#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 2, Issue 2
Hong Kong Harbor, 1860-1870, Marciano Antonia Baptista, PEM, 1961 M10874-A13
As the United States begins the long process of exploring the establishment of a National Museum of Asian Pacific American History and Culture, I thought of the first documented Chinese person on Cape Cod, Massachusetts where I live. She came as part of the America China Trade in the late nineteenth century and never left.
The “Chinese Woman” of Cape Cod
One More Thought (Teaching Asian-American History)
The “Chinese Woman” of Cape Cod
The Chinese Woman of Cape Cod
The United States Congress unanimously approved a bill earlier this year to establish a Commission to Study the Potential Creation of a National Museum of Asian Pacific American History and Culture. President Biden signed the bill into law last week. At the signing, Vice President Kamala Harris noted that,
“The National Museum of Asian Pacific American History and Culture will teach and tell the story of our country. This is a story about heroes who shaped our nation for the better,….By equipping people with knowledge and historical context, then we can fight ignorance, dispel misinformation, and work toward a future where all people can live without fear and a future where all people — all people can help write the next chapter of American history.”
As I read this, I recalled a piece of Asian-American history right here on Cape Cod, where I grew up and live. This story takes place in the Village of South Dennis in the Town of Dennis, less than two miles from where I go to work every day. In 2007, a friend of mine, Leslie Hatch-Wong, a Chinese-American woman, wrote a story about her introduction to Cape Cod.
When Leslie arrived here in 1985, she early on heard a story about a late nineteenth-century, Chinese woman who had lived and was buried nearby. She thought of the differences and similarities between two Chinese women who had landed in the same village of the same small town 113 years apart.
So who was this first Chinese woman on Cape Cod? She was known simply as Amah, the Nanny.
Bark Charles C. Leary (possibly) (archive.dennishistsoc.org)
Cape Cod’s connection to China stretches back to Asa Shiverick and his sons, a family who built eight clipper ships at a secluded harbor on the north side of Dennis between 1848 and 1862. These ships sailed to China and the East Indies as part of the much larger American China Trade. Many sea captains hailed from Cape Cod. One of them was Alpheus Baker, Jr., a South Dennis native. Captain Baker was part-owner and master of the bark Charles C. Leary.
South Dennis Congregational “Sea Captains” Church
Captain Baker lived in the area of Dennis colloquially called Bakertown. There have been Bakers on Cape Cod since the mid-seventeenth century. The centerpiece of Bakertown was the Congregational Church of South Dennis. The present South Dennis Congregational “Sea Captains” Church building was built in 1835. The Bass River Meeting House had been located on the same site since 1794.
After the Civil War, Alpheus Baker, Jr. continued in his father’s footsteps and became a ship captain. Sometime in the late 1860’s, he took his wife, Sarah, and children (three whose number became four on the journey) on a voyage down the east coasts of North and South America, up to California and then across the Pacific Ocean to Hong Kong.
During an extended stay in Hong Kong, the family hired a nanny to care for the children. The relationship blossomed, and the Bakers asked this unnamed nanny to accompany them back to the United States, via Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa, and Europe.
The Bund, Hong Kong (circa 1870) – Photograph by John Thomson
For reasons unknown--though strife, famine, and instability plagued China at that time, the nanny agreed. The journey could not have been easy. Captain Baker, Jr. was not the first in his family to bring someone back to America from abroad. His father, Captain Alpheus Baker, Sr., brought John Rose back from Europe to live in South Dennis. Mr. Rose, who was the first Portuguese person from the Azores here, worked as a seaman aboard the Baker Sr. ship and then as a carpenter on land.
Cape Cod was a small, isolated region at that time, and Amah was even more isolated. As historian Nancy Thacher Reid has written, “Amah had no welcoming family, no friends and no one who even understood her language or culture. Amah was lonely and depressed.”1 She became so lonely and homesick that she asked Captain Baker to go home. He promised to send her back to Hong Kong on the next available ship. Unfortunately, she did not make it.
