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Russell N. Low

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Russell N. Low

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Russell Low is a physician with a passion for discovery and storytelling. His discoveries in the medical field have changed the way that his colleagues world-wide practice medicine and image disease. Discovery of his own roots began 30 years ago through the stories of his parents and their siblings. Growing up in Central California, more American than Chinese, his connection to Chinese culture and history was limited and incomplete. Discovering the 1903 Hong family photograph among the belongings of 100-year-old great Uncle Kim sparked a decades-long search for the stories behind the photograph. These are the stories presented in Three Coins. In his searches, Russell came across a 130-year-old newspaper notice titled “Villainous-looking Chinese after a Chinese Girl.” In the article, he recognized his great-grandparents’ names, but the romantic drama it uncovered shook the core of his family’s belief in who they are and how they came to be Americans. Russell frequently lectures on Chinese-American history, and his family’s story has been featured on the History Channel, National Public Radio, Public Radio International, the Voice of America, the California State Railroad Museum, and the Smithsonian Museum of American History.


Russell lives with his wife Carolyn Hesse-Low, an avid and well-known plein air artist, in La Jolla, California where they raised their two sons Ryan and Robert.

Photography by Ken Fong

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April 11, 2019

Three Coins tells the true story of Ah Ying, who in 1880 was kidnapped and brought to America as a 9-year-old child slave. With her friend Sue Lee she survives, and takes control of her life. Her indomitable spirit takes her from one trial to the next as she is rescued, elopes, and is kidnapped yet again in her search for freedom and true love on the streets of San Francisco's Chinatown.​

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“Congratulations! What a fascinating story. It is one of the many untold stories of women who endured and built the foundation of Chinese American families that continue to be the fabric of American Society. Three Coins is one of the few books that actually is from the point of view of the woman rescued and how she managed to take control of her life--not a story from the rescuer's perspective. One chapter flows into the next as the author weaves the stories into a historical context. Great job!”

Doreen Der-McLeod
Executive Director Cameron House 2001-2009

“A wonderful story! The author has a very clever way of weaving together historical facts and fiction. I love the way he takes an old photo and makes it come alive within the story. I found some parts, like Ah Ying’s escape from the tong men and the family's experience after the earthquake and fire of '06, really gripping! Reading Three Coins was very enjoyable. Good job!”

Gregory Ng Kim
Researcher of Chinese American History & Genealogist

"Ah Ying is a woman after my own heart. She is feisty and smart. Definitely got a mind of her own. And once she decides what she wants, she goes for it. She’s so different from the stereotypical docile, filial Chinese daughter. What a good read!"

Sue Lee
Executive Director Chinese Historical Society of America 2004-2017

"Russell N. Low’s book, Three Coins, highlights the resilience, determination, courage, and stubbornness of his great-grandmother, Ah Ying, who was sold by her family and brought to America as a nine-year-old Chinese slave for a family in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Ah Ying’s story begins in September 1880 when her mother gives her three coins to toss into the ocean to protect her on her journey. Ah Ying’s life in Chinatown reflects the early history of human trafficking to this country and U.S. and California legislation that outlawed Chinese immigration from 1875 to 1943. Her story includes kidnappings, the Presbyterian Mission Home, rescues, romance, marriage, children, a devastating earthquake, and the resultant racial division between the Chinese and White San Franciscans that “once again became evident, as the effects of the great equalizer quickly faded.” 

Anne Hoiberg
Author, Activist, Educator

Women's Museum of California Hall of Fame

"I find no words to express my gratitude to you for sharing your story! Indeed, the story of "Three Coins" resonates with me deeply, and in many ways, I felt celebrated by your story! You gave me hope and a strong belief that my fight for a better life has a lasting ripple effect on many generations to come!


I will never forget your Great grandmother, Ah Ying, as long as I live. You are a gift! And thank you for celebrating women and their resilience in a world that seemingly wants our silencing!"

Dr. Tererai Trent
Author, Scholar, Speaker, & Humanitarian

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Meet the stars of Three Coins

Discovery of this 1903 photograph in the belongings of 100-year-old great uncle Kim (right) led to a decades long search for the stories behind the photograph. Shown are the parents, Ah Ying and Lai Wah, with Chun Ngo, Ah Kay, little Gum Toon, Bing, and Kim. The photos was taken in September, 1903. This was the very last time the family was all together.

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Becoming American - The Chinese Experiece

The severe shortage of Chinese women in America created an environment in which the illegal importation of Chinese women and girls to serve as prostitutes and domestic slaves developed and flourished.

