Moy Kee Part I: The “Mayor” of Indianapolis’s Chinese Community

Moy Key, courtesy of Scott D. Seligman, “The Hoosier of Mandarin,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History 23, no. 4 (Fall 2011): 48, accessed Digital Images Collection, Indiana Historical Society.
A Disturbing Question

In 1901, The San Francisco Call urged the renewal of The Chinese Exclusion Act, the only legislation in American history that wholly banned the immigration of a specific ethnic group.  The Call emphatically supported this renewal stating that America ought to be doing everything in its power to “prevent the threatened invasion of Mongol hordes.” Sentiments like this were not uncommon. Racist cartoons, articles calling for Congress to defend America from the “Yellow Peril,” and state conventions or resolutions urging the renewal of the Exclusion Act were a dime a dozen in 1901. That same year, The Indianapolis News ran a very different story. This article criticized the Exclusion Act and threw its support behind Moy Kee, a Chinese immigrant and resident of Indianapolis, as he sought a federal government job, from which Chinese immigrants had been barred. The Indianapolis News noted on March 8, 1901:

Moy Jin Kee, Chinese Merchant and caterer at 211 Indiana avenue, is about to renew with the Government a disturbing question as to the effect of the Garry alien law passed by Congress . . . He has lived in this country over forty years, speaks excellent English . . . he was brought to this country from Canton when a mere child . . . Mr. Moy is an earnest seeker after appointment.

While Moy Kee never received a federal appointment, the Indianapolis community would prove to be staunch supporters of Moy Kee. The Marion County Circuit Court granted Moy his citizenship when federal law forbade it. Newspapers sold Moy ad space for his chop suey restaurant and frequently approached him for interviews. Later, when his citizenship was challenged by the federal government, Indianapolis Mayor Samuel L. Shank personally wrote a letter to President Taft defending Moy as “universally regarded as being one of the city’s best citizens.” These actions across the Indianapolis community demonstrate the level of prominence Moy Kee had attained in Indianapolis during a time when anti-Chinese attitudes in America were at an all-time high. This blog will outline the arduous path Moy traveled to obtain his American citizenship and how he used his personal assets to carve out a place in both the Chinese immigrant and Indianapolis community.

The Indianapolis News, March 8, 1901, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
Moy Kee Seeks American Citizenship

Moy Kee immigrated to the United States in the 1850’s as a young boy from Guangdong Province in China. Like many Chinese immigrants of the time, his family came to America seeking work and an escape from the political turmoil plaguing China. However, rather than wishing to build wealth and return to China in calmer times like most Chinese immigrants, Moy wanted to stay in America for the rest of his life. Not only that, but he also wanted to become an American citizen. To better assimilate with his new home, Moy converted to Christianity and attained fluency in English. In 1878 he moved to New York and ran a business selling imported Chinese goods. He also became involved in Christian ministry and began proselytizing the New York Chinese community. However, Moy was accused of stealing from one of his employers and jailed. While there are no records of a trial, Moy decided to shed his tarnished reputation by seeking a fresh start in Chicago. Critically, before Moy left New York he filed a declaration of intent to become an American citizen, the first step of the naturalization process. This would prove to be a watershed moment in Moy’s quest for citizenship because two years later the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur.

The Chinese Exclusion Act is notably the only legislation in American history that provides an absolute ban on immigration against a specific ethnic group. It instated a ten-year ban on Chinese immigration, enacted severe restrictions on current immigrants – now at constant risk for deportation – and effectively blocked all Chinese from American citizenship. In 1892 the Exclusion Act was renewed for another decade via the Geary Act and then in 1902 it would become permanent legislation.

