February 03, 2011

Feb 3 – Eugene Chen: Lawyer, Statesman and Revolutionary

Eugene Chen
Today marks the start of Chinese New Year: The Year of the Rabbit. In honor of this holiday, today’s profile is of Eugene Chen, born in Trinidad, 133 years ago, of African-Chinese-Spanish parentage.

Born Eugene Barnard Acham (he later took on the name of Chen), to immigrant shopkeepers, he was educated at St. Mary’s College, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. In 1893, he was admitted to the London Bar Association and subsequently, built a large law practice in Trinidad, with many Chinese and Indian clients.

After being admitted to the Bar, Eugene married the love of his life, Agatha Alphonsin Ganteaume, in 1899 – despite the ‘ironic’ objections of his family. Agatha was the Creole daughter of a French, naval Admiral, who had fled to The West Indies from France, as a supporter of Napoleon. By accounts, Agatha was fun and mischievous and terrorized the nuns at St. Joseph’s Convent, where she attended school. Eugene and Agatha had four children, Percy, Sylvia, Yolanda and Jack. All of their children were accomplished, including Sylvia, who was a star in the New York City Ballet Company and once engaged to Harlem Renaissance, African-American poet, Langston Hughes.

Agatha Alphonsin Ganteaume Chen (Acham)

Chen children in Moscow, with Russian friends
Eugene was able to amass a small fortune from his law practice and a cocoa plantation, which he owned in Manzanilla; but he managed to get himself into serious, financial difficulty; and in 1912, fled to Peking, China to become a legal adviser to the Ministry of Communications – initially leaving his family behind. 1912 also marked the one-year anniversary of the revolution to overthrow the last Imperial Qing Dynasty, led by Dr. Sun Yat Sen – resulting in the creation of the Chinese National People’s Party (a.k.a.  Kuomingtang).

Once in China, Eugene started three major newspapers, over several years, The Peking Gazette, The Shanghai Gazette and People’s Tribune; and eventually became Sun Yat Sen's legal adviser and his Foreign Minister, until the latter’s death in 1925. From 1926-34, Eugene served as the Foreign Minister for three, different Chinese governments.  In the early 1920s, Eugene led a boycott against British commercial interests, which eventually resulted in Britain conceding and signing The Chen-O’Malley Agreement, allowing for Hong Kong to be finally returned to China, in 1997. Chen was often arrested and jailed for his newspapers’ denouncement of the German, French and British control over China. However, ironically, because he was a British citizen, he was always released.

Chinese Delegation to First League of Nations Meeting, Geneva, 1920
Eugene Chen is front row, second from the right

Time Magazine called Eugene Chen, “The brains of the Chinese Revolution."  Some say that “he blended Marxism, Confucianism and Communism to support his personal agenda for China.”  Eugene also spent years working closely with Russian agents to strengthen the Chinese Communist Party. He was exiled to Hong Kong by political rivals in the 1930s, but was able to return to China several years later, before his death.

Eugene Chen died in China in 1944, ‘under mysterious circumstances’, never having learned to fluently speak Chinese and never having returned to Trinidad. He saw his family sporadically, when time permitted, who had moved from Trinidad, to the UK, China, Russia and pre-War Germany. He married a second time, in the 1930s after Agatha’s death a few years earlier; and he is buried at The Mountain of Eight Treasures Revolutionary Martyr Cemetery in Beijing.

Eugene Chen's Gravestone

Sources: Suite101, BNET, MarcusGarvey.com, Yuan Tsung Chen



    1. Proud to read it. As a Trinidadian i never knew of him; why history like this isn't taught in our Schools here.

  2. wow...a trini...dey have so much to offer...