The Chinese-American Doctor Who Raised Hell—and 1,500 WW2 Servicemen

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Margaret Chung in 1909, posing in an automobile. Her love of sports cars would later become common knowledge around San Francisco.
Margaret Chung in 1909, posing in an automobile. Her love of sports cars would later become common knowledge around San Francisco.  (Shades of L.A. Archives, Los Angeles Public Library)

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argaret Chung spent her entire life defying stereotypes. She defied them when she became the first American-born Chinese woman to become a doctor. She defied them when she opened the first Western clinic in San Francisco's Chinatown. And she subverted them in her personal life—whether she was donning masculine clothes, or taking care of countless "military sons." Chung knew exactly what she was doing—she often made fun of stereotypes with her particular brand of humor. Stereotype-bucking was a lifelong pursuit for Chung—and it also made her enormously popular.

Margaret Jessie Chung was born in Santa Barbara in 1889, the oldest of 11 children. Her mother, Ah Yane, had been trafficked from China to San Francisco at the age of five and rescued by the Presbyterian Mission House in Chinatown six years later. Chung's father, Chung Wong, was a merchant who suffered repeated business failures. Her childhood was spent bouncing around Southern California towns, as her family tried—and failed—to claw their way out of poverty.

At 12, Chung starting working herself, slogging her way through long, grueling shifts at a restaurant, after school. Her strong work ethic was evident from the beginning, but being grossly underpaid imbued her with a fiery ambition. Chung even battled her way into a private, prestigious high school by winning a competition to sell the most Los Angeles Times subscriptions. (The paper then paid her school fees.)

After that, Chung went on to attend medical school at USC. One of only two women in her class during most of her time there, she told the Los Angeles Evening Post Record in 1914, "As the only Chinese girl in the USC Medical School, I am compelled to be different." And while that was the period she first began wearing men's suits—sometimes even referring to herself as "Mike"—she was also responsible for founding the first medical sorority at the university. (There were four fraternities when she arrived, but nothing for the female med students.)

Margaret Chung (front row, center) with her USC classmates, sophomore year, 1915. (University of Southern California, on behalf of the USC University Archives.)

Throughout her schooling, Chung's ultimate goal had been to become a Presbyterian missionary. She admired the women who'd rescued her mother from a life of servitude, but wanted to incorporate her medical training into the job to be of even greater service. But after graduation, at the age of 26, Chung's plans were foiled by racist policy. Her three applications to become a medical missionary were turned down purely because she was of Chinese descent. Between 1875 and 1920, all Presbyterian missionaries were white. Chung was so devastated that she abandoned the church altogether.

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To make matters more frustrating, Chung also struggled to get a hospital internship because of her gender, so she initially went to work as a surgical nurse in Chicago. It was there that she found the Mary Thompson Hospital—an institution specializing in the care of female patients by female doctors. After three years interning there, she moved onto Los Angeles' Santa Fe Railroad hospital in 1916, where she became an accomplished surgeon. Chung was so popular there, one of her colleagues once suggested that "some of the men were deliberately getting hurt so that Dr. Chung could take care of them."

This was particularly remarkable given that in 1917, Chung's father, his leg severed in a car crash, was refused admittance by a local hospital on account of his being Chinese. He died from the blood loss, unable to acquire medical assistance.

Looking back in 1939 about her time at Santa Fe Railroad, Chung told the Los Angeles Times: "I think that the [male patients] were so anxious to see what made the wheels go 'round in a woman doctor, much less a Chinese one, that they didn't feel anything but curiosity for the first few days."

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hung's move to San Francisco came in 1921. She was invited to accompany two of her Hollywood patients there on vacation, and found herself immediately smitten with the city. She also saw great opportunity. "There were no Chinese doctors practicing American medicine and surgery in Chinatown," she noted later, "and I thought I saw a great future here." She opened her office on Sacramento Street, a short walk from where her mother grew up in the Presbyterian Mission House.

Chung struggled to get her office off the ground until fate stepped in. After saving the life of a local businesswoman, Chung found herself overrun with new patients—mostly Chinese women for whom the businesswoman had translated at prior doctor's appointments. Chung also benefited from the fact that many of these women had been uncomfortable getting physically examined by a male doctor. Soon, because of her office's proximity to the Hall of Justice, she also had a large clientele of white male police officers.