The Magic Washer, manufactured by Geo. Dee, Dixon, Illinois. The Chinese Must Go, printed circa 1886, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Chinese Exclusion Act and the anti-Chinese sentiments that spurred it would become a constant source of disruption and conflict in Moy Kee and thousands of other Chinese immigrants’ lives. In Chicago, Moy Kee opened a Chinese tea shop and began his protracted battle for his citizenship. In the community, he helped organize the Chicago Chinese Club, a political group aimed at bettering the lives of the Chicago Chinese and protesting the Chinese Exclusion Act. Individually, Moy spent years lobbying the local courts, arguing that because he filed his intent to become a citizen two years before the ratification of the Exclusion Act, the law did not apply to him, and therefore he was eligible for citizenship. Year after year the Chicago courts rejected his argument and Moy remained, legally at least, a stranger in his own home.

Moy’s legal luck changed in 1897 when he and his wife moved to Indianapolis, setting up a litmus test of Indiana’s proverbial “Hoosier Hospitality.” In Moy’s case at least, Hoosier Hospitality rang true and on October 18th, 1897, eighteen years after Moy had begun the naturalization process (By comparison, the naturalization process today lasts on average 12-16 months), the Marion County Court granted him his coveted American citizenship.

Moy Kee Climbs the Social Ladder in Indianapolis

While Moy Kee may have obtained his citizenship, his work to be accepted by the Indianapolis community was far from complete. Moy settled down in Indy and eventually opened a Chop Suey and Chinese restaurant at 506 East Washington Street. A sign hung outside his restaurant advertising it as “Moy Kee & Co. Chinese Restaurant,” though the papers frequently referred to it as “Mr. Moy’s Chop Suey House.” He intentionally began inserting himself into as many community functions as possible. There are news articles of Moy hosting large Chinese New Year’s parties, playing Chinese instruments at school functions, inviting local politicians to dine at his restaurant, and selling Chinese palm readings for fifty cents. He even planned to open a Chinese language school, though his idea never came to fruition. Entrepreneurial and outgoing, it seems Moy was willing to try everything at least once.

However, as diverse his activities may have seemed they always shared one common thread. All his actions served to further integrate himself into the Indianapolis community and they all hearkened back to his Chinese roots. In this way, Moy used his heritage as a source of novelty and entertainment for the community. Rather than divorce himself from his culture to “mix in” with the great American Melting Pot, he successfully mobilized his Chinese heritage as a vehicle for his accumulation of wealth and social standing in Indianapolis.

The Indianapolis Journal, March 25, 1900, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Compared to coastal states like Californian, Indianapolis had a small Chinese immigrant population. The 1910 Census estimates that only 273 Chinese lived in Indiana and, in Indianapolis specifically, the Indianapolis News, reported that the Chinese had a “local colony” of about 40 or so immigrants including Moy Kee. The miniscule population of Chinese immigrants in Indianapolis may have contributed to the city’s relative receptivity to the Chinese when compared to states with significant Chinese communities. Furthermore, the low population explains why Indianapolis never developed a centralized locale or “Chinatown” like New York or Chicago did. There simply were not enough Chinese to do so. Instead, the Chinese immigrants clustered around Indiana Avenue, a historic strip of downtown Indianapolis that was known primarily for housing a vibrant African American community. The decentralized nature of the Chinese community provided Moy Kee with the perfect opportunity to rise to power as the Chinese representative to the city and, in doing so, ensure his place in Indianapolis.

Moy Kee both stood for and apart from the Indianapolis Chinese community. This allowed him to rise to prominence in a fashion unfathomable for the average immigrant. For one, the census records list his wife Chin Fung as being the only Chinese woman to live in Indianapolis in the late 1890’s. Compared to other Chinese men who had to balance both work and domestic duties alone, Moy Kee’s wife helped him around the restaurant, entertaining guests and managing the house when Moy was away. Chin Fung’s extra support allowed Moy to be more experimental as he could divert attention to other tasks besides running his restaurant and house. Furthermore, as the only Chinese woman in the city, Chin Fung received attention from the news media, who described her as a graceful and poised woman and were fascinated by her traditionally bound feet, which caused a peculiar gait.

