Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890–1920
Biography of Mrs. Sing Kai Chan, 1857-1924
By Anne Meis Knupfer, Professor Emerita, Purdue University
Doctor and founder of the Portland Equal Suffrage Society for Chinese women
Mrs. Sing Kai Chan (Kate Shee Chow or Chow Kate Shee) was born in 1857; the location of her nativity is unknown. Much more is known about her husband, Sing Kai Chan, a Methodist minister, born in 1854 in Guangzhou. His father was a scholar and translator of the Bible. His family had also established the first Wesleyan mission school for Hong Kong Chinese. It is likely that Mrs. Chan met her husband through the church as she took an Anglicized name.
Sing Kai Chan and Mrs. Chan's first two children were born in Guangzhou but their fifth child, Bertha, was a Hong Kong citizen. In 1885, Mr. Chan, his wife, and three of the children immigrated to Vancouver, Canada, where he helped start the city's first Chinese Methodist Church. After three years, he became minister of the new Westminster church and then another in Victoria. Mrs. Chan had four more children between 1885 and 1897. She was also a midwife and involved in charity work. She helped raise monies for famine and disaster relief victims in China and in India in 1900. Mrs. Chan was likely influenced by her Christian upbringing, as well as her prominent standing in the Chinese community as a doctor and minister's wife.
In 1900, the family moved to Portland, Oregon, where Mr. Chan became minister of the Chinese Methodist Mission. Mrs. Chan opened a medical practice in early 1907, advertising herself as the only female Chinese doctor in the city. Then, less than 20 percent of Chinese women in Portland had an occupation and most were laborers, cooks and domestic workers. In 1910, the ads included her husband as a medical doctor for the S. K. Chan Medicine Company. Accordingly, they advertised "sure cures" for chronic and private illnesses for men and women. Most of their remedies were herbal, as were other Chinese practitioners.
In mid-1911, Mr. Chan was arrested because of the company. The American Medical Association had put pressure on local governments to drive unlicensed doctors, such as Chinese herbalists, out of business. It is not clear whether he was fined but ads indicated he and Mrs. Chan continued to practice medicine through their company. Further, the ads featured testimonials by non-Chinese patients.
That year, Mrs. Chan became involved again in fundraising for the Chinese famine relief through the Baptist Chinese Mission. The next year, 1912, the year Oregon granted suffrage to women, Mrs. Chan became president of a local Equal Suffrage Society for Chinese women. Both she and her daughter Bertie undoubtedly drew the attention of white suffragists. But some suffragists had a longstanding interest in Oregon's Chinese residents, such as Abigail Scott Duniway, who had written in her newspaper about their mistreatment in the state.
Other suffragists took notice of the new Chinese government and the corresponding suffrage movement. With the fall of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of a Republic, the campaign committee of the Portland Woman's Club sent a congratulatory message to the Chinese consul in Oregon. Similarly, Carrie Chapman Catt visited China in 1912 to promote the International Woman Suffrage Alliance. However, the Chinese women's suffrage movement had started long before Catt arrived. Some Chinese women had joined an anti-monarchy group, the Revolutionary Alliance, organized in 1905, which insisted on equal rights for women.
Mrs. Chan was well aware of these efforts. On April 11, 1912, seven Portland Chinese women attended a banquet in honor of La Reine Helen Baker, a journalist who had spent time with English suffragists. There, Mrs. Chan spoke while her daughter Bertie translated for her. She spoke of the suffrage movement in China, as well as her appreciation for what Americans had given China - missionaries who taught them about equality, "avenues of commerce," and a better understanding of democracy. Several months later, she and Bertie were members of a committee that organized a luncheon at the Imperial Hotel for Anita Whitney, a journalist who had helped secure suffrage in California in 1911. There the women discussed how they might further participate in government.
In 1914, Mrs. Chan and her family moved to San Jose, where Mr. Chan worked for the Pacific Chinese Mission of the Methodist Episcopal Church. It is not known whether she continued her medical practice or fundraising activities. She died in 1924 in California.
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