Once Chung's practice was successful, she began the business of transforming healthcare in Chinatown. She volunteered at a local school, teaching and giving free wellness checks to the 178 children there. Then, in 1925, she co-founded the Chinese Hospital and helmed the Gynecology, Obstetrics and Pediatrics unit there. She also participated in women's organizations, including the San Francisco Medical Women's Club and the San Francisco Women's City Club.

As Chung became a well-known local figure, scandalous rumors spread about her sexuality and loose morals—she was known to date both women and men, and many of them were white. While this prompted some of her more old-fashioned patients to abandon her care, her reputation attracted lesbian couples who could not be open about their relationship status at other medical offices. In addition, her reputation as a thoroughly modern woman—she drank in speakeasys and was often seen zipping around the city in smart suits and flashy sports cars—also attracted women seeking birth control, sterilizations and abortions. While Chung did not perform the latter, she offered referrals to trustworthy doctors who did.

"Around Dr. Margaret Chung has clustered the glamour and romance of both east and west," an issue of The Californian noted in 1934. "Still well under middle age, this quiet voiced, attractive woman has achieved national fame as a physician and surgeon." The article also noted that "every inch of wall space" in her consultation room was covered by signed photos of her most famous patients. They included Greta Garbo, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford.

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t was a chance encounter, however, that would most raise Chung's public profile. In 1931, after Japan invaded Northeast China and bombed Shanghai, a member of the U.S. Navy Reserves, Steven G. Bancroft, approached Chung to see if she knew a way for him to join the Chinese military. She didn't. But, taking a shine to Bancroft, she invited him and six friends—all pilots—over for dinner. Chung hit it off to such a degree with the men that they were soon all eating, camping and hunting together on a regular basis.

One night, joking with Chung, one of the pilots said, "You're as understanding as a mother ... but hell, you're an old maid and you haven't got a father for us."

Chung replied, "Well, that makes you a lot of fair-haired bastards, doesn't it?" It was a moniker that stuck. And as word spread about "Mom Chung" and the "Fair-Haired Bastards," the group became a sort of social club that many other military men quickly joined.

By 1937, Chung had over 500 "sons" serving in the RAF, Army, Navy and Marines. By the end of World War II, there were over 1,500—those of which who served on the sea, she nicknamed "Golden Dolphins." She lived vicariously through the servicemen, and provided maternal love and support in return, often feeding and housing them before and after missions. She also gave each of them a small jade Buddha pendant, as a means to recognize one another while serving overseas. During the war, she sent care packages and daily letters to raise their spirits. Each Sunday, she held a huge dinner party for her "sons," their guests, and a variety of celebrities, including John Wayne and Tennessee Williams. Up to 100 people attended each week and, at Thanksgiving, that number increased to 175.

A 1943 comic book, 'Real Heroes', featured a story about "Mom Chung and her 509 Fair-Haired Foster Sons."
A 1943 comic book, 'Real Heroes,' featured a story about "Mom Chung and her 509 Fair-Haired Foster Sons." (Parents' Magazine Institute)

Chung's figurative adoptions of so many servicemen attracted a lot of positive press attention, even spawning a story in the Real Heroes comic book series in 1943. All of which raised her profile enough to make huge strides in her charitable campaigns. She co-founded Rice Bowl Parties—fundraising festivals held in seven hundred cities, including San Francisco. These parties went on to raise $235,000—the equivalent of $3.5 million today—to send aid to China. During the war, she also helped create the Women's Naval Reserve, co-founded the San Francisco downtown Disaster Station, volunteered on its medical staff, and was an active member the Red Cross. In 1942, one newspaper, the Gustine Standard, called her "San Francisco's Number One United States citizen."

At the end of the war, Chung became the first American woman to receive the People's Award of China. She also received a citation, signed by President Truman, from the Red Cross for "meritorious personal service performed in behalf of the nation." She continued to look after her "sons" as they adjusted back to civilian life and even personally secured jobs for 20 of them. Her door remained open to them all until her death in 1959, aged 69, from ovarian cancer. Mayor George Christopher was one of her pallbearers.

After her death, one of her "Fair-Haired Bastards" paid tribute to her in his diary. "God bless and rest her very beautiful soul," Vice Admiral Charles Lockwood wrote. "There will never be another Mom Chung."

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For more on Margaret Chung and other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, visit the Rebel Girls homepage.