Second, Moy Kee separated himself from other Chinese in the community by owning a successful restaurant. He was wealthier than the average Hoosier and even employed his own servants to help run the household and restaurant. This contrasted with most Chinese men, who were stymied by language barriers and Sinophobia and, as a result, toiled in stagnant, low-level service industries such as laundry, cleaning, or construction. With paltry salaries that almost all were sent back to impoverished family in China, this left little wealth for the average Chinese immigrant and, as a result, they often lived hovering just above the poverty line. In contrast, Moy’s wealth allowed him to return home to China fairly frequently and keep in touch with relatives. He even was able to travel to China to marry Chin Fung before bringing her back to America. Moy’s wealth also enabled him to import several Chinese goods for his restaurant including traditional decorations, ebony wood, ivory China table sets, and unusual foods that attracted both Chinese and non-Chinese customers alike.

The Indianapolis Journal, September 20, 1903, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Moy’s most valuable asset in his rise to prominence was his ability to speak fluent English. This fluency cemented him as the unofficial spokesperson of the Indianapolis Chinese community, and he took full advantage of it. He spent years cultivating a positive relationship with the local newspapers by buying ad space for his restaurant and happily providing interviews and engaging stories about his many endeavors. When reporters wanted to cover a story about the Chinese community, they contacted Moy. This working relationship was a major factor in the divergent coverage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in Indianapolis compared to other cities. Most articles about Moy or the community positively portray the Chinese and avoid fear-mongering headlines about “the oriental wave,” or “yellow peril.” Indianapolis was not immune to xenophobic sentiments (Among other questionable coverage, The Indianapolis Morning Star accused Chinese royalty of visiting America to recruit American soldiers for the imperial army and The Indianapolis Journal often referred to the Chinese as “coolies”) but, compared to newspapers in California or other states, negative rhetoric was relatively muted.

Moy Kee Struggles to Balance His Ambition and the Chinese Community

In 1902, Moy Kee’s ambition to integrate with the Indianapolis community would put him at odds with the city’s Chinese population. In May, the small community would be rocked by the gruesome murder of Doc Lung, a local Chinese laundryman. The police immediately arrested Chin Hee, an immigrant who had just moved from Chicago and was employed by Doc Lung. This caused a major rift within the Chinese community, and they fragmented into two groups: Those who protested Chin Hee’s innocence and those who believed Chin Hee committed the murder. Moy Kee found himself in the crossfire of this rift when he began translating for the police and later grand jury and courts in the murder case. Many in the community felt that Moy Kee was betraying them by working as the government’s translator, the same institution that denied them citizenship and deported their people on a regular basis. The situation escalated to the point that Moy started receiving death threats attempting to coerce him into ending his translations for the government.

Despite the threats to his life, Moy Kee persisted, and the Grand Jury ultimately convicted three perpetrators, none of them Chinese, for the crime. The role he played in the court trial benefitted his relationships with the local government and police. He also received more media attention than he ever had before, further elevating his position in Indianapolis. However, this acceptance by local institutions came at the expense of Moy’s relationships with his fellow Chinese. Already separated from them due to his affluence and privileged status as an American citizen, working with the police led to some in community questioning whether Moy was loyal to the Chinese or the Americans. Rumors swirled and some whispered that E. Lung, the leader of the faction that defended Chin Hee, might be a better fit as the Chinese people’s representative. Subsequently, Moy would become increasingly paranoid about being ousted by the Chinese community as their unnamed leader. Later in life, when he was stripped of his high Chinese rank, he would immediately accuse fellow Chinese of engineering his social downfall.

Conclusion

By 1904, Moy Kee was undoubtedly the most prominent Chinese figure in Indianapolis and, despite a factionalized Chinese community, he was still recognized as the de facto leader. Better yet, Moy Kee had a home in Indianapolis that accepted him as both an American citizen and Hoosier. For a Chinese man to achieve this position was an incredible feat. Moy had hopscotched across the country, testified in multiple courts, accumulated a massive amount of wealth, and overcame duplicitous stereotypes to earn his citizenship and social standing. In many ways, it felt like Moy and his wife had achieved everything an immigrant to the United States could dream of.

