Fan-kwei or "foreign devils"

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Wed Mar 12 16:14:33 UTC 2003

Here is an interesting scrap showing familiarity with this Chinese term in NYC in 1846:

        At the first "Bee" last night at Mrs. William Samuel Johnson's.  Not very different from any other party so far as I could see: about sixty people on hand, including a few outside barbarians -- Fan-kwei or "foreign devils" who don't belong to "the Bee" but were specially invoked for this occasion.
George Templeton Strong, Diary, ed. Allan Nevins & Milton Halsey Thomas. New York: Macmillan, 1952, vol. 1, p. 275, entry of February 28, 1846.

The OED has no entry on this term; it appears in citations from a1889, in a passage in pidgin, under "joss pidgin" and from 1910, under "Kwai-lo".

George Templeton Strong was 26 when he wrote this, a lawyer, son of a lawyer, and he moved in quite respectable society.  In his diary, as published, he shows no interest in China or Chinese culture, though the diary has been sharply cut for publication, still leaving no doubt 1500 pages in 4 volumes.  He did read  a good deal, but largely in current literature and the English classics, and of course the newspapers.

A Chinese woman was exhibiting herself in a local museum at the time:
Places of Amusements.  [what to do on the 4th; museums: “Miss Afong Moy, the delicate footed visiter from the Celestial Empire, shows her tiny walking pieces in their diminutive and naked loveliness” at Peale’s and there is a conjuror at the American Museum; gardens; Hoboken; excursions to Staten Island; also:]  West Point is near enough – for though some forty miles off, a steam boat will reach it in about three hours.  ***  Coney Island may be reached in about an hour’s drive. . . .  NY Times, July 4, 1836, p. 2, col. 1  [Not, by the way, the present-day NYTimes]

Perhaps her presence in the city somehow got this word into the newspapers -- I haven't encountered it yet, though.

Strong uses the term pretty casually, and in a transferred sense, which suggests that the word had been at least temporarily assimilated into NYC English.  On the other hand, the diary was a private book, not read by others, at least during his lifetime -- he did expect it to be preserved and perhaps read after his death.

I fear that I am excluded from truly polite society, even by people who have been dead for 150 years, so I can't say much about Mrs. Johnson and her "Bee".  Her husband is briefly identified in a note a page or two before this quotation.  Strong was beginning the process of cruising for a respectable woman to marry, which, indeed, he soon found.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998.

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