Journey to America: Shanghai to Springfield

After making courtesy calls on local officials and the U.S. Minister in Beijing, the boys, shepherded by the CEM’s tutors and officers, embarked on the journey to America, leaving Shanghai aboard a small intercoastal steamer for Yokohama, Japan.  One of the students with the First Detachment, New Shan Chow (Niu Shangzhou 牛尚周 I, 12), described the “beautiful afternoon” when the parents, relatives, and friends of the boys came to bid them good-bye at the Shanghai wharf: “Many tears were shed and the scene was very affecting to those who witnessed it.  At last the captain gave the order to get ready and our friends went back to the shore.  The whistle blew, the engine began to move, and we sailed out of the harbor amid the cheers and yells of the multitude on the shore.”1

The weeklong trip to Yokohama could be rough. A Mission official, Qi Zhaoxi 祁兆熙, traveling with the Third Detachment in 1874, wrote of the extreme discomforts of seasickness, the tossing of the ship in the waves, water blown into the passageways and cabins, and the frightened cries of the boys.  At Yokohama, grateful to be on terra firma once more, they strolled about the port city viewing the sights.  However, within days they and their escorts boarded one of the great wooden paddle-wheel vessels of the Pacific Mail Steam Ship Company for the voyage to San Francisco.  Since 1867 this line of American steamships—the Colorado and her sister ships, the Great Republic, the China, and the Japan, each with a capacity of more than a thousand passengers—had been providing regular transport services along the route from Hong Kong to San Francisco and back again, with stops at Yokohama and Honolulu.


Lv Shanghai
Arr San Francisco
On P.M.S.S.
12 Aug 1872
12 Sept 1872
Great Republic
12 Jun 1873
13 July 1873
20 Sept 1874
21 Oct 1874
14 Oct 1875
18 Nov 1875

Crossing the Pacific

New Shan Chow recalled that the boys of the First Detachment spent their time on board the Great Republic as they wished, some playing games, others reading in the captain’s “splendid library.” Qi Zhaoxi, however, noted that the boys’ education continued during their voyage—with time off from class if the teachers happened to be seasick.  "On Sundays," New wrote, "the captain read short passages from the Bible and the chaplain offered prayers, and we sung a few tunes."3 Although the Chinese students had been warned against participating in Christian services, it is likely that a few of the boys were already Christians before leaving China.  New himself, Tso Ki Foo (Cao Jifu 曹吉福 I, 20) and Chin Mon Fay (Qian Wenkui 钱文魁 I, 28), all of the First Detachment, were known to have attended an Episcopal missionary boarding school in Shanghai before being selected for the Educational Mission.4

 In the early days of their voyage the Chinese boys found it difficult to stomach the onboard meals prepared for American or European tastes.  But, according to Qi, by the time they were halfway across the ocean the boys had become accustomed to milk and bread.  Three meals were served daily: breakfast in the morning at 8:30; in the afternoon, lunch at 1:30 and dinner at 6:30.  For table service each boy had “a large plate, spoon, knife, fork, and a white napkin in a white copper ring.”5 Beef, mutton, fish, savory and sweet pastries, tea, milk, and ice water characterized the boys’ fare.  New’s fellow student on the Great Republic, Young Shang Him (Rong Shangqian 容尚谦 I, 6), in his account of their journey written more than sixty years afterward, recalled the “milch cows and sheep carried on board to supply fresh milk and meat for the table.”6

The trans-Pacific crossing was interrupted only by a brief coaling stop at Honolulu in the Hawaiian Islands.  Lee Yen Fu (Li Enfu 李恩富 II, 40), who sailed on the Colorado with the Second Detachment, described the ocean as “gentle as a lamb for the most part, although at times it acted in such a way as to suggest a raging lion.”7 Young Shang Him remembered how the ship “creaked and groaned in an alarming manner when the weather was rough.”


Some three weeks after leaving Japan, the ship docked at San Francisco’s wharf.  The arrival of the Mission students attracted considerable attention in the local press, and descriptions of the boys and their educational goals were printed in newspapers across the United States.  Editorial opinion regarding the Mission was generally favorable, welcoming these visitors from what was viewed as “the oldest Empire” to “the youngest Republic.”  For their part, the Chinese students were deeply impressed by their first encounters with American civilization.  Lee admired the “solidity and elegance” of the city’s “lofty” buildings, the conveniences of “running water and electric bells and elevators,” and the “depot with its trains running in and out.”  After a few days’ pause in San Francisco, the Chinese set off, via the transcontinental railway, for their final destination: Springfield, Massachusetts.

“The Great Train Robbery”

Most of the boys retained picturesque memories of the journey eastward.  Young Shang Him’s recollections almost suggest an old-fashioned “Wild West Show,” complete with “wild buffaloes on the prairie with wild Indians on bare-backed ponies chasing and shooting them with bows and arrows.”  The Second Detachment, however, had a unique encounter with a violent criminal feature of America’s “Old West.”  On the evening of 21 July 1873, just west of the small town of Adair, Iowa, the engine of their train was derailed and the cars and some of the passengers were robbed by a gang of five or six armed and mounted desperadoes.  The Chinese, traveling in the second of two sleepers that remained upright on the rails at the rear of the train, were unhurt though badly frightened.  Lee Yen Fu’s detailed eyewitness account is especially vivid:

Our party, teachers and pupils, jumped from our seats in dismay and looked out through the windows...  What we saw was enough to make our hair stand on end.  Two ruffianly men held a revolver in each hand and seemed to be taking aim at us from the short distance of forty feet or thereabouts.  Our teachers told us to crouch down for our lives.  We obeyed with trembling and fear.  Doubtless many prayers were most fervently offered to the gods of China at the time.  Our teachers certainly prayed as they had never done before.  One of them was overheard calling upon all the gods of the Chinese Pantheon to come and save him.  In half an hour the agony and suspense were over. 8

Only later was it learned that the leaders of the gang were the infamous James brothers, Jesse and Frank.  Another engine was quickly dispatched to take them on to Springfield, away from the scene of what Lee wryly termed “one phase of American civilization thus indelibly fixed in our minds.” Newspaper accounts of the robbery at Adair noted the presence onboard of “aristocratic Chinese on their way to New England colleges.”9   An editorial in The New York Times expressed a hope that “when our Chinese visitors write home, in many-angled vermilion letters, the story of their inhospitable reception, they may be able to add that it was promptly and properly avenged.  It is enough that our Celestial neighbors should think and call us barbarous, without absolutely justifying the title by a repetition of exploits like this.”10

Final Destination

The trip by rail from San Francisco to Springfield, even with the violent interruption suffered by the Second Detachment, lasted about a week.11   Springfield’s importance as a center of rail communication between the New England states and the rest of the country made it the logical choice as the final destination for the four Detachments of the Educational Mission.  Officials of the Mission were on hand at Springfield Station to welcome the boys as they arrived.  After a day or two of preparation, spent in a local hotel, the boys, escorted by their host families, set off for their new homes where they were to live and begin their education in America.  With the arrival of the Fourth Detachment late in November, 1875, the Mission reached its full complement of 120 students.



1. New Shan Chow (1880).

2. Ships’ names and departure/arrival dates courtesy Edward J. M. Rhoads. Cf. Rhoads (2011), pp. 39-43.

3. New Shan Chow (1880).

4. Rhoads (2011), p. 151.

5. Qi Zhaoxi 祁兆熙, You Meizhou Ri Ji 游美洲日记 (“Journal of a Trip to America”), quoted in Qian & Hu (2003), 55-58; Qian & Hu (2004), 70-71.  English translation courtesy Bruce Chan. Qi was the father of CEM student Kee Tsu Yi (Qi Zuyi 祁祖彝 III, 82).

6. Yung Shang Him (1939), 7.

7. Lee (1887), 106; Lee (2003), 96.

8. Lee (1887), 107-08; Lee (2003), 96-97.

9. E.g., San Francisco Daily Morning Call, 23 July 1873, 1.

10. New York Times, 25 July 1873, 4.

11. Yung Kwai (2001), 14§.