Although we can expect our understanding to change as new discoveries shape what we know, we currently have enough information to provide this brief overview of the history of Asian and Asian American students at Princeton accessible through our collections. Please look for more as research into Princeton’s past continues.
The earliest records of ethnically Asian students we have found were of a small group from Japan who came to Princeton in the 1870s. These early students tended to be sponsored by their own governments and many did not graduate, but Hikoichi Orita graduated with the Class of 1876.
Ethnically Chinese students may have begun arriving in the late 19th or early 20th century. Dong Seung, Class of 1905, an early example, was from Hong Kong, then a British colony. The Boxer Rebellion Indemnity Fund, which supported education of Chinese students in America, led a handful of other ethnically Chinese students to enroll in this period. Six students founded Princeton’s Chinese Students Club in 1913. One of them, Hsu Kun Kwong from the Class of 1914, may have been the first Asian student on the editorial board of the Daily Princetonian. Kwong, originally from Shanghai, was involved in many other aspects of campus life as well, including membership in Key and Seal, the American Whig Society, the Andover Club, and the Municipal Club and playing soccer.
Korean students appear to have come to Princeton a bit later. Syngman Rhee earned a Ph.D. from Princeton in 1910, then went on to become the first president of the Republic of Korea. We find records of a Thai student and an Indian student in the following decades, with Supachai Vanij-Vadhana ’29 and Habib Yusufji *30.
True acceptance took longer than admission and attendance to achieve, of course. Although there were likely more ethnically Asian students on campus than other racial minorities at the time, Asian students would have found at best a mixed reception at Princeton in this era. Nationally, the earliest laws to restrict immigration targeted Asians. The Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 reflected American prejudices against non-white immigration, and Asians were targets of race-based violence and cultural disdain. Locally, we can see similar patterns among Princetonians. In 1893, two Princeton students assaulted Sing Lee, who owned a laundry in town, and his assistant, Lee Why, burning the men with hot irons and boiling water, ransacking the business, and stealing $85 from Lee. During this period, Triangle Club productions employed the tropes of yellowface, conveying implied hostility to Asian integration into American society. Meanwhile, the Bric-a-Brac and Daily Princetonian included problematic imagery depicting Asians.
With time, in spite of national resistance to integrating Asians into American society, Asian immigrants began raising their Asian American children in the United States. We believe Asian American students probably began enrolling around the 1930s, but by that time, the number of ethnically Asian students still remained in the single digits. Some notable examples are brothers Masahiko Ralph Takami ’34 and Suyehiko Takami ’40, and Yeiichi (Kelly) Kuwayama ’40, all first-generation Americans. Kuwayama, a decorated U.S. Army veteran, was a founding member of the Asian American Alumni Association of Princeton (A4P).
We have previously told you the story of Kentaro Ikeda ’44, a Japanese student effectively held under house arrest on campus during World War II, and his Singaporean roommate, Richard Eu ’44. They were, at the time, the only two undergraduates of Asian descent on campus.
Numbers of ethnically Asian students remained low in the 1950s and 1960s. One alum from this period, Sir Gordon Wu ’58, who has been knighted in both Belgium and the United Kingdom, was the first to have donated $100 million to Princeton with his gift in 1996. It was not his first large bequest to the institution. Wu Hall, which opened in 1983, is named in his honor as the principal donor.
After Princeton began admitting women to its Graduate School, it awarded its first graduate degree earned by a woman to T’sai-Ying Cheng *64 when she earned her masters in biochemical sciences in 1963 on her way to her 1964 Ph.D. Another early female graduate student was Kazuko Tsurumi *67, the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in sociology from Princeton.
Female undergraduates followed, with Sue Jean Lee ’70 making waves as the first female Princeton student in Triangle Club. Other ethnically Asian women in Princeton’s Critical Languages Program who transferred to graduate in the Class of 1970 included Lynn Tsugie Nagasako, Agneta Riber, Mae W. Wong, and Mary Peggy Yee.
The Asian American Student Association (AASA) formed in 1971 with a focus on political action, rather than the cultural and social outlet provided by other Asian student organizations like the Chinese Club. In response to student demands, including those of activists in the AASA, Princeton University’s Third World Center (now the Carl Fields Center) was established in 1971. There, ethnically Asian students joined with other minority groups on campus in solidarity.
Consistent pressure from students and alumni contributed to an increase in the overall representation of ethnically Asian students on campus. By 1990, 10% of Princeton’s student body was of Asian descent. Students continued to advocate change, urging the administration to add courses to the curriculum to reflect the needs of a diverse campus and addressing ongoing exposure to harmful attitudes and imagery. According to Inclusive Princeton, during the 2020-2021 academic year, 29% of Princeton’s undergraduate students, 27% of its masters students, and 31% of its doctoral students on campus identified as ethnically Asian. This may reflect slightly higher representation due to the COVID-19 pandemic; researchers will want to consult historical data from the Office of Institutional Research for a fuller picture.
Beyond Wu’s donations mentioned earlier, Asian and Asian American alumni have made significant contributions to the institution and to society. Chang-Lin Tien *59 served on the Board of Trustees from 1991 to 1995 and was 2000’s selection for the James Madison Medal. He also served as Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley (1990-1997) and was said to have been the first person who was ethnically Asian to head a major American university. Helen Zia ’73, an award winning journalist, has been a key figure in the Asian American movement and remained engaged in activism for Princeton’s ethnically Asian students after graduation, co-authoring a petition for the creation of an Asian American Studies certificate in 2008. That same year, she and her wife became one of the first same-sex couples to legally marry in California, and Zia has offered her support to Princeton’s LGBT community. Denny Chin ’75, a former managing editor of the Daily Princetonian and 2011 Woodrow Wilson Awardee, serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York. Chris Lu ’88, 2014’s baccalaureate speaker, has served as White House Cabinet Secretary and U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor under the Obama administration, the first person of Asian descent to fill that role. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and we look forward to the discoveries more research will uncover for us to tell.
This post has been partially informed by research done by A4P and its student interns. Special thanks to Nancy Lin ’77, Sanna Lee ’20, and Hannah Pouler ’21 for sending along the work they have done on this topic.
Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding Records (AC342)
Davis International Center Records (AC344)
Graduate Alumni Records (AC105)
Graduate School Records (AC127)
Hikoichi Orita Diary (AC033)
Historical Audiovisual Collection (AC047)
Historical Subject Files (AC109)
Princeton Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual (LGBTQIA) Oral History Project (2017)
Princeton University Asian American Student Association Records (AC423)
Princetoniana Committee Oral History Project Records (AC259)
Undergraduate Academic Files (AC198)
Undergraduate Alumni Records, 1900-1920 (AC104.03)
Undergraduate Alumni Records, 1921-2005 (AC199)
For further reading:
Armstrong, April C. “Dear Mr. Mudd: Did Thich Nhat Hanh Attend Princeton University?”
__________. “The Princeton Pullman’s ‘Filipino Boys’.”
__________. “Solitary Internment: Kentaro Ikeda ’44.”
__________. “Sue Jean Lee and the Women of Triangle Club.”
DeLooper, John. “Syngman Rhee’s Time at Princeton.”
Lange, Gregg. “Rally ‘Round the Cannon: Yoshio Osawa ’25.”
Library of Congress. “Yeiichi Kelly Kuwayama.” Experiencing War: Stories from the Veterans History Project.
Princeton University Campus Iconography Committee. “Stories of Asians and Asian Americans at Princeton.”
Zheng, Xinxian Cynthia. “Princeton University’s Engagement with China.”
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