Out of the Box: Charlie Soong, Duke’s first international student

Aug. 09, 2014 @ 06:38 PM

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When Charles J. “Charlie” Soong arrived at Trinity College in 1881 as the school’s first international student, he had already seen much more of the world than the average student. Born in Hainan Province, China, as Han Chiao-shun in 1866, Charlie traveled to the Dutch East Indies as a young boy to work, eventually sailing to Boston in 1878 to work for his maternal uncle’s tea and silk business. After his uncle adopted him, Charlie’s name changed for the first time to Soon Chai-Jui.

Little is known of Charlie’s time in Boston, except that it took less than a year for him to realize he wanted more in life than working for his uncle. His first step in a new direction was to join the Revenue Cutter Service, predecessor to today’s U.S. Coast Guard, in January 1879. Influenced by his new captain, Eric Gabrielson, Charlie became interested in Methodism.

Charlie’s new career took him all along the East Coast, including the port city of Wilmington, North Carolina, where he was baptized in the Methodist Church as Charles Jones Soon (the “g” was added after he returned to China). It was also in Wilmington that he met the Rev. Thomas Ricaud, who first brought Charlie to the attention of his future benefactors: Julian Carr, Durham tobacco magnate and philanthropist, and Braxton Craven, president of Trinity College in Randolph County. Approving of Charlie’s new desire to become a Methodist missionary, and intrigued by the idea of a native Chinese minister joining existing church missions in China, Trinity College agreed to enroll Charlie as a special student in April 1881. His tuition was paid by Julian Carr.

Trinity College was hardly a racially or geographically diverse institution, with 93 percent of students from North Carolina and none from farther north than Virginia. There were 18 students from present-day Cherokee, North Carolina, although little is known about these students other than they, like Charlie, were enrolled in a special course of study. According to fellow student Jerome Dowd, Charlie “attracted a great deal of attention from the faculty, the students, and the people of the village because of his racial contrast to the Caucasian and because of his exceptional sprightliness.”

Some of this attention was negative, as Dowd notes, “boys were disposed to tease him and play all sorts of pranks upon him.” Yet Charlie persevered, remaining “very amiable, full of fun, and always ready to respond in a playful spirit.” While at Trinity, his studies focused primarily on English language and the Bible.

The strongest traces of Charlie’s time in North Carolina are preserved through the contact that he had with his Durham and Trinity friends. Besides the Carr family, Charlie befriended James H. Southgate, a successful Durham insurance agent, and his daughters Mattie and Annie. To “Miss Mattie” in 1882, Charlie sticks to fairly innocent topics. He reports that he recently received a letter from “Miss Annie” (Mattie’s sister), that “all the boys are well” but they “have to study heaps” for the end of the semester. But Charlie shows a different side in a June 1882 letter to Trinity housemate J. Gordon Hackett:  “I been had good times with the [girls] all day long. never looked at the books hardly since [Commencement] except the Bible.”

Charlie left Trinity to study missionary work at Vanderbilt in fall 1882. After graduating in 1885, Charlie returned to North Carolina for several months, lecturing and preaching while visiting old friends. Charlie finally returned to China in January 1886, nearly eight years after he first arrived in the United States. The transition was hardly an easy one, however. For one thing, Charlie was homesick, and Shanghai was, in effect, a foreign land to a man who had never been far from his birthplace of Hainan when he had lived in China. He wrote, “I am walking once more in the land that gave me birth, but it is far being from a homelike place to me. I felt more homelike in America than I do in Shanghai.”

After six years of missionary work, Charlie’s initial forays into private enterprise were closely connected with his faith. He started a publishing business, Mei-hua shu-kuan, printing bibles and religious tracts for the American Bible Society. The family’s fortunes increased with further business ventures, such as managing a flour mill and importing manufacturing equipment. Charlie soon began taking an interest in politics. After meeting Sun Yat-sen in 1894, he remained a longtime friend and political supporter of the revolutionary and future leader.

Charlie did quite well financially over time, making enough money to send all six of his children to school in the United States. The education the Soong children received, along with the family’s growing connections in China, put them on the path to creating powerful political and financial dynasty for the first half of the 20th century.

Charlie passed away in 1918, before he could fully see the astronomical rise of his family. If he had lived a bit longer, he would also have witnessed a revival of interest in his own life story in the United States, prompted by publicity tours by Soong’s daughter May-ling, a.k.a. “Madame Chiang Kai-shek,” in the 1930s and 1940s. At Duke University, Soong will never be forgotten as the intrepid young student who helped open up the institution to a wider, more diverse world.