Green-wood Cemetery is one of the most beautiful spots in Brooklyn; it’s also the final resting place of many celebrities of the past, including some who have almost completely been forgotten today. One such person is George Kin Leung (梁社乾), whose cremated remains occupy a niche in the Green-wood Columbarium. A native of Atlantic City, New Jersey, Leung died in relative obscurity in Manhattan, but he had not always been so obscure.
Before World War II, the ferocious, institutionalized racism that people of color experienced in the United States prompted many young Chinese Americans to seek opportunities in their parents’ homeland. George Kin Leung was one such young man. After graduating from Atlantic City High School in 1918, Leung briefly attended the University of Pennsylvania’s dental school before immersing himself in New York’s theater world. But by 1921, he set sail for China with his half brother Edward and his niece Mae. The three planned to study Chinese and, most likely, to eventually seek work in one of China’s coastal cities. Upon arriving in Guangzhou (Canton) in early 1922, Edward and probably Mae attended feeder schools of Canton Christian College (later Lingnan University), while George apparently studied Chinese language and culture on his own.
Leung made quick progress. By 1925, he began translating Chinese literature into English, publishing the popular The Lone Swan, an autobiography of a Buddhist monk. Leung then produced the first English version of a far more significant work: Lu Xun’s The True Story of Ah Q, one of the most famous and important pieces of modern Chinese fiction.
By 1928, Shanghai’s China Press was referring to Leung as “the well-known Chinese dramatic critic,” for he was gaining considerable fame in China not only as a translator but also as an expert on the country’s opera, theater, and literature. Leung earned particular renown for explaining China and its performing arts to English-speaking foreigners. His essays appeared in most of Shanghai’s English-language newspapers, from the China Press to the North China Herald, and he routinely gave talks on Chinese theater to groups such as the Pan-Pacific Forum and the American Women’s Club. His book on Mei Lanfang, the Beijing opera superstar, also came out just as Mei toured the United States for the first time.
Leung also taught for a year or two at Hangzhou University but spent much of the 1920s moving around China studying drama. By the 1930s, however, he was comfortably ensconced in Beijing, the gracious and faded imperial capital that the ruling Nationalists had abandoned in favor of Nanjing.
The Japanese invasion and occupation that began in mid-1937 ended Leung’s golden age in China. By October, he was on a boat to San Francisco, having received an invitation to wait out the war with an endowed lectureship at Yale. The position lasted only a year, while the war dragged on far longer and eventually involved the United States. After Pearl Harbor, Leung volunteered for the Army despite being in his 40s. He served until 1944 but never returned to the land where he had built such a splendid career. The civil war and the Chinese Communist victory closed off that possibility.
Like many of the Chinese Americans who moved to China before the Japanese invasion, George Kin Leung found far fewer opportunities in the postwar United States than he had enjoyed in prewar China. For a time, he taught Chinese at Yale and gave lectures about Chinese culture in New York and Washington, DC. By the late 1950s, he was living on Rivington Street and working as a court translator. He also performed occassionally as a Chinese folk musician and singer.
Although public interest in China surged after President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing, the man who had introduced the greatest work of modern Chinese literature to the English-speaking world remained a forgotten man. George Kin Leung died in Manhattan in 1977, and his passing received no attention from the press.
Sources for this post include: China Weekly Review, China Press, North China Herald, immigration records and consular records at the National Archives, Ancestry.com, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New York Herald Tribune, Baorong Wang, “George Kin Leung’s English Translation of Lu Xun’s A Q Zhengzhuan,” Archiv Orientalni 85 (2017), and Richard Chan Bing.