By Max Millard
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Written for Cameron House Bilingual Youth Program
San Francisco, California, summer 2004


(Note: a good film to accompany this week's lesson is the award-winning video Paper Angels by San Francisco writer Genny Lim.)

  1. Chinese tradition of emigration.
  2. Chinese emigration to the United States
  3. Effects of the San Francisco earthquake
  4. Segregation and discrimination
  5. Angel Island
  6. Questions for discussion

1. Chinese tradition of emigration.

a. People who arrive in the United States from somewhere else are called immigrants. The process of arriving is called immigration. The way to remember is: immigrants come in.

b. When people leave a country, they are called emigrants from that country. The process of leaving is calling emigration. Emigrants exit a country.

c. Historically, the Chinese have never been strangers to emigration. For more than 1000 years, Chinese travelers have crisscrossed the world and made new homes for themselves in faraway lands. There is some evidence that Chinese travelers reached California 4,000 years ago and explored much of the West Coast. It is known that in the 12th century, or about 900 years ago, they were trading with the Philippines and many Chinese settled there.

Colonies of Chinese merchants, bankers, miners, and artists established themselves in countries from Polynesia to Peru, bringing their families with them and building strong Chinese communities. The Chinese were skilled in business, and wherever they were allowed to settle overseas, their communities were successful.


2. Chinese emigration to the United States

a. From the beginning, since the first Chinese came to California in large numbers in 1849, laws against Chinese made it harder for them to settle in the here than in many other countries. Chinese who were born outside the U.S. could not become citizens, and didn't have the same rights as other Americans.

b. The Exclusion Act of 1882 stopped all Chinese laborers from coming into the U.S. The only Chinese who could come were students, merchants and diplomats. For a time, these few immigrants were allowed to bring their wives and families. The Chinese population of the U.S. declined after the Exclusion Act went into effect.


3. Effects of the San Francisco earthquake

a. The San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 was the greatest natural disaster ever to strike an American city. Thousands of people were killed, most of the city including Chinatown was burned to the ground, and most of the records in City Hall were destroyed. The Chinese were almost forced out of Chinatown and made to resettle in a distant part of the city. But when they quickly got millions of dollars in loans from Hong Kong to rebuild Chinatown and designed a much more attractive neighborhood than before, they were allowed to return.

b. The earthquake turned out to be a blessing for Chinese Americans because all Chinese men who lived in the city except the oldest ones could claim that they were born in the U.S., and were therefore citizens. The city officials had no way of knowing who was who. So the city gave them new documents stating they they were born here, even though many of them were actually born in China. Under the U.S. Constitution, anyone born in the U.S. is automatically a citizen.

c. Question: What is the U.S. Constitution? Why is so important to Chinese Americans?

Answer: the Constitution is the supreme law of the United States. It is the document that was written when the United States first became a nation in 1787. Later, some additions were made to the Constitution, called amendments. All the amendments have the same power and authority as the original Constitution. The 14th amendment to the Constitution is especially important to Chinese Americans because it says that all persons born in the United States are citizens. It does not matter if they are white, black or Asian American: they all have the equal right to be citizens.

d. Question: What does it mean to be a citizen of the United States? What can a citizen do that a non-citizen cannot do?

Citizens can vote. Citizens can bring their relatives from other countries to the U.S. Citizens can get hired for government jobs, such as the post office, the police and fire department, and the public schools. These things were not always true, because 100 years ago, women and most nonwhites could not vote, and could not get government jobs. But citizens of the U.S. have always enjoyed legal rights that non-citizens do not have.

e. emigration of Chinese families

One right of citizenship that was honored after the Exclusion Act was that Chinese Americans who were born here could bring their wives and children to the United States.

When Chinese men in San Francisco applied for citizenship after the earthquake, City Hall gave them an application, they filled it out and were made citizens. Then they got a certificate to show they could travel anywhere they wanted. They could go back to China to find wives or reunite with wives and families they had left behind. Those visits would sometimes last for several years. They could go over there, have children born over there, and then those children would have the right to come to the United States as sons or daughters of a citizen. Almost every citizen who went back to China would have a child, on paper at least, every nine months.

On paper: that was the key. Sometimes these were real claims, other times false. But once these births were recorded, a slot was created that guaranteed the right for someone to come to America later. These rights and the papers that went with them became valuable possessions, often bought and sold by families who had different last names.


4. Segregation and discrimination

a. Chinatown

Everybody in Chinatown knew that children with a certain last name were not really from that family. Many people from China were not who they claimed to be. Even today, some families don't like to talk about it. The whole community had to keep the secret or the person could be deported. The blessing was that Chinatown finally got children, who would be Chinese American. That is how the Chinese American population started to grow again.

