History Untold: Pershing’s Chinese descendants take pride in their history

Ancestors risked their lives helping Gen. John J. Pershing

SAN ANTONIO – What is on a historical marker at Fort Sam Houston is more than many know about the “Pershing Chinese.”

Christina Lew doesn’t know her great-great grandfather’s name, yet as far as how he came to be in San Antonio, “It’s something that my grandmother made sure that I knew growing up,” she said.

Eager to learn more, Lew, vice president of the San Antonio Chinese-American Citizens Alliance, helped organize the recent rededication of the marker commemorating the more than 400 Chinese brought from Mexico to San Antonio in 1917 by General John J. Pershing.

They had risked their lives helping in Pershing’s failed attempt to capture Pancho Villa after his deadly 1916 raid on Columbus, New Mexico.

Pancho Villa (middle) and Gen. John Pershing (right) (UNT)

Sometime before that, however, an undated photograph taken at an international bridge shows Pancho Villa and General Pershing had at one time stood side-by-side. Standing behind Pershing to his left was a young Army lieutenant, who became one of America’s greatest battlefield commanders during World War II — Gen. George S. Patton.

“We don’t learn about this in history,” said Kin Lui, national vice president of the Chinese Americans Citizens Alliance.

“We’ve been here for a long time,” Lui said. " It’s an amazing story.”

After leaving their home country, which was in turmoil, Lui said the Chinese settled in Mexico. When Pershing and his troops arrived, only the Chinese helped the Americans.

Much like the Afghan interpreters who the Taliban vowed to kill for helping the U.S. in Afghanistan, “There was a picture of Chinese men hung at the railroad station,” Hui said.

Had it not been for Gen. Pershing, Josefina Dong, who is 91 years old, said her father, Dong Chong Kung, could have been one of them.

“I’m very, very proud and happy that he was my father,” his daughter said.

Hui said Pershing was a man of his word.

“He rewarded the loyalty of the Chinese by advocating for a law in 1921, Public Law 29, that gave explicit permission and immigration status to the Chinese,” Hui said, allowing them to apply for citizenship, which many did.

During the anti-Asian backlash triggered by the pandemic, Lew said she was told, “Go back where you came from.”

“Apparently, my family’s been here. I did not know that,” Lew said.

Being that May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Lew said she hopes people will learn about the Pershing Chinese, how they helped the U.S., and how their descendants are still contributing, each in their own way.

Josefina Dong’s son, Gil Chong Vargas, said, “Out of their very meager beginnings, they’ve given us priceless opportunities for us to do better.”

About the Authors

Jessie Degollado has been with KSAT since 1984. She is a general assignments reporter who covers a wide variety of stories. Raised in Laredo and as an anchor/reporter at KRGV in the Rio Grande Valley, Jessie is especially familiar with border and immigration issues. In 2007, Jessie also was inducted into the San Antonio Women's Hall of Fame.

Luis Cienfuegos is a photographer at KSAT 12.

Recommended Videos