The eldest of 11 children, Margaret Chung was forced to support the family by the age of 10 when her parents became invalids. She first drove a horse-drawn freight wagon in Los Angeles and then, as a seventh grader, worked 12-hour days in a Chinese restaurant. She put herself through college and medical school at USC by winning scholarships, selling medical supplies, and lecturing on China. The only woman and non-white student in her med school class, she adopted strategies like dressing in masculine clothing and going by the name Mike to get by.
At a time when some Chinese parents still sold daughters into domestic service or prostitution, Chung went on to graduate in 1916, becoming the first Chinese American female physician in the United States. Her applications for medical internships were rejected because of her race, so she worked as a scrub nurse in Los Angeles’ Santa Fe Railroad Hospital. She finally found an internship at the Mary Thompson Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Chicago, then served her residency in psychiatry at the Kankakee State Hospital for the Insane; she was eventually appointed Illinois’ state criminologist.
When her father died in 1918, Chung returned to Los Angeles and the Santa Fe Railroad Hospital, where she accepted a position as a surgeon, specializing in performing delicate plastic surgery on patients who experienced serious industrial accidents. She also started a private practice, where actress Mary Pickford became one of her first celebrity clients. Being in Southern California just as Hollywood and America’s film industry took off, Dr. Margaret Chung became known as the physician to the stars.
In 1923, Chung moved to San Francisco to open one of the first Western medicine clinics in Chinatown, with a special focus on helping Chinese women. She was the first American doctor in the neighborhood and the first woman to practice modern medicine there. Most Chinatown residents were skeptical of Western medicine, preferring traditional herbal treatments, so they treated Chung as an outsider. That changed when she saved the life of a critically ill waitress who was serving her in a restaurant.
Chung achieved fame during the 1930s and 40s for her patriotic activities on behalf of China and the United States. Known as “Mom Chung,” she “adopted” over a thousand U.S. troops – dubbed the “Fair-Haired Bastards” – who pledged their fealty for her commitment to their well-being. She personally sent them all care packages. Her pilots each received a jade Buddha to wear around his neck. That way, wherever they were in the world, they could recognize each other as a one of Mom Chung’s.
Dr. Chung volunteered to serve as a front-line surgeon during the Sino-Japanese War. Instead, she was asked to secretly recruit pilots for a unit that would become famous as the “Flying Tigers.” These squadrons of American pilots from the Marines, Air Corps, and Navy flew under Chinese colors. By the end of WWII, Chung’s surrogate family had swelled to more than 1500.
Renowned for her hospitality and generosity, Chung hosted weekly Sunday suppers in her home in San Francisco where regular soldiers mingled with the likes of John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Tennessee Williams, Helen Hayes, and Tallulah Bankhead, along with politicians, and the military’s top brass – all bound to each other through their mutual affection for Chung and their common dedication to the Allied Cause. She had a standing “rule” governing the dinners she hosted at her home for Army and Navy men: “the highest ranking person does the dishes”.
Chung used her considerable war-time celebrity to lobby for the creation of the WAVES – the U.S. women’s naval reserve – but was never given public credit for the achievement nor was she permitted to join the WAVES. Described as a serious, commanding, almost regal person, Chung nevertheless had a bawdy sense of humor. Reinventing herself at will, she routinely flouted convention by adopting both hyper-masculine and Hollywood glamour personas, while also managing to guard her privacy.
A larger-than-life personality to the end, when Margaret Chung died in 1959 her pallbearers included Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, famed conductor Andre Kostelanetz and San Francisco Mayor George Christopher. Few civilian patriots have ever again achieved the level of celebrity and influence that was accorded to Dr. Margaret Chung.