Chinatown had to function as a self-contained village, one that provided everything that its people needed. The kids went to Chinese school after regular school. They built their own hospital, had their own schools, churches, clubs, basketball teams. It was a parallel world inside the borders of Chinatown. They especially had their own telephone service. The boundary lines for Chinatown were Powell Street on one side and Broadway on the other. Some Chinese would get beaten up if they left those boundaries.

Chinese American children weren't allowed to go to school with white children. Commodore Stockton School was all Chinese.

b. jobs

Chinese Americans were allowed to work outside Chinatown, but there was was a lot of discrimination against them in the job market. Many companies wouldn't hire them at all, and their parents sometimes warned them against pursuing certain professions -- such as accounting or engineering -- because nobody would hire them. They couldn't work as policemen, firemen or schoolteachers, except for Chinese schools.

If they were hired for a job, they would often be paid less than white workers who held the same position, and they would sometimes be told outright that they wouldn't be able to get promoted in the job. If they were hired as a clerk, they would have to stay a clerk for as long as they worked for the company.

The Chinese resented the fact that they were being discriminated against, yet they continued to immigrate to the United States because they felt their opportunities here were still better than in China.


5. Angel Island

a. construction and planning

In 1905, construction began on an immigration station on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. It was a controversial project from the beginning. It was first expected to be the "Ellis Island of the West," similar to the famous island off New York City, where immigrants from Europe poured in. It was designed to handle a flood of European immigrants who were expected to begin arriving in California once the Panama Canal was opened. The canal was begun in 1904 and completed in 1914.

b. completion

The station was finally put into operation in 1910. Instead of coming from Europe, the majority of immigrants to America via the West Coast were from Asia. It took them anywhere from about two weeks to a month to make the trip by ship.

Like the Europeans entering at New York City, the Asians hoped to escape the economic or political hardships of their homelands. On Ellis Island, immigrants were processed through within hours or days. But on Angel Island, they spent weeks or months.

c. life at Angel Island

The facility was primarily a detention center, where people were held in barracks, until they were either accepted for permanent admission to the United States, or rejected and sent back to their home country. It was designed to resemble a prison in response to the continuing Chinese influx. American officials screened the newcomers, trying to catch them making a mistake so that they would have the excuse to deport them.

The Chinese newcomers were sometimes detained for just a few days, sometimes for weeks, and sometimes for as long as two years in the crowded wooden barracks. They carved poems in Chinese characters on the walls, many of which have been preserved for their historical value.

One immigrant wrote at the time: "Why did we have to depart from our parents and loved ones and come to stay in a place far away from our homes? It is for no reason but to make a living. In order to make a living here, we have to endure all year around drudgery and all kinds of hardship. We are in a state of seeking shelter under another person's face, at the threat of being driven away at any moment. We have to swallow down the insults hurled at us."

About 175,000 Chinese emigrants were detained at Angel Island from 1910 to 1940. About 90 percent of them were allowed in.

d. paper sons

To take advantage of the law, Chinese often came into the U.S. by posing as family members of those Chinese Americans who were allowed to stay permanently, which included both citizens and merchants who were non-citizens. These fake or counterfeit family members became known as "paper sons" and "paper daughters" because they weren't real sons and daughters, but only on paper.

In order for "paper" relatives to be allowed into the U.S., they had to They used fake identity papers, then convince the immigration officials that they were actually the people they claimed to be. To do that, they needed to memorize all sorts of facts about the family and the hometown in China where they claimed to come from. The people who sold them the slots wrote whole booklets of notes, called coaching papers, about the houses, neighborhoods and people that the emigrants claimed to know. They spent months studying this information so that they could answer any question correctly. They might need to know many houses were on a certain street, what was the name of mayor, or where people got their shoes repaired. Some "paper" relatives didn't remember all the answers, failed the exam, and had to return to China. This caused great sadness because it might be their only chance to be reunited with other family members who were already in America.

Many families used secrets and lies to get around the Chinese Exclusion Act. When immigration officials learned about this practice, they began questioning emigrants about the smallest details of their lives in China to see if their answers matched those of a "relative" who sponsored them.

e. results of immigration

The Chinese population of the U.S., which had dropped from about 107,000 in 1890 to a low of 61,000 in 1920, began to rise again.

In spite of all the legal obstacles, between 1910 and 1940 some 175,000 Chinese immigrants passed through the Angel Island Immigration Station. At the same time, the growing number of children born to Chinese Americans helped add to the community's sense of permanence and stability. Since any child born in America automatically became a U.S. citizen, many parents bought property in their children's names, and were thus able to start businesses and make investments that would otherwise not have been available to them.

