Around the holidays I came across a series of letters back and forth between President Roosevelt and a man named Quan Yick Nam regarding gifts Quan sent Roosevelt. Out of curiosity I decided to dig further to figure out if the two knew each other, or if he was just one of countless people sending Roosevelt letters and gifts. As I discovered, the two had met while Roosevelt was police commissioner and corresponded for many years. Quan spent much of his life in San Francisco, and later in New York, trying to clean up Chinatown’s streets of vice crimes, angering powerful Chinese criminals but making friends with reformers and powerful men like Roosevelt. He was also a merchant in New York, although I cannot find a record of what type of business.
According to his own account, Quan was born in California to Chinese parents on July 4, 1871, although conflicting accounts says he came to the U.S. to study English at the Home Missionary Society School under Rev. J.B. Hartwell while his parents were working as the owners of an embroidery mill in China. Reports vary. Regardless, by the 1890s he was living and working in San Francisco. A local newspaper article from 1893 notes that the “highbinders” wanted to kill Quan for helping the police there rid the district of opium and prostitution dens. Highbinders was a general term given to the Chinese criminal element, although, more specifically, a reference to highbinder societies, which became the nucleus for criminal activity and violence.
With a bounty on his head, he moved to New York City, and by 1895 was aiding the police there as a Chinese translator and investigator, earning him the nickname in the press of the “young Chinese Parkhurst.” The following year his tip off led to a raid on a Chinese Theater owned by Chin Tong of 35 Mott St. The New York Tribune printed an article on April 26, 1896, about Quan officially applying to the police department, and quoted Roosevelt saying Quan had been to see him several times about the matter, and suggested that the man be offered a position in the detective bureau investigating crimes in Chinatown. Despite his skills and commitment, Chinese Americans were still looked down upon in society, and were rarely given jobs in government. While not hired as an officer or detective outright, he aided police with translation and detective work, becoming known as a traitor in his neighborhood. By 1901 he was writing reports on gambling, opium dens, and prostitution for the Committee of Fifteen, helping bring down major criminal figures.
The friendship between the two men lasted well into TR’s presidency. Many years around Christmas, there are letters between the two in which Quan tried to send gifts and Roosevelt declines. After numerous attempts in 1903, Quan gifts a Chinese vase to Edith instead. Not every gift was returned though, and on occassion Roosevelt was doing the giving of gifts. A letter from 1903 mentions a cane Roosevelt gave to Quan’s father the previous Christmas, which “he will keep for life.” The following Christmas, the two write about a set of embroidered curtains Quan was having made for the Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay.
Having friends in high places comes in handy. After a business associate of Quan’s was arrested, Roosevelt wrote to Theodore Roosevelt and George B. Cortelyou for assistance. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was re-solidified in 1902, restricting access of Chinese immigrants to the United States and requiring "each Chinese resident to register and obtain a certificate of residence," facing deportation without one. Fueled by anti-Chinese sentiment and stereotyping, the Act created difficulty for Quan’s associates and others who were supposed to be given exceptions. Roosevelt wrote to Cortelyou that he had been uneasy about the many obstacles placed before Chinese merchants and students. He suggests this case could serve as a precedent. In response, Quan sends a letter of thanks to TR for helping free his business partner, promising his continued support as a reformer.
Quan kept up his end of the bargain, and continued his reform work in Chinatown aiding the police. The case he became most recognized for was helping track down murderer Leon Ling, whose killing of 19 year old Elsie Sigel caught the nation’s attention. An article from the Los Angeles Times mentions Quan’s “most valuable clews” despite counter efforts by the High Treason Society, which was protecting Ling and had a bounty on Quan’s head. His detective work helped bring in an affidavit from a Chinese man who saw Ling stash Sigel’s body in a trunk, and also identified a possible poison used in her death. Roosevelt and Quan corresponded through at least 1914, although generally only holiday greetings. Quan died in 1954, with articles claiming him to be 100, conflicting with other reports that put him in his eighties. For a man with a target on his back for decades, either age is impressive.