Tye Leung Schulze’s Story
“I spent my life interpreting for people who needed my help.”Tye Leung Schulze
Tye Leung was born on August 24, 1887, in San Francisco’s Chinatown, at a time of deep xenophobia against Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans. She was the youngest of 8 children, born to working-class immigrant parents from China, in the immediate aftermath of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which severely restricted Chinese immigration to the United States.
As a girl, Leung attended a mission school where she learned English and converted to Christianity. At age nine, her parents sold her as a child servant to work in another family’s home doing minor tasks like cleaning. In 1899, when she was 12 years old, Leung’s family hoped to marry her off to an older Chinese man in Montana. But Leung had bigger plans for herself, and ran away to a shelter, run by a white Presbyterian missionary named Donaldina Cameron. With help from Leung and other staff, over the course of three decades, Cameron succeeded in rescuing 3,000 Chinese women and girls from the sex trade in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
In 1910, Leung became the very first Chinese American woman to work for the federal government; she was hired as an interpreter at the newly-opened Angel Island Immigration Station, designed to enforce the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Angel Island processed tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants, many of whom were held there for weeks or months at a time without due process. According to her family, Leung tried to add a touch of home and comfort as she interpreted for immigrants during interrogations. Adding to her list of firsts, in 1912, Leung became the first Chinese American woman to cast a ballot in a U.S. election, one year after women won the right to vote in California.
While working at Angel Island, Leung met and fell in love with white immigration inspector Charles Schulze. The couple had to keep their relationship quiet, as anti-miscegenation laws in California made it illegal for mixed-race couples to get married. In 1913, the couple eloped to Washington state, one of the few in the country where interracial marriage was legal. Unfortunately, the marriage cost them their jobs at Angel Island, and initially, both found it difficult to find steady work. The couple lived on the outskirts of Chinatown and had four children. Eventually, Leung Schulze found a steady position as one of the operators at the Chinatown Telephone Exchange. After WWII, with the War Brides Act of 1945, the U.S. Immigration Office hired Leung Schulze again, as an interpreter for the wives of Chinese American servicemen.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed during WWII, but non-quota based immigration from China did not occur until 1965 with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Tye Leung Schulze died on March 10, 1972 at the age of 84.
Featured in the Film:
Julia Flynn Siler
Julia Flynn Siler is a New York Times best-selling author and journalist. Her new book, The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Against Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown, which features the story of Tye Leung Schulze, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in May of 2019. She is also the author of Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure (Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2012) and The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty (Gotham, 2008).
Theodore (Ted) Schulze is a fourth-generation Californian, and the grandson of Tye Leung Schulze. Growing up, he had no idea about his grandmother’s role in American history. In the early 1980s, when historian Judy Yung started documenting Asian American women, Schulze started to realize how deep a role Tye Leung Schulze had in this rich history. Ted’s father, Fred, was the primary informant in interviews about Tye Leung Schulze until his passing in 2003. Ted Schulze has since proudly taken on the mantle of researching and sharing her story. Schulze recently retired after 36 years working for Xerox. He now spends his time volunteering for the animal care team at the Marine Mammal Center, and at China Camp State Park in Marin County, CA.
Toko Serita is the first Japanese American judge in New York state, as well as the first Asian American woman appointed to the New York City Criminal Court. She is a leading judicial expert on human trafficking and presides over the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court (QHTIC), which is nationally and internationally recognized for its innovative work providing services to trafficking victims and survivors. The success of the court in Queens resulted in the nation’s first statewide initiative that added eight similar courts designed to address human trafficking cases throughout New York state. Serita has always been involved in public service and in women’s issues and worked as a criminal appellate attorney for the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Appeals Bureau for many years. She is a graduate of Vassar College and the City University of New York School of Law.