As more immigrants found professional work and achieved financial success, they began to move out of urban Chinatowns, often to new suburbs or other outlying neighborhoods.

f. lingering effects of Angel Island

Unlike Ellis Island, which European emigrants often remembered with affection, Angel Island brought no happy memories from the Chinese who came through there. Instead, Angel Island came to be associated with fear, insults, and intimidation. For decades, the Chinese American community was shamed into silence about its experiences at Angel Island. Until quite recently, many Chinese American families have been afraid or ashamed to tell the truth about what they had to do in order to emigrate to America.

Second-generation Chinese Americans have been forced to try to learn their family histories through told stories told reluctantly by their relatives, and through old documents obtained from the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Even now, many former detainees will not speak openly about Angel Island. The experience, which separated families, buried family histories, and left some people with multiple identities, still affects how many Chinese Americans view American society.

Today the Chinese immigrants who entered through Angel Island are rapidly dying off. Many go to their graves without speaking about the secrets of Angel Island.


6. Questions for discussion

a. During the gold rush, what name did the Chinese give to America?

answer: Gold Mountain or Gum Saan.

b. Many Chinese laborers returned to China to be with their families, even though they knew they could never return to the U.S. Should they have gone back, or stayed in the U.S. in spite of the challenges and obstacles they faced?

c. Are there many people in the Chinese American community today who are not citizens? Do they have any political power? Does anyone represent their interests? Can these people become citizens if they want? If so, what does the procedure involve?

d. Do you think it wrong for Chinese people to lie about their names and their backgrounds in order to get into the U.S. illegally?

e. Should people always obey the law? Do you think all laws are fair?

Martin Luther King started off his career as a civil rights leader by always following the law. But later he said that there were two types of laws -- just laws and unjust laws. He changed his way of protesting, and stopped following what he considered to be unjust laws.

f. Why was the Chinese Exclusion Act passed? Could it happen again?

g. What is the meaning of the following words?

coaching papers
paper son



By Bernice Yeung
SF Weekly, Feb 2, 2000

Li Keng was detained at Angel Island when she was only 7. For her, Angel Island was traumatic, an unpleasant end to a 19-day boat ride from Hong Kong.

Li Keng's father, Seow Hong Gee, had been a laborer in the U.S. for more than a decade, when he finally saved enough money to bring his wife, Theo Quee, and three daughters from China. But the Exclusion Act made it impossible for Seow Hong to bring his wife to San Francisco. In order to reunite his family, Seow Hong had to claim his wife was really his sister, and instruct his three young daughters to pretend that their mother was actually their aunt.

During Li Keng's interrogation at Angel Island, a guard pointed to her mother and repeatedly asked, "Is this woman your mother or your aunt?" Li Keng says she had to tell unabashed lies.

"We lied!" Li Keng says emphatically. "My father sent papers home and he said, 'Don't forget. If you call your mama 'mama,' then you'll be deported to the village.' And we didn't want that. It was a matter of survival."

It was, however, 2-year-old Lai Wah who is credited with getting the family off the island quickly. After questioning the older girls first, interrogators finally turned their attention to the youngest sister. The others were nervous, afraid that Lai Wah would not understand the importance of her answers. In Cantonese, the interpreter asked her, "Little girl, what is your name?" "If you won't tell me your name, why should I tell you mine?" Lai Wah retorted. The interpreter laughed aloud, and translated her response into English for the interrogator, who also began to chuckle. Li Keng says that the interrogators were so amused by such fearlessness that they immediately began to stamp the whole family's papers for release.

Li Keng remembers being afraid, not knowing how long her family would have to stay in the island's bleak, cramped barracks. There was also fear of deportation. On their first night on the island, they were told stories about how some people had committed suicide rather than face the shame of being deported, having squandered their chances of starting a more prosperous life in the U.S.

The story of Lai Wah's sassy response to the Angel Island interrogators has become family legend. But even the brief, three-day stay left an imprint on her. "After we were released, we did not want to talk about Angel Island," she says. "We wanted to sweep it under the rug. When I was coming through, I was very young and I didn't understand the implications of the incarceration. But as I grew up, I began to feel very sad and angry."

Because Lai Wah's immigration story was built on lies upon lies, basic information -- birth dates or her last name -- has been lost or hidden.

Now, the information is gone, buried with the former detainees.

It was not until she was in her 30s that Lai Wah learned the true date of her birth. Throughout her life, when filling out paperwork for school or paying taxes, she had always used the birