Sunday, May 1, 2016

Boise, Idaho Signboard for the Imperial Constitutional Association

Signboard from Baohuanghui
Building, Boise, Idaho
Courtesy of Asian American
Comparative Collection,
University of Idaho,
This is the only extant example of a Chinese Empire Reform Association (CERA) signboard. It comes from a CERA building that was constructed after Kang Youwei visited Boise, Idaho from October 18 to 25, 1905. We do not know when this building at Seventh and Front Street was completed, but  on February 26, 1907, the local reform association led a parade with a 20-man dragon that ended at this address ("Chinese Lion to Protect Joss," Idaho Statesman, February 21, 1907). The CERA building was one of several new Baohuanghui buildings erected beginning in 1905 in Victoria, BC and Los Angeles, among other places. The Boise brick and stone building was to cost about $3,000 to build, with two stories (ground level for retail use, the second floor for the CERA meeting hall) ("Chinamen Plan $3000 Building," Idaho Statesman, November 14, 1905).

Seals "Kang Youwei yin" and "Gengsheng."
Courtesy of Asian American Comparative Collection,
University of Idaho, AACC-2015-20.

"Diguo Xianzhenghui" or Imperial Constitutional Association is carved and painted on the wood signboard. On the left are two seals, the top reading "Kang Youwei yin" (the seal of Kang Youwei) and the bottom " "Gengsheng" ("born again"--Kang Youwei's nickname during his exile). Because Kang changed the name of CERA in Chinese from Baohuanghui, or Protect the Emperor Association, to Xianzhenghui on the lunar new year (February 13, 1907), we know the sign dates from 1907 or later.

Kang had evidently considered a change in name since about 1903, as part of his program of political evolution—the name should match the new goal to be achieved. Ronglu, head of China’s Grand Council, died on April 11, 1903, and Kang felt that a great obstacle to his movement had been removed. In 1906, when the Qing government outwardly came out in favor of constitutionalism, Kang hoped it was a true mark of progress and on October 10, 1906, he announced that the Baohuanghui would have an official change in name as of the first day of the new year. 

Did Kang write the characters carved on the sign? He did not return to Boise after 1905, but he could have sent the brush-written name and seals to the Boise chapter. Several scholars have examined the signboard who know Kang's distinctive and pathbreaking calligraphy, but have not been able to definitively conclude whether the carving was done from his original writing and seals. Aida Wong, author of the new book on Kang, The Other Kang Youwei: Calligrapher, Art Activist and Aesthetic Reformer in China , wrote that "The calligraphy is consistent with Kang Youwei's running-regular style in terms of the internal proportions and fleshiness, only more restrained and with less flair than his handwritten works. Such engravings are usually not done by the calligraphers themselves" (email to Jane Leung Larson, January 28, 2016). 

The sign had been stored in the Hop Sing Tong building in Boise and before the building was demolished in 1972 was salvaged by Yick Yee, an herbalist and Hop Sing Tong member. His family donated it to the University of Idaho's Asian American Comparative Collection in late 2015. It is on permanent display at the University of Idaho Water Center in Boise. Contact Priscilla Wegars, Asian American Comparative Collection for more information. Thank you to Wegars and Trevor Humble of the UI Confucius Institute for their research on this important artifact.

On his 1905 visit to Boise, Kang met Idaho Governor Frank R. Gooding at the state capitol.[1] Gooding responded to Kang’s questions concerning the state’s elective system of government, saying “that all officers are merely servants of the people.” In particular, Kang asked about the sources and amount of state revenues, who collected them, and how were surplus funds handled. 

Kang also visited the Idaho State Penitentiary. There he and his interpreter Zhou Guoxian met Yee Wee, who had been convicted on circumstantial evidence of murdering a fellow Chinese eight year earlier. He had been sentenced to be hanged, and the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Kang agreed to seek a conditional pardon for Yee. The Idaho Daily Statesman explained that the governor of Oregon had acceded to a similar request by Kang in April and had pardoned Wong Yik. Immediately after leaving the penitentiary, Kang and Zhou went to see Governor Gooding to plead Yee’s case. Gooding said he would “do the best I can for you” while noting that America’s laws are just and “are made to be obeyed.”[2] In December 1905, a group of local Chinese met with Idaho Secretary of State Will H. Gibson to inquire about the status of Kang’s request that Yee be pardoned. They were informed that the State Pardon Board would take up the case in January. The case, after “a full and complete investigation” by the board, was finalized in October 1906. Yee was pardoned.

Kang made an abrupt change in travel plans while in Boise. When he arrived, he intended to return to New York City after his trip ended in the West, before traveling on to Mexico. But while in Boise he received word from a New York Baohuanghui leader that his nemesis Sun Yatsen was
 expected soon in New York. Kang wrote his daughter Tongbi, a student in South Windsor, Connecticut:“This man is extremely dangerous and cruel. His visit to New York again must be targeted toward me. The only reason I would return to New York is to open the bank. But I am afraid it is not proper to be in such a dangerous place . . . so I will definitely not go back to the East. I will go to Mexico soon.”[3


[1] “Kang Yu Wei and Mr. Chew Kok Hean,” Idaho Daily Statesman, October 21, 1905, 3.
[2] “Doors of Pen May Swing Wide for Yee Wee, Sentenced for Life,” Idaho Daily Statesman, October 25, 1905, 5.
[3] Kang Youwei in Boise to Kang Tongbi, October 20, 1905, no. εΊ·-30, Kang Tongbi South Windsor Collection.

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