Overlooked No More: Yamei Kin, the Chinese Doctor Who Introduced Tofu to the West


Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. With Overlooked, we’re adding the stories of remarkable people whose deaths went unreported in The Times.

In 1917 Yamei Kin, a Chinese-born doctor then living in New York, visited her homeland to study a crop that was virtually unknown to Americans: the soybean.

By that point she had become something of a celebrity dietitian. For years before the mission to China she had been telling women’s clubs that tofu and other soy products were nutritious alternatives to meat, and that they required fewer resources to produce. She liked to say that they tasted “a little like brains and a little like sweetbreads.”

“She was many decades ahead of her time in terms of promoting tofu to a wider American audience,” said Matthew Roth, the author of the book “Magic Bean: The Rise of Soy in America (2018).

It was the United States Department of Agriculture that approached Kin about going to China to study how the soybean could be used in America. The government saw her research as part of a wider effort to develop new sources of protein for American soldiers during World War I.

Kin had a laboratory at the U.S.D.A., where she tested what the department called “Chinese soybean cheese,” and she presented soybean seeds to the department’s Bureau of Plant Industry. In addition, Roth said, some of her recipes were very likely included in “The Soybean,” a landmark study published in 1910 by William J. Morse and Charles V. Piper, officials at the Agriculture Department.

“Americans do not know how to use the soybean,” Kin, then in her early 50s, told The New York Times Magazine in 1917, as she set out for China on her mission. “It must be made attractive or they will not take to it. It must taste good. That can be done.”

An article in 1918 in The San Antonio Light offered this description of her lab:

“On a long table was a row of glass jars filled with what looked like slices of white cheese. It was soy bean cheese. A jar was filled with a brownish paste. It was soy beans. There were bottles filled with the condiment we get with chop suey. That, too, was made from soy beans. Talk about dual personalities! The soy bean has so many aliases that if you shouldn’t like it in one form you would be pretty sure to like it in another.”

In essays and correspondence at the time, U.S.D.A. colleagues expressed glowing praise for Kin’s work.

“Very interesting,” Frank N. Meyer, a department botanist, wrote in 1911 in response to one of her letters. “There probably will come a time that soy beans are also given a nobler use in the United States than mere forage or green manure.”

The Times Magazine noted that Kin’s research mission was the first time the United States had “given so much authority to a Chinese.”

Kin did not live to see the soybean become popular in American society, and historians say the precise impact of her tofu advocacy in the United States is hard to measure. But she was apparently the first person in the federal government to promote the bean outside Asian immigrant communities — cultural eons before veggie burgers and soy lattes were fashionable.

Kin’s U.S.D.A. assignment was just one chapter in a lifetime of professional trailblazing. Historians say she was among the first female students in China’s modern history to study overseas and earn a medical degree in the United States. Later, when she moved back to China, she ran a women’s hospital, founded a nursing school and reportedly served as the family physician to a president of the young republic.

Kin’s career is remarkable partly because it unfolded against the backdrop of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which had effectively banned any immigration from China, and of the political turmoil in China surrounding the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912.

“That she shows up in so many places doing so many different things is very resonant,” said Madeline Y. Hsu, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin who studies migration between China and the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “It’s a really, really transnational story,” she added.

Yamei Kin was born in 1864 in the eastern Chinese city of Ningpo, now called Ningbo, to a Chinese pastor and his wife, according to the SoyInfo Center in California.

When Kin was 2, her parents died of cholera during an epidemic, and she was adopted by an American missionary couple, Divie Bethune and Juana McCartee. She was raised in China and Japan, where her adoptive father worked for the Education Ministry.

After her parents moved to New York, Kin went to high school for a year in Rye, N.Y. At 16, she enrolled in the Women’s Medical College of New York under the name Y. May King, according to Roth’s book.

Researchers believe she had altered her name to hide her ethnicity; she had been frequently reminded that she was one of few Chinese women studying in the United States at the time.

“Workmen in the street would often hurl abuse at me, and even my fellow woman students were not particularly enthusiastic about me,” she was quoted as saying in “My Sister China” (2002), a memoir by Jaroslav Prusek, a Czech Sinologist who knew Kin in the 1930s.

She graduated from the medical college in 1885 at the top of her class and published an article two years later in The New York Medical Journal that extolled the virtues of “photomicrography,” or photography through microscopes, for medical research.

During the 1880s and ’90s Kin worked as a medical missionary in China and Japan. She married Hippolytus Laesola Amador Eça da Silva, a Macau-born musician of Portuguese and Spanish descent, in 1894.

The couple settled in Hawaii, where Kin gave birth to a son. She later moved to California and separated from her husband.

By 1903, Kin was traveling across the United States to lecture to women’s clubs about Chinese nutrition and other “things oriental,” including the opium crisis in China and the role of women there.

Her profile was growing in the United States even as Chinese immigrants there were protesting the Chinese Exclusion Act, the country’s first anti-immigrant law directed at a specific nationality.

She was part of a “transnational elite” and would have been exempt from the law, which targeted laborers, said Mae M. Ngai, a history professor at Columbia University and the author of “The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America.”

In one sign of her elite status, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Kin in 1904 to express regret that he did not have the power to make her an American citizen. She was permitted to stay nonetheless.

In 1907, Kin began running the Imperial Peiyang Women’s Medical School and Hospital in the northern Chinese city Tientsin, now called Tianjin.

She later founded a nursing school in the city with funding from Yuan Shikai, a Qing dynasty official who would become president of the new Chinese republic after the 1911 revolution, said Zhou Zhuitian, a historian in Tianjin. Prusek wrote in his book that she also served as the physician for Yuan’s family.

“She is the founder of nursing education in China — the pioneer, the trailblazer,” said Qian Gang, a Hong Kong-based historian.

Kin returned to China for good in 1920, two years after her son, Alexander, died while fighting for the United States in France in the waning weeks of World War I.

She died in 1934 at the age of 70, leaving no survivors. The cause was pneumonia.

At her request, she was buried on a farm outside Beijing.

“Here my dust will blend with soil,” she told Prusek, “and after the pile of clay they will place upon my grave has crumbled as well, I will become a field, a fertile field.”

The land has since been swallowed by the city’s urban sprawl.

Echo Hui contributed research from Beijing.



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