This sepia-toned photograph, taken more than a century ago, portrays a group of students on the final day of the third annual Midwest Conference of the Chinese Students’ Alliance.
The very next day would be momentous for one of the young men in the photo, Tiam H. Franking (seated center) — it would be the day of his marriage to fellow U-M student Mae Watkins. Their interracial union quickly became a local scandal and tragically ended six years later.
The first Chinese student ever to enroll in U-M’s Law School, Franking had immigrated to Ann Arbor with his family as a child from Amoy (now Xiamen), China. While attending Ann Arbor High School (now Pioneer High School), the 19-year-old met Watkins, a 17-year-old Scotch-Irish girl. Though he transferred to Grand Rapids High School for his senior year, when he returned to Ann Arbor to attend law school, he reunited with Watkins, who was studying Latin and German at U-M.
Following their wedding on Sept. 8, 1912, stories with racist overtones appeared in the Ann Arbor Times, Grand Rapids Herald, and Detroit Free Press, with varying claims surrounding her family’s position on the marriage: her family gave their blessing; her family condemned their union. An Ann Arbor Times column reasoned that “However happy the couple, just married in Ann Arbor may be, in years to come … their union has probably complicated the problem of receiving and retaining foreign students at the university.” It warned that parents “may hesitate to send their daughter to an institution which is likely to provide the young woman an Oriental husband as well as an education.”
In a letter to the Ann Arbor Times dated Sept. 15, 1912, Franking accused the paper of publishing malicious, inaccurate information. “From the very first day I knew the family, I never had received a word or an act of unpleasant feeling.” In the letter, he shared his address and offered the paper an interview along with his wishes for good relations between the U.S. and China.
In the end, the controversy was too much for the couple, who both withdrew from U-M. They moved to Detroit, where Franking worked as a waiter while attending the Detroit College of Law. He earned his law degree in 1913. The Marital Expatriation Act of 1907 — which mandated that women should hold only the citizenship of their husbands — ended up stripping Watkins of her American citizenship, forcing the couple to move to Shanghai. In 1918, they were able to return to the U.S. and set up home in San Francisco.
That same year, Franking died in the flu pandemic. In 1920, The American Magazine on the Orient published Mae Franking’s memoir, “My Chinese Marriage,” as a four-part series. Later, Duffield and Company published the book.
Following Mae’s death in 1926 from tuberculosis, the couple’s children traveled to Ann Arbor, where Mae’s parents raised them. Their daughter Cecile met her husband, William Q. Wu, ’34, MD’39, while attending U-M; she earned her degree in 1939. They went on to have two sons who also became Wolverines: William Franking Wu, ’73, MA’76, PhD’79, and Chris Wu, JD’84.
The family had come full circle and realized the dream that had escaped Tiam and Mae so many years earlier — earning a degree from the University of Michigan.
Gregory Lucas-Myers, ’10, is senior assistant editor of Michigan Alumnus.