Yee Yen: The Most Famous Embezzler of Salt Lake City’s Old Chinatown

Jackson Keys, Undergraduate Student at Brigham Young University, Department of History

Wanted: Yee Yen

Courtesy of Utah Digital Newspapers.

On February 22, 1897, an etching of a Chinese man named Yee Yen appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune with a reward of 20 dollars for anyone who had information on his whereabouts. His crime: embezzling $8,000. Yee’s story, which made headlines throughout June of the same year, offers a lens into the overlooked lives of the Salt Lake City Chinese of Plum Alley as well as the ways in which they were marginalized by other Salt Lakers.

Plum Alley is still a marked road in Salt Lake City, although much of it sits directly under the Regent Street parking garage and serves almost no purpose besides offering those parked there an exit onto 200 South. Virtually all of this historic enclave was destroyed under various re-development schemes from the early 20th century on. This is a shame, as the alley was home to the first generation of Chinese immigrants of Salt Lake. Plum Alley was spoken of as the city’s Chinatown by the mid–1880s, even then it was not considered a public street for decades and remained unpaved until 1917.

Largely a world of its own, the street was home to Chinese residents who elected their own mayor, established Daoist temples, and marketed fruits and vegetables grown by Chinese farmers to feed Salt Lake’s growing urban population.

This Sanborn Insurance Map from 1898 shows Plum Alley’s location between Commercial and State, it also lists the different Chinese owned businesses in and around Plum Alley.

Yee Yen had a good reputation with other Chinese residents of the area, although at the beginning of 1897 no one outside of Plum Alley likely ever heard, nor cared about him. He was a banker who worked at the firm Wing Chong Lung & Co. People trusted Yee enough to deposit their savings, although it appears he had been skimming funds from his neighbors’ deposits and sending them to Hong Kong where his wife and children still lived. In February of 1897, too many of Yee’s creditors started to ask for their savings back, and as most of the collected funds were in Hong Kong, Yee decided he had no other option but to flee. He bought a ticket to Denver and left without looking back.

Yee Caught

When Wing Chong Lung & Co realized what their employee had done, they quickly placed his etching in the newspaper. Witnesses saw Yee catch a train for Denver, and police there were quickly notified. Soon the chase was on; Yee hopped on another train to Colorado Springs, and when police there were tipped off, he fled further south to Pueblo where he was arrested on March 2nd, just nine days after leaving Salt Lake City.

A 1907 photo taken of Plum Alley. Courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society. Courtesy of Utah Historical Society

American Chinatowns often kept their distance from the American legal system by employing internal conflict resolution methods, and as such many residents of Plum Alley hoped to settle the Yee Yen matter outside of court. But by the time Yee returned to Salt Lake, the story was much larger than the alley it started in; legal proceedings were inevitable. The Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake Herald-Republican, and Deseret Evening News, all published frequent articles covering his flight. Yee found himself in the middle of a narrative being constructed by white journalists that reinforced the Chinese stereotypes as well as the alleged inferiority of Asians to Westerners. While the majority of white residents of Salt Lake City never ventured into Plum Alley, many were fascinated by the depiction of something so foreign within their own city. Yee’s case fueled this fascination, but failed to foster a greater understanding of Salt Lake City’s Chinese community; especially in light of the way Yee’s lawyer chose to handle the case.

Yee in Court

Charged with embezzlement and grand larceny, Yee’s first court appearance was covered in multi-page spreads in local newspapers, largely due to a scene put on by Yee’s lawyer, George F. Goodwin. Goodwin objected to two Chinese prosecution witnesses as they began swearing their oaths. He claimed that since all Chinese were known to be “heathens”, the Court could not consider any Christian oath they made as binding. The Judge agreed, and soon the witnesses swore their oaths on joss sticks — a pidgin English term of the time for incense sticks used in traditional Chinese worship.

The two Chinese witnesses, Kim Poy and Dong Fung, along with Wing Dun the interpreter, swear their court oaths on burning joss sticks in a drawing published in the Salt Lake Tribune. Courtesy of Utah Digital Newspapers.

Goodwin’s primary strategy during the trial amounted to character assassination, evoking stereotypes of Chinese workers that were present in dialogue surrounding the “Chinese Question”, a 19th century term related to the ban on virtually all Chinese immigration (and their forced deportation). The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act codified many American’s view that the Chinese were a growing menace to society. With each Chinese witness Goodwin questioned he highlighted their involvement in gambling or drug use, taking multiple stabs at their character. It seems to have worked, as after multiple court appearances for differing charges, Yee Yen was declared innocent of grand larceny, and when he appeared in court shortly after to answer to his embezzlement charges, the prosecution motioned to dismiss all charges due to lack of evidence.

After the Trial

History does not capture whether or not Yee Yen stayed in Salt Lake City after his release. Wing Chong Lun & Co, who were still dealing with the fallout of Yee’s embezzled bank funds, certainly did not offer him his job back. It is possible that he moved to another Chinatown in the United States, or he may have returned to China to be reunited with his family. Yee’s life outside of his court case was never recorded, as Salt Lakers fascination with him stopped short of caring about him as an individual. The modern historian is left with many unanswered questions about his life.

While Yee’s story sheds light on Plum Alley and the experience of Chinese residents of Salt Lake City, perhaps it actually tells us more about non-Chinese American perspectives and views of the period than anything we can glean about Yee’s life or others in Plum Alley. It should help us consider how we handle the ‘others’ in our community and the biases and social constructions through which we view their complex and personal lives.

We want to know: had you ever heard of Yee Yen before? What do you know of the history of Salt Lake City’s Chinese-American residents, or Plum Alley? Find us on social media and let us know!