Mom: a cross-dressing Chinese American lesbian doctor who fought racism and sexism and loved the impoverished, China’s neediest, Sophie Tucker, and the 1500 WWII Servicemen naming her “Mom.”
Born in Santa Barbara, California, to a mother trafficked to the U.S. from China at the age of five, Ms. Chung had great ambition and a work ethic to match. A waitress at age 12, she went on to sell the most subscriptions in a Los Angeles Times contest. The Times then provided a scholarship to USC. She met living expenses by selling surgical instruments and winning cash prizes in essay contests. She also began wearing male clothing and going by the name “Mike.”
She graduated from med school in 1916, becoming the U.S.’s “first Chinese American girl” to do so according to “The Chinese American Doctor Who Raised Hell — and 1,500 WW2 Servicemen.” Yet she could neither work as a missionary doctor — her heart’s desire, but open only to white males — nor find internships locally. She went to Chicago, working at the Mary Thompson’s Women and Children Hospital, and eventually becoming the State Criminologist for Illinois.
She turned to L.A. in 1919, working as a surgeon in the Santa Fe Railroad Hospital, treating victims of industrial accidents. (Chillingly, unable to find a hospital that treated Chinese, her father bled to death in 1917 after an L.A. car accident.)
Mike moved to San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1922, where she wanted to establish radical community health care, (providing Western systemic medicine, including birth control, hygiene, diet, and simple procedures).
But this young, unmarried, cross-dressing girl with reports of bad behavior while frequenting North Shore bars? She made little headway — until she saved the life of a prominent businesswoman.
Upon her recovery, women and children who would never have gone to a male doctor began flooding Mom’s office. They joined the ranks of white people who believed Mom was “a sister” and performers such as Helen Hayes, Tallulah Bankhead and Sophie Tucker.
In fact, Sophie began spending lots of time at Mom’s house, even reporting that she wrote her memoir, Some One of These Days, there.
But as Japan began its assault of China in 1937, U.S. sympathy for the Chinese began to grow. Plenty of U.S. servicemen wanted to fight a clear and present danger. Several stories exist of how Ms. Chung became “Mom.” One is that U.S. Navy Reserves Ensign Steve Bancroft approached her to see if she could provide influence to get him and some buddies commissions in the Chinese military. She had none, but she began hosting him and some buds at her place for dinners, eventually going on hunting and camping trips together.
She volunteered as a front-line surgeon but was asked to secretly recruit pilots for what became the acclaimed “Flying Tigers.”
She co-founded “Rice Bowl Parties”: fundraising festivals held in hundreds of cities to raise $235,000 — the equivalent of $3.5M today — to send to aid China.
Mom also pressured the Navy to create WAVES — Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service — which was established in 1942. She pressed repeatedly to either lead or work with the WAVES. But it became clear that her “dubious” personal life meant she would never have government work.
After the War, she helped vets find work. She eventually retired, spending time visiting her boys, driving sports cars, and “first nighting,” often accompanied by her beloved parakeet “Beauty,” sitting in the ermine-wrapped cage matching Mom’s ermine-wrapped shoulder.