However, no one could have predicted the actions of the Qing dynasty in the early 1900’s. A royal family infamous for their strict isolationism and rejection of Western diplomacy, they shocked the world by announcing that they would be participating in the 1904 St. Louis World Fair. Not only that, but they were appointing Prince Pu Lun, nephew of the emperor, as head of the Chinese fair commission. Critically for Moy, the Prince announced he would spend months before and after the fair touring America, including a ten-day visit to Indianapolis.

In the next installment, follow Prince Pu Lun’s royal visit to Indianapolis where he caused much fanfare. Additionally, we explore Moy Kee’s role in Pu Lun’s visit as he vies for an audience with the prince and eventually precipitates his “coronation” as the official Mayor of Indianapolis’ Chinese.

For further reading, see:

“Chinese,” The Polis Center, accessed May 2022, courtesy of IUPUI.edu.

Paul Mullins, “The Landscapes of Chinese Immigration in the Circle City,” October 16, 2016, accessed Invisible Indianapolis.

Scott D. Seligman, “The Hoosier of Mandarin,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History 23, no. 4 (Fall 2011): 48-55, accessed Digital Images Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

“Wants a Federal Place: Moy Jin Kee Raises a Disturbing Question,” Indianapolis News, March 8, 1901, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Richard G. Lugar: Nixon’s Favorite Mayor

“A warm Hoosier welcome on a rather cold day.”

That’s how President Richard Nixon described his reception in Indianapolis on February 5th, 1970. Awaiting his arrival on the tarmac, Governor Edgar Whitcomb and Mayor Richard Lugar received the President and his federal entourage. This was the first presidential visit conducted by Nixon since his inauguration in 1969 and Indianapolis was chosen as their destination due to the new Republican leadership under Mayor Lugar. After exchanging pleasantries and traveling to City Hall, Nixon and Lugar spoke to the crowd of approximately 1,000 Hoosiers before convening for their scheduled conference on urban affairs. During the conference, President Nixon convened with nine Indiana mayors to discuss problems faced by city leadership and the federal government’s role. At 4:30 PM, President Nixon departed Indianapolis to visit Chicago. While brief, President Nixon’s visit to Indianapolis greatly influenced both Lugar’s political future and the city of Indianapolis as a whole.

President Nixon and Mayor Lugar greeting one another, 1970, courtesy of the Institute for Civic Leadership and Digital Mayoral Archives 

After Nixon’s visit, Richard Lugar would experience a meteoric rise in the political sphere, easily winning his mayoral re-election in 1972 and earning a U.S. Senate seat in 1976. Lugar served one of Indiana’s senators for 32 years, garnering a reputation as a foreign policy expert and renowned statesman. He is best known for co-authoring the acclaimed Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which led to the dismantling of thousands of Cold-War era weapons in previous USSR territory and a Nobel Peace Prize Nomination. In 2013, President Barack Obama named Lugar as a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient stating:

 “His legacy, though, is the thousands of missiles and bombers, and warheads that no longer threaten us because of his extraordinary work. And our nation and our world are safer because of this statesman.” – President Barack Obama, 2013

In examining Lugar’s towering legacy, one must ask, how does a mayor of a landlocked city in the Midwest become the leading statesman in foreign policy for over 30 years?

The answer to that question can be traced back to February 5th, 1970, and a warm handshake on a rather cold day. Lugar transformed an otherwise short and symbolic visit with Nixon into a key political moment, forging an unprecedented relationship between a city mayor and the sitting president. In a Washington Post article, Peter Braestrup aptly dubbed the young Lugar as “Nixon’s Favorite Mayor.” The name stuck, and Lugar leveraged his new title to enter national politics and foreign affairs. While Lugar’s association as “Nixon’s Favorite Mayor” was problematic immediately after the Watergate scandal, his affiliation with the President was overall more beneficial than detrimental to his political career. Ultimately Nixon’s relationship with Lugar was the catalyst for Lugar’s remarkable career in foreign affairs, elevating both Lugar and Indianapolis to national and global prominence.

