Sometimes in history two seemingly unrelated events will fit together to solve a puzzle—and also add another fascinating footnote to the history of Granby.
In 1835, in Macao, a young Chinese peasant boy was enrolled in a missionary school. In 1963, in Granby, the autograph book of Henry G. Viets was donated to the Salmon Brook Historical Society by Mary Phelps Cotton.
The first tenuous connection formed a few years later when I examined the autograph book looking for examples of calligraphy. Two pages had calligraphy of a very different kind—Chinese characters, and the autographs of Tan Sz Tsung and Chin Kee Yung. What were two Chinese boys doing in rural Granby in 1873?
A closer look at the rest of the autograph book indicated that most of the signatures were of schoolmates of Henry Viets.
“F. N. Loomis, Granby Academy, Winter Term”
“Truly yours, M. E. Seymour, Tariffville, CT, Granby Academy, Feb. 5th ‘74 Winter Term”
“Hattie A. Newton, Winter Term, Jan. 7, 1873”
“Cordially Your Friend and Teacher, T. D. Murphy, Granby, Feb. 10, 1873.
Henry Gervase Viets, son of Julius G. and Mary (Gillett) Viets, was born in 1855. He attended the Granby Academy in Granby center. He served in the state legislature, had a large tobacco farm in the Hungary District, and held many town offices, including the post of Tax Collector for 30 years. He married Granby teacher, Amanda Clark, in 1880. They had no children. Viets died in 1933 at the age of 78.
The Granby Academy was a private select school (high school) held on the second floor of the newly constructed (1871) library building on Salmon Brook Street (site of Farmington Valley Visiting Nurse building). Rev. Thomas D. Murphy conducted the school for local and boarding students. He had been the minister at First Congregational Church since 1868.
About the time the Academy was opened, Murphy bought two acres of land from Samuel Benjamin for $200. He had his home built just north of the library building (250 Salmon Brook Street).
The files of the Connecticut Historical Society revealed more information about the Chinese students. Yung Wing, the Chinese peasant boy in Macao, attended missionary school for nine years. When the missionary, Dr. Samuel Robbins Brown, returned to his home in East Windsor in 1847, he brought three Chinese students with him, the first Chinese to ever travel to the United State for an education.
The boys were placed in an Academy in Monson, Mass. One went back to China, a sponsor sent one to college in Scotland and Yung Wing attended Yale, the alma mater of his mentor, Dr. Brown.
Yung’s education at Yale convinced him that the way to modernizing China was to educate its future leaders in America. After graduation, he returned to China, but it took him 17 years before he realized his dream.
In 1871, the Chinese Educational Mission was organized. It was planned to send 120 students, 30 each year between 1872 and 1875, to study science, technology and military affairs. Each student was to stay for 15 years, so the chosen boys were young, between the ages of 12 and 15. Chinese teachers were to accompany the students and continue their lessons in the Chinese language and culture.
Because of his own experiences, Yung Wing returned to New England with the mission. It was decided to place the students, by twos, in private homes in Massachusetts and Connecticut, to help them assimilate and learn English quickly. The mission headquarters was in Springfield, temporarily, but was moved to Hartford in 1872.
The first group of 30 students arrived in September 1872, and two boys were sent to Granby. Other than the autographs asking Henry Viets to “remember” them, no trace of their stay has been found. It is not known what family they lived with in Granby, or how long they attended Granby Academy.
An 1893 Springfield newspaper clipping described the way it might have been in Granby some 20 years earlier.
“So there were placed in the best families in Massachusetts and Connecticut some ‘cunning little Chinese boys’ who attracted considerable attention from their quaint ways and queer costumes. Their clothing soon became somewhat modernized, consisting of their broad flowing trousers, blouses and small caps. They soon learned to tuck their queues behind their collars to conceal them as much as possible.
“They soon gave evidence of being of a remarkably studious nature. It was indeed aggravating to the ordinary young American to find himself beaten in studies by a strange-looking, almond-eyed personage, and the intruders were not treated any too well in consequence. He soon won his way to favor, however, especially when it was discovered that his queer gown did not prevent him from taking an active part in all American sports in which he excelled as easily as he did in the studies.”
Tracing the boys after they left Granby posed some problems. The unfamiliar Chinese names were sometimes spelled incorrectly, or even phonetically, in the newspapers. Further discrepancies occurred because Cantonese and Manchu spelling is different.
Chin Kee Yung was in Granby less than two years. He registered in Hartford Public High School on May 15, 1875, transferring from West Middle School in Hartford. He was then nearly 16 years old, and his guardian was a teacher, Miss C. Goldthwait, who lived at 203 Sigourney Street. Chin was a fine student. His grades in 1876 were 9.8 for scholarship and a perfect 10.0 for attendance and deportment. He was a classical major.
Evidently Tan Sz Tsung was less of a scholar. He was not admitted to Hartford Public High School until May 14, 1877, at the age of 18. He also transferred from West Middle School and had the same guardian as Chin.
Meanwhile, the Educational Mission was in trouble. The students were criticized for becoming too American and neglecting their Chinese studies. Furthermore, they were consorting with American “devil girls.” Added to this was the refusal of the United States Government to allow the students to enter West Point or Annapolis. Another strong factor was the attitude of California and Congress toward Chinese immigrants, calling them “the yellow peril.”
In 1881, despite the pleas of prominent leaders such as former President Grant and Samuel Clemens, the Chinese government terminated the Mission.
One of the former Granby students had returned to China prior to that. Tan Sz Tsung was dismissed from the junior class November 25, 1879 for non-attendance. He entered the naval service in China.
Chin Kee Yung left Hartford Public High School during his senior year. On April 18, 1879, he was chosen for “special study.” When the students were called home, he had just entered Sheffield Scientific School of Yale University. Upon his return to China, he passed the exam for naval service and became a ship’s officer.
The final chapter on the Granby Academy students from China was found in another old newspaper clipping in the Connecticut Historical Society files. On August 23, 1883, 24-year old Chin Kee Yung died of typhoid fever at Foo Chow, China. During his last hours, ex-pupil and fellow student, Tan Sz Tsung, was at his side.
Although cut short, the Chinese Education Mission was not a failure. It marked the passing of China’s policy of seclusion. Many of these students became leaders in China, introducing technical and cultural changes. Despite political difficulties, these students gave China her first engineers, doctors, builders of railroads, diplomats and military leaders.
It was a magnificent experiment, and Granby was a part of it.