Amah died in South Dennis at the family home on Upper County Road (the same road as my office in the adjacent village) on April 5, 1872. If her listed age of 31 years old is accurate, then Amah, Captain Baker, and his wife were all contemporaries.
South Dennis Congregational Church Cemetery
The cemetery out behind the Church is chock full of Bakers (as well as Crowells, Nickersons, Baxters, and other leading families of the historical past). The gently-rolling grounds, graced by ancient trees and at this time of year overflowing with wild dandelions, sits between and behind the Church to the north and a building to the south where I attended nursery school in the early 1970’s.
I went out on an overcast, gusty, and rather humid day last week and wandered purposefully through the cemetery just as Leslie had many years ago looking for the Chinese Woman. It took a little while (there really are that many Bakers in the cemetery), but I finally found the correct Baker plot in the rear center of the cemetery.
Alpheus Baker Family Plot (smaller white headstone rear left center is Amah)
Amah’s headstone is a brilliant white stone (and has been extensively cleaned over the past three decades). Originally, her grave was unmarked. However, when ordering headstones after Captain Baker, Jr. and his wife passed, their son, Alpheus P. Baker, also arranged for his Amah to have her own headstone. As others have written, she may be somewhat off to the rear of the family plot and her monument does face away, but she was a part of the family then and remains the children’s Amah to this day.
Alpheus Baker Family Plot (smaller white headstone right center is Amah)
In a final, sad irony, while Amah pined to return to her native China but sadly never made it, Captain Baker surely would have hoped to return to Dennis at the end of his life, but he sadly never made it either.
On August 7, 1874, three days out from Surabaya on the island of Java in Indonesia, during a voyage from New York, Captain Baker died at 36 years of age. He was either buried on land or at sea (the records do not agree).
The Chinese Woman of Cape Cod -- Photograph at www.findagrave.com
In 2019, Pam Eaton wrote, “Chinese Woman Elegy,” including these stanzas:2
“It was a long stay in Hong Kong with business clients to see, The Captain’s wife Sarah needed help; she made a little plea, To find an Amah for her children, a small necessary chore, She sought a devoted person, with just the right rapport.”
“They found a gentle soul who have their children loving care, She was just the right person, there was none who could compare. And so great was her kindness, Sarah Baker asked her to come To Cape Cod to care for her children for a generous, good income.”
“Despite the love for her charges, the children precious in her sight, Amah prayed that she’d return home, each and every night. Captain Baker knew of her sadness and made a solemn vow, On the next ship back to Hong Kong, Amah would be on it somehow.”
“Chinese woman lies among the family she faithfully loved and served, She was the first person of Asian birth to live on this Cape Cod earth. In South Dennis Cemetery, lies this Amah, now so long deceased, Chinese Woman, we honor you, may you always rest in peace.”3
One More Thought (Teaching Asian-American History)
The 1990 Institute is hosting an online Teacher’s Workshop 2022 this summer. The two sessions are “Missing in History: The Asian American Journey” in July and “The China You Should Know: Past and Present” in August. The goal of the Workshop is to help educate Americans on Asian-American history and China. It has been designed to “…reach more teachers across the entire nation to enhance their ability to teach these topics in the classroom, ‘sort of like adding arrows in their quiver,’” 1990 Institute Board President Grace Yu said.
1Nancy Thacher Reid, Dennis, Cape Cod: From Firstcomers to Newcomers 1639-1993, Dennis Historical Society, 1996., 437-439
2Stanzas 3, 4, 9, and 13
Gazetteer of Dennis, Dennis Historical Society, Inc., 2013 Dennis Journal, Jack Sheedy, Harvest Home, 1995, 1998 Postcard History Series: Dennis, Scott I. Walker and Robin E. Walker, Arcadia Publishing, 2007 Dennis Historical Society Digital Archive