Nixon’s presidency is remembered, for better or worse, as one of the most consequential administrations in American history. Globally, Nixon found success in foreign affairs, revolutionizing the Cold War by pursuing rapprochement with China. Domestically, Nixon championed New Federalism which facilitated the transfer of power from the federal government to the state level via federal block grants. Conservatives believed this policy would curb the bloated bureaucratic system. However, Democrats believed that New Federalism was an underhanded attempt to dismantle President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. Frustrated by a resistant Congress, Nixon sought to prove that his philosophy of decentralization worked. In 1970, Nixon found a prime example of New Federalism in Indianapolis, lead by its newly minted Republican mayor, Richard G. Lugar.

Before Lugar’s election, Indianapolis Democrats had enjoyed a sixteen-year long monopoly on the mayoral office. However, Lugar and his campaign manager, Keith Bulen, capitalized on a rift forming within the Democratic party and, running a tight grassroots campaign, won the 1967 mayoral election. As mayor, Lugar successfully implemented Unigov, a controversial piece of legislation that folded several counties into the city of Indianapolis, increasing the city’s population by 300,000 citizens overnight. Notably, the demographic incorporated into Marion County was mainly white, conservative, suburbanites whose vote solidified the Republican party’s dominance in Indianapolis. Unigov also established Indianapolis as a leader in urban policy, successful city consolidation, and effective “home rule,” a not-so-subtle nod to Nixonian New Federalism.

A caricature of Mayor Lugar ascending into the sky on a rocket titled “Uni-Gov, ” 1971, courtesy of the Institute for Civic Leadership and Digital Mayoral Archives

By 1970, President Nixon was embroiled in the Vietnam War and public criticism of his inability to withdraw, a promise he had made on the campaign trail, mounted every day. As the war dragged on, Nixon became increasingly sequestered in the White House, failing to make a presidential visit outside of Washington D.C. for the entirety of 1969. A deeply insecure man, Nixon abhorred the idea of a presidential visit being marred by coverage of anti-war protestors and personally embarrassing him. His administration urged him to leave D.C. and eventually identified Indianapolis as a city where he would receive an enthusiastic welcome and, in turn, positive media coverage. Better yet, Mayor Lugar’s Unigov legislation offered a thriving example of New Federalism and decentralized government. The presidential visit was confirmed in January of 1970 and Mayor Lugar began preparing the local Republican party to receive the president.

The presidential visit was a rousing success with both the media and public. The Indiana GOP had extensively planned this visit, inviting positive coverage of the event and a gathering a crowd of over 1,000 people for Nixon and Lugar’s speeches alone. President Nixon was reportedly delighted by the large reception and in good humor traveling to the conference. The Urban Affairs Conference was more symbolic than practical, cementing Nixon’s commitment to New Federalist Policy. This commitment would later reach Indianapolis by way of generous block grants and federal funding. The visit drew national attention to Lugar’s successes as mayor and the media began connecting Lugar with Nixon in their headlines, eventually bestowing upon Lugar the title of “Nixon’s Favorite Mayor.”

Lugar introduces President Nixon with First Lady Pat Nixon and Governor Edgar Whitcomb prominently featured, 1970, courtesy of Indiana University Bloomington: The Richard G. Lugar Senatorial Papers

More importantly, Nixon’s visit to Indianapolis unintentionally precipitated Senator Lugar’s career as a diplomat, statesman, and foreign affairs expert. In WYFI’s documentary on Lugar, the senator reminisces on how he was invited to his first NATO conference by President Nixon. After delivering their speeches in front of City Hall, Lugar and Nixon were heading towards the conference on urban affairs and conversing during the elevator ride.

