Finding the Facts Behind the Historical Fiction
Ms. Austin's Fourth Grade Class
WHO were the real people who inspired this story? Let's find out.
Were the characters in Forbidden Friendship real?
No. We learned from local historians that the main characters in the book, Chen Li, Molly Bartlett, Johnny Sing, and Mr. Bartlett and Mr. Chase were not real people but were all based on real life people who lived in North Adams, Massachusetts during the 1870s. Through research, using primary and secondary sources, we learned the story of the these real people and found that their factual stories were more interesting than the fictionalized stories.
Was Chen Li based on a real person?
The fictional character Chen Li's life in North Adams was like many of the first Chinese immigrants that came to North Adams. While this character was not real we found a lot of very interesting information on one of the real Chinese immigrants, who would have been about the same age as Chen Li, an immigrant who went on to change the course of both local and national history - Lue Gim Gong.
Lue Gim Gong. (呂金功) was born in the small village of Lung On, near Canton, China sometime in the mid 19th century. We have seen no sources on his birth date. His parents were farmers in China, growing vegetables and citrus fruit. When Lue was about twelve years old an uncle returned from California in the Untied States and spoke about the "Golden Mountain" and all the wonderful opportunities in America. Lue begged his parents to let him go to San Francisco, California with his uncle to work. It was agreed that he could go and would send his money back to his family in China. At this time there were a lot of poor farmers in China and not enough land for all Chinese sons. In the spring of 1872 he sailed on a sampan, which is a small Chinese boat, to Hong Kong, where he boarded a steamship, staying in steerage for his two month long trip across the Pacific Ocean.
When he arrived in San Francisco he lived in what was called a Chinatown, so he was with others that spoke his language and ate familiar foods. He work for a short time in a shoe factory. When he was around sixteen he read a poster about a job opportunity as a shoe factory worker in North Adams, Massachusetts. Along with about . A few years earlier 74 other Chinese men had traveled by train across the country arriving in North Adams on June 13, 1870. The Chinese had been brought to North Adams to break a strike at the Sampson Shoe Factory.
In an attempt to convert the Chinese to Christianity, many local people from North Adams churches spend their Sunday afternoons teaching the Chinese basic English and Bible stories, Lue being one of them. It was during these lessons that Lue Gim Gong met Fannie Burlingame, a middle-aged woman, whose family was well respected in North Adams. They soon became good friends and continue their relationship for the rest of their lives. Fannie was successful at teaching Lue English and converting him to Christianity. In the book, Forbidden Friendship, Chen Li and Molly were close in age, but in real life Lue Gim Gong was around sixteen and Fannie was near forty.
After ten years all of the Chinese who came to work in the shoe factories of North Adams either returned home or moved into bigger cities. It is believed that some of the original Chinese in North Adams moved to Boston, and helped to start what became known as Chinatown. A few Chinese men remained in North Adams and Lue Gim Gong was one of them. He lived with the Burlingame family as their servant/gardener, where he returned to his first love - plants. In greenhouses in North Adams, and later, in the Burlingame summer home of Deland, Florida, Lue worked to develop new pollination techniques for fruits and flowers.
Lue returned to his family in China for a short time but because of his new religious beliefs he would not marry the woman his parents had arranged for him. He soon left China in disgrace and returned to the Burlingame's home. Because of poor health, both Fanny and Lue Gim Gong soon moved permanently to Deland, Florida.
In Florida, by watching bees pollinate flowers, he learned to develop new types of citrus fruit, mainly oranges. He eventually developed grapefruit and oranges that were tolerant of the frost, changing the Florida citrus industry forever. Lue Gim Gong became known as Florida's "Citrus Wizard." Although he worked the rest of his life making improvements that benefited the citrus industry, he never received any money for his work. In 1903, when "Mother Fanny" died Lue was left penniless and was at the mercy of the Burlingame family and local neighbors. Lue not only suffered from poverty but experienced racism, and he became more and more isolate - turning to his plants and farm animals for companionship. His closest friend was his rooster, named March, who would ride on Lue's shoulder.
In 1911 Lue received the Silver Wilder Medal for his contributions to the world of plant breeding, the first of its kind for a citrus fruit. In his later years, Lue grew feeble and needed a cane to walk. Some of his neighbors and supporters came to his rescue and helped him out financially during this time. On June 1, 1925 Lue Gim Gong died in a DeLand hospital and was buried in a cemetery outside of town. The people in the town made a "death mask" of his face, which was a popular thing to do at the time. Years later he was honored at two different World's Fairs in 1933 and 1939 with citrus exhibits. Today, in DeLand there is a mural depicting Lue Gim Gong and the important contribution he made to the Florida citrus industry. We could not believe that a young Chinese immigrant to come to North Adams in 1870 and have such an impact on the rest of the world. Today Florida supplies citrus fruit to the rest of the world - thanks to Lue Gim Gong.
While the character of Molly Bartlett is fictional our research did find that there was somewhat of a "forbidden friendship" between Lue Gim Gong and a resident of North Adams named Miss Frances Burlingame. Known as Miss Fanny to those who knew her, she was one of three daughters of a fairly well off North Adams' businessman- Salmon Burlingame. Miss Fanny was well educated and would tutor students who were preparing to go to local colleges, such as Williams College, which was just a few miles up the road from her house. Because Lue Gim Gong was such an exceptional learner Miss Fanny took him on as a student. They shared many of the same interests, especially gardening, and they soon became friends. Eventually Lue Gim Gong moved into the Burlingame household. Some considered him a servant to the Burlingames, and others describe him as more of an "adopted" family member. Either way, he spent the rest of his time in North Adams at the Burlingame house, tending to their gardens and working in their greenhouses and orchards. Over the years both Miss Fanny's and Lue Gim Gong's health failed and they finally decided to more to a warmer climate in Deland, Florida. Miss Fanny devoted her life to Lue Gim Gong, and helped him travel to China and back to visit his family. They eventually settled in Deland, Florida. Fanny Burlingame died in 1903 having spent over thirty years with Lue Gim Gong. She treated him as an adoptive member of her family. Lue was heartbroken when she passed away. After her death there was a dispute over what Miss Fanny would have wanted for Lue Gim Gong and he ended up spending the rest of his days on the family property in Florida, although he needed the support of friends and neighbors to survive.
In the book Forbidden Friendship, Molly Bartlett's father owned the Bartlett Shoe factory where Chen Li worked. In real life the shoe factory owner that brought in Chinese laborers to bust the strike was the Sampson Shoe Factory, owned by Calvin T. Sampson. Sampson was a self made man,