The Long Blue Line: Chiaio-shung Soong – Cutterman and powerful Chinese patriarch

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Written by William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area historian

In early 1879, Soong signed on to the revenue cutter Albert Gallatin in Boston and served on board for over a year. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

In early 1879, Soong signed on to the revenue cutter Albert Gallatin in Boston and served on board for over a year. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Chiaio-shung Soong (a.k.a. Charles Jones Soong) is the most famous individual of Chinese ancestry to serve in the United States Coast Guard. However, his fame is little known in the U.S. compared to his celebrity in the Far East. Soong led an extraordinary life and, as a young teen, he began a journey that would lead him from his home in China around the globe to the United States, where he became a Coast Guardsman. In the span of just a few years, he would return to his homeland to become one of the most influential men in late 19th-century China.

Soong was born in 1863, on Hainan Island, the southernmost province of modern China. His family had been itinerant maritime traders along the coasts of China and Southeast Asia. In the late 1870s, he traveled to the United States to join an uncle who ran a shop in Boston. Soong was an ambitious young man and grew bored with life as a shopkeeper, so after working a year for his uncle he decided to try something new. In January 1879, at the age of sixteen, he traveled onboard the revenue cutter Albert Gallatin moored at the Boston docks.

Portrait image of Chiao-shung Soong in civilian attire, photographed in 1880 at Wilmington’s 5th Street Methodist Church. Photo courtesy of the 5th Street Methodist Church.

Portrait image of Chiao-shung Soong in civilian attire, photographed in 1880 at Wilmington’s 5th Street Methodist Church. Photo courtesy of the 5th Street Methodist Church.

Cutter captain Eric Gabrielson commanded the square-rigged steam cutter Gallatin. It was Soong’s great fortune to meet Gabrielson. Before becoming a Revenue Cutter Service officer, Gabrielson had emigrated from Norway and distinguished himself in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was a reserved religious man who had spent most of his life on the sea. Under his command, Gallatin sailed out of Boston patrolling the coastal waters between southern Massachusetts and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In 1884, he would receive national acclaim for rescuing survivors of the City of Columbus, when the passenger steamer went ashore at Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard Island.

Capt. Gabrielson signed on Soong at the enlisted rate of ship’s boy. Seemingly insignificant at the time, this event would drastically alter Soong’s life and influenced the course of Chinese history. The cutterman admired Soong’s ambition and resourcefulness and the two struck up a strong kinship. Soong served under Gabrielson for over a year on board Gallatin. During this time, the cutter aided many vessels in peril in the stormy seas off Massachusetts. In the March gale of 1879 alone, Gallatin went to the rescue of five distressed vessels. Under Gabrielson’s skilled leadership and direction, the cutter never lost a soul in all of her heavy-weather rescue operations.

In 1880, the Service transferred Capt. Gabrielson to the command of Cutter Schuyler Colfax, homeported in Wilmington, North Carolina. Soong followed Gabrielson, receiving a discharge from the Gallatin then re-enlisting with Gabrielson on board the Colfax in July 1880. Soong attended Wilmington’s 5th Street Methodist Church with Gabrielson and converted to Christianity there in November, likely becoming the first ethnically Asian individual baptized in North Carolina. It was at this time that he adopted the Anglicized name of Charles Jones Soong and began studying religion under the church’s minister.

Soong met and befriended many church members in Wilmington. They were impressed by his intelligence and ambition and supported him in his determination to pursue religious studies. Captain Gabrielson arranged Soong’s discharge from the Service in 1881 to attend North Carolina’s Trinity College, now known as Duke University. At this time, he also met tobacco and textile magnate Julian Carr, who became a close friend and associate and supported Soong financially throughout their life-long relationship.

By 1882, Soong began his studies, becoming the first international student at Duke. After completing his studies at Duke, Soong undertook studies at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, where he earned a degree in theology in 1885. In 1886, at the age of twenty, Soong returned to China as a missionary. He settled in Shanghai and, with the support of Carr, he began a bible-publishing business, which grew into other profitable business lines. With Carr’s help, Soong became an important businessman and power broker in China. He also married and started a family, raising six children and sending each of them overseas for a college education.

Soong followed Captain Gabrielson to his next assignment, the revenue cutter Schuyler Colfax, home-ported in Wilmington, North Carolina. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Soong followed Captain Gabrielson to his next assignment, the revenue cutter Schuyler Colfax, home-ported in Wilmington, North Carolina. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Soong’s offspring figured prominently in the political and economic development of modern China. His daughter Ching-ling Soong married Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, founder and first leader of the Chinese Republic and she later gained renown as “mother of the nation” in the People’s Republic of China. Daughter Mei-Ling Soong married Nationalist Chinese leader Generalissimo Chaing Kai-Shek, who ruled over China from 1928 until 1948. In 1949, the communist takeover under Mao Zedong forced Chaing to retreat to the island of Taiwan, where he ruled until his death in 1975. Ai-Ling Soong married Dr. H.H. Kung, one-time finance minister of China and a descendant of Confucius. Soong’s three sons became some of the richest men in the world, including Tse-ven Soong, who founded the Bank of China and became a world financial leader. Soong’s son Tse-liang Soong became a director of the World Bank and son Tse-an Soong became a director of the influential China Development Corporation.

Soong was a unique individual. Probably the first ethnically Asian Coast Guardsman to serve on the East Coast, Soong’s ambition and determination led him that January day in 1879 to sign-on to a revenue cutter. He became a member of the long blue line and it changed his life forever. The experience not only changed his life but also altered the course of modern Chinese history.

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