Upon passing the 25th floor, Nixon pivoted towards Lugar and said:

“Dick, I want you to go with Moynihan…to Brussels to represent the United States at a NATO conference on cities.” – President Nixon as remembered by Richard Lugar

Lugar accepted the President’s invitation. Seemingly a reward for the successful presidential visit, Lugar’s attendance Brussels NATO conference precipitated his transformation from a local, Midwestern politician to a U.S. Senator and global tour de force. During the conference, Lugar attended several diplomatic meetings and, on the second day, proposed that Indianapolis host another NATO conference in May of 1971. Talking points for this Hoosier hosted conference included urban growth, with Indianapolis being the case study, municipal affairs, and urban problems. The proposal was accepted, and Lugar was able to successfully blend his previous experience with urban affairs with his new interests in foreign policy. Both NATO conferences provided the mayor with vital connections and foreign policy experience that Lugar later leveraged to maneuver into the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

A year after hosting the Indianapolis NATO conference, Mayor Lugar was invited to speak at the 1972 RNC where he was introduced by Governor Ronald Reagan. Reagan, in his charismatic oratory style, lauded Lugar as:

“A respected spokesman for and practitioner of the very best in workable new approaches to the urban challenge… he has represented the President not only across this country but also within the NATO Community.”- President Ronald Reagan, 1972

Lugar’s rise to national prominence experienced a major setback on August 8th, 1974, when Nixon, unable to escape the Watergate Scandal, became the first and only sitting president to resign. Suddenly the title “Nixon’s Favorite Mayor,” was a curse rather than a blessing. Despite efforts to separate himself from the disgraced president, Lugar lost the 1974 Senatorial election to Democratic incumbent Birch Bayh. However, Lugar quickly bounced back in 1976’s election and began his federal career as Indiana’s longest-serving state senator.

Ultimately, the lasting impact of Lugar’s relationship with Nixon as his “favorite mayor” was Lugar’s rapid rise in politics and critical access to foreign policy early in his career. Without Nixon’s 1972 presidential visit, Lugar would not have been able to attend the NATO conference in Brussels, host a similar conference in Indianapolis, and most likely would not have been invited to speak at the 1972 RNC. These cumulative events were significantly more impactful than Lugar’s singular 1974 election loss. Without Nixon’s mentorship, Lugar’s senatorial career would have been vastly different, and his legislation may have been limited to areas more in line with the expertise of a midwestern politician such as agriculture. Instead, Lugar was able to capitalize on the diplomatic opportunities Nixon presented him and pursue an illustrious career in foreign affairs. After losing the primary election in 2012, Lugar would continue to make speaking appearances until his passing on April 28th, 2019. The Lugar Center preserves Senator Lugar’s preeminent legacy by continuing his policies regarding nuclear weapon nonproliferation, global food security, and bipartisan governance.

Richard Nixon Shaking Hands with Mayor Lugar, unknown date, courtesy of the Institute for Civic Leadership and Digital Mayoral Archives

In January of 1994, during the 25th anniversary of Nixon’s presidential inauguration, Senator Lugar and President Nixon’s paths crossed one final time. It was another chilly day in Washington D.C., and the weather resembled that of the two statesman’s first encounter nearly 25 years prior. In those two and a half decades much had changed: the Cold War had ended, Bill Clinton was President, and the Republican Party was undergoing a major political transformation and becoming increasingly conservative. This stood in stark contrast to Nixon’s promotion of desegregation and the founding of the EPA. It was during this time that the political topography started shifting under Lugar’s feet and Lugar, once known as a solid conservative, began being known as a bipartisan negotiator or even a moderate. This new reputation would later be weaponized against him in the 2012 primary election. Regardless of the political present and future, Lugar and Nixon were gathered to recount presidential history. Lugar proclaimed to the gathered crowd, “Our prayers today are for the continuing strength and activity of President Richard Nixon,” whom he then referred to as his “foreign policy teacher and counselor.” After the celebration, Nixon, who was now in his 80’s, privately pulled Lugar aside and confided in him saying:

“You know, you really were my favorite mayor.”