinese Telephone Exchange
Teacups and Tyrants: Struggling to be Accepted as an American: Tye Leung Schulze
Marching to a Different Drummer: Unrecognized Heroes of American History