Margaret Chung’s Story

“I used to be ladylike and deferential but found it didn’t pay. Everywhere I was stepped on. Now I treat them rough — they lap it up. ”

– Margaret Chung

Margaret Chung was born on October 2, 1889, the eldest of 11 children, in Santa Barbara, California. Her parents emigrated from China in the 1870s, as part of a large wave of Chinese immigration to the U.S., which began in the 1840s and lasted until 1882, with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Chung attended the University of Southern California Medical School, where she was the only woman and person of color in her class. While in medical school, Chung called herself ‘Mike’ and wore masculine clothing, likely to fit in with her male classmates. 

When Chung graduated in 1916, she became the first American-born Chinese female doctor. However, she was initially denied residencies and internships in U.S. hospitals, as well as medical missionaries in China, likely because of her race and gender. Moving to Chicago, Chung studied under Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen, who trained many women nurses and doctors in surgery, which was radical at the time. 

Chung developed her plastic surgery skills while working at a railroad hospital in LA. She then opened her own private practice in Los Angeles, where some of Hollywood’s biggest stars became her patients. Chung also developed close friendships and possibly intimate relationships with the poet Elsa Gidlow and the vaudeville performer Sophie Tucker.

In the early 1920s, Chung moved to San Francisco to work with Chinese Americans in the city’s Chinatown, but as a practitioner of Western medicine and a single woman who dressed in masculine clothing, she struggled to be a part of the community. In 1925, she helped establish the first Western hospital in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and led its OB/GYN and pediatrics unit. 

A passionate patriot, Chung became dedicated to contributing to the U.S. war effort during WWII. Her work began in the 1930s, before the U.S. entered the war, when Japan invaded China. Chung organized “rice bowl parties,” to fundraise for the war effort in over 700 U.S. cities. She also established a network of men in the military, whom she treated as a doctor, hosted at her home for large weekly dinners, and connected to jobs within the military. Chung recruited pilots as part of the famous “Flying Tigers,” a unit of aviators that defended China during the war. The network grew to over one thousand men, who referred to her as “Mom Chung” and themselves as her “fair-haired bastards.” Chung became well known throughout the country; there was a comic book series and a Hollywood movie based on her life. 

Chung also lobbied Congress to allow women to join the military as volunteers, and helped establish WAVES, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services, the women’s branch of the naval reserves during World War II. This helped pave the way for women’s integration into the U.S. armed forces. Chung was rejected from serving in WAVES herself, likely due to her race and rumors about her sexuality. In 1940, as part of the Lavender Scare, an FBI report was filed which cited rumors that Chung was a lesbian. 

After the war, Chung retired and lived in a home that her “adopted sons” bought for her, and died on January 5, 1959, at the age of 70. 

Featured in the Film

Judy Tzu-Chun Wu

Judy Tzu-Chun Wu is a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Irvine, and director of the Humanities Center. She is the author of the biography on Margaret Chung, Doctor Mom Chung of the Fair-Haired Bastards: the Life of a Wartime Celebrity (University of California Press, 2005) and the book Radicals on the Road: Internationalism, Orientalism, and Feminism during the Vietnam Era (Cornell University Press, 2013). Her current book project, a collaboration with political scientist Gwendolyn Mink, explores the political career of Patsy Takemoto Mink, the first woman of color U.S. congressional representative and the namesake for Title IX. She co-edited Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, 8th Edition (Oxford 2015), Gendering the Trans-Pacific World (Brill 2017), and Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies (2012-2017). Currently, she is a co-editor of Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000 (Alexander Street Press) and editor for Amerasia Journal.

Esther Choo

Esther Choo is an Associate Professor in the Center for Policy and Research in Emergency Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University. She is a practicing emergency room physician and NIH-funded investigator, with expertise in drug policy and health disparities. She is a co-founder of Equity Quotient, a company that provides metrics of healthcare culture, a founding member for TIME’S UP Healthcare, , which fights sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the health care industry, and a co-founder of Jupe Health, which creates mobile health and rest units for disasters. She writes a regular column in The Lancet focused on health inequities.

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