Video: Becoming American - The Chinese Experience

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Ah Mooie was one the "original ten" girls at the Mission Home in 1874. Ah Yane played the piano and often accompanied Chun Fah's singing. Her daughter Margaret Chung became the first Chinese American woman physician. Chun Fah, aka Spring Blossom came to the Home when she was 5 years old. In 1892 Chun Fah married Ng Poon Chew, who later  published the first Chinese language daily newspaper printed outside of China. Ah Ying arrived at the Mission Home in September 1886 and lived there until April 1889. In 1917 her son Kim was the first Chinese American to graduate from the UC Berkeley School of Engineering.

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Hester's photographs of San Francisco's Chinatown in the 1890's remarkably recreate and interact with the world of Tong Yan Gai. The black and white photographs are dynamic and show the everyday scenes of Chinatown.

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Hester's photographs of San Francisco's Chinatown in the 1890's remarkably recreate and interact with the world of Tong Yan Gai. The black and white photographs are dynamic and show the everyday scenes of Chinatown.

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Chinese Railroad Workers

Hung Lai Wah and his brother Jack Wah came to America in the early 1860's to build the Transcontinental Railroad. Leaving Dai Long Village in Southern China they were among the over 12,000 Chinese men and boys recruited by the Central Pacific Railroad to build the western half of the TCRR.

Video: America: The Story of Us. Heartland. 

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Ascending into the Sierras

In a distance of only 100 miles the railroad ascended from sea level to an elevation of 7,042 feet at the summit. Along the way the Chinese blasted tunnels out of solid granite mountains, crossed countless ravines with wooden trestles, carved a 200 foot railroad bed of all trees and boulders. At the summit there was so much snow that they had to build 37 miles of massive wooden snowsheds to protect the tracks from snow drifts and avalanches.

Video: The Transcontinental Railroad - Seven Wonders of the World - BBC

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Accidents & Deaths on the TCRR

Building the TCRR was dangerous work. Injuries and deaths were due to blasting accidents, rock slides, avalanches and disease. Hung Lai Wah's brother, Jick Wah, lost an eye in a blasting accident and wore an eyepatch for the rest of his life. But he was one of the fortunate ones. By one estimate 1200 Chinese died while building the TCRR. Even today there are Chinese buried along the route of the railroad in unmarked graves. 

Video: America: The Story of Us. Heartland. 

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Foot of Brannon Street

The steamship that brought 9-year-old Ah Ying to America from Hong Kong in 1880 landed at the Pacific Mail Steamship Docks at the foot of Brannon Street.

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Ah Ying was held captive at 611 Jackson Street between 1880 and September 1886. She worked as a mui tai or domestic slave for a cruel Chinese family. The three-story buildings in 1880 and 2019 are very similar in size and shape.

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A look inside the Mission Home

The Presbyterian Mission Home at 933 Sacramento Street. 1880 (Left) and April 18, 1906 (Right). The 1906 photograph was taken by Arnold Genthe on the morning of the great San Francisco earthquake and ensuing fires. This building served as the Presbyterian Occidental Home for Girls between 1878 and 1893 under the direction of Margaret Culbertson. In 1893 they moved to their new home across the street at 920 Sacramento Street. Ah Ying lived at the Mission Home from September 1886 until May 1889. 

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713 Dupont Gai

Photograph on the left depicts the Hang Far Low restaurant in 1890. In the 1960's the restaurant was renamed Four Seasons. Photograph on right shows the restaurant in 2017. This is where Ah Ying's owners sent her twice a day to fetch the family's meals. Uncle Chan worked at Hang Far Low.

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Stockton Street

Isaiah West Taber photograph (left) shows the Chinese Presbyterian Church as it appeared in the  1800's. The Sunday walk from the Mission Home at 933 Sacramento Street to the church was a weekly highlight for the girls who were accompanied by the Chinatown Police.

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711 Commercial Street on the corner of Commercial and Kearny Streets was Ah Ying and Lai Wah's second home. This three-story building was where all 5 of their children were born in the 1890's. The bottom floor was occupied by the Kwong Lee Kee store, owned by the Ng family. It is a short walk up Kearny to Portsmouth Square.

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Tung Meng Hui Society in Portsmouth Square with Dr. Sun Yet-sen in 2nd row. Ah Ying, Sui Fong, and Chin Shee are proud women warriors in the  back row.

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Dai Long Village Visit 2016

Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Hung Lai Wah never returned to his ancestral village of Dai Long. In May 2016 I completed the homecoming for him. The village elder "Uncle Hong" is beaming as he grasped my hand and exclaims that I am the first descendant to ever return to the village. 

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In May 2016 Russ visited Dai Long Village, the ancestral home of Hong Lai Wah. He is being greeted by Uncle Hong, who exclaims that Russ is the first descendant to ever return to the village. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Hung Lai Was never returned home. This visit was a homecoming that was over 150 years in the making.

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Media Buzz


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Promontory 2019 - Golden Spike Celebration

The Real Legacy of the Transcontinental Railroad
Reconnecting Roots

Russ Low & Gabe McCauley


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