Family backround, childhood and youth in China
Fung Asseng’s curriculum vitae written by his own hand, in his translation of Luther’s Small Catechism (1828). East Asia Department. License : CC-BY-NC-SA
Fung Asseng (Feng Yaxing 馮亞星, also Feng Yasheng 馮亞生) was born the son of a priest and astrologer in 1792 or 1793 in the Southern Chinese province of Guangdong 廣東 . Very likely at the suggestion of his uncle he left China the first time two hundred years ago to make his luck in the West. His uncle was working for the Maritime Customs Office of Kanton in Whampoa (Huangpu 黃埔) and was probably in charge of issuing travel documents. Fung Asseng lost his father at the age of five. His mother cared about his training in written Chinese and classical literature, so Fung Asseng frequently spent time in his uncles house, and acquired first knowledge of the English language.
Fung Asseng’s way to Berlin
According to his own statements Fung Asseng travelled on a Portuguese ship to Macao on August 3rd 1816, and then went on an English ship to East India and from there to the British island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. Arround that time numerous Chinese were working on the plantations of the East India Company. Fung Asseng himself probably worked as a cook among the servants of the exiled French emperor Napoleon I. for three and a half years.
After returning from home leave – not least in order to visit his wife and his two children – he came to St. Helena again shortly after Napoleon’s death in 1821 and travelled from here to London while acting as an interpreter on board between the English captain and the Chinese sailors. In London he met his travelling companion, the 26 years old Fung Ahok (Feng Yaxue 馮亞斈[學]) at the East India House – headquarters of the East India Company. Fung Ahok, like the uncle of Fung Asseng came from Whampoa and was the son of a silk merchant. They signed a contract with Heinrich Lasthausen, waffle baker and showman. According to this contract both of them had to travel to the continent and agreed to be exhibited for money. That is how they came to the German cities of Weimar, Jena, Halle, and finally Berlin.
Advertisement of waffle baker Lasthausen from Amsterdam in the Leipziger Zeitung May 21st 1814. Newspaper Department. License: CC-BY-NC-SA
This statement is printed in Johann Karl Bullmann’s Denkwürdigen Zeitperioden der Universität zu Halle (pp. 215/216). According to another report Fung Asseng and Fung Ahok departed together from China and stopped off on the island of St. Helena, where “they were received by Napoleon I. and invited for dinner” (Acta Lasthausen, quoted from Erich Gütinger, Die Geschichte der Chinesen in Deutschland, p. 80).
Fung Asseng and Fung Ahok in Berlin
Portrait of Fung Asseng from Schadow’s “Psysionomie nationales” (1835). Department of Early Printed Books. License: CC-BY-NC-SA
In Berlin – as “Der Freimüthige oder Unterhaltungsblatt für gebildete, unbefangene Leser” on March 8th 1823 reports – seven days earlier the two Chinese could be admired at the Behrenstraße Nr. 65, in the very center of the city. Already on January 17th/18th Johann Gottfried Schadow, who was interested in physiognomy, had drawn and measured the two. The original drawings are kept in the National Gallery Berlin today. The portraits were further published as zincographs in Schadow’s Physionomies nationales (1835).
At the University of Halle
Upon the advice of Wilhelm Gesenius King Friedrich Wilhelm III. decided to make them both stay in Germany. He issued a Cabinet ordre on 10th of April 1823 and sent them for lessons in German and Chinese resp. to the University of Halle. After the Grand Elector Friedrich Wilhelm’s plans to create an East India Trading Company and in connection with this his efforts to promote the Chinese studies of Andreas Müller and Christian Mentzel in the 17th century this can be seen as a new attempt to establish Chinese studies in Germany and indirectly to stimulate the development of the trade with China. 4,600 thalers were provided by the Prussian treasury. 1,000 thalers went as replacement sum to carny Heinrich Lasthausen. With the rest of the money two German supervisors as well as living and expences and study costs were financed. Asseng and Ahok such could be released from the contract with Lasthausen. They went to the University of Halle, and were taught here in German by Friedrich Helmke and Wilhelm Schott.
Asseng and Ahok had lessons in German, and Chinese resp. at the University of Halle. New attempts to establish Chinese studies in Germany and indirectly the development of the trade with China. Fung Asseng and Fung Ahok went to the University of Halle and were taught in the German language by Friedrich Helmke und Wilhelm Schott. In turn they were expected to tutor Helmke and Schott in Chinese. In addition they received religious education by superintendent Tiemann; both were baptized on May 12th 1825.
At the Prussian court in Potsdam
They probably stayed in Halle at least until 1825. On a proposal from his Minister of Education and the Arts Karl vom Stein zu Altenstein, the Prussian king on July 8th 1825 decided that both should be educated as gardeners in Potsdam and on November 9th that year Asseng and Ahok were taken as servants into Altenstein’s household. In January 1826 Asseng and Ahok were permitted to marry. On April 2nd 1826 Fung Asseng, baptized as Friedrich Wilhelm Asseng, married Johanne Marie Clara Kraftmüller. Already on February 18th their son Heinrich Wilhelm Asseng was born. Assengs marriage with Johanne Kraftmüller lasted seven years. The couple had four children.
Fung Asseng’s later fate
After the birth of the youngest children on May 3rd 1832, Asseng’s wife passed away. Asseng’s life from now on went bad. In vain he asked for permission to marry the colonist Hallen zu Geltow’s daughter on June 30th 1832. The king did not allow him to marry again, whereupon Asseng fell victim to alcoholism and gambling addiction. In September 1833 Asseng had to serve a three month prison sentence for gambling debts and fraud. He was transferred to the state nursery, made new debts and had to live in Potsdam’s poorhouse. Only his third request for return to China was granted. He was able to return home in November 1836 on a maritime trade ship under the command of captain Johann Karl Rodbertus. Asseng reportedly died on February 15th 1889.
Fung Ahok’s later fate
Feng Ahok’s house in Potsdam, Weinbergstraße 9 (June 2017), license: CC-BY-NC-SA
On January 30th 1826 Fung Ahok received the permission to marry Potsdam’s master carpenter Selle’s foster daughter, probably the very first German-Chinese marriage at all. Ahok was granted an annual salary of 350 thalers, and in addition 30 thalers clothing allowance, firewood, and lodging.
On March 28th 1843 the Prussian King commanded his architect Ludwig Persius to create a private residence for Ahok in Chinese style, and made himself an idea sketch. On July 12th 1843 the king decided to build the house according to Persius‘ plan, and two years later the house was built of exposed yellow bricks, and changed slightly in 1872. Ahok died September 26th 1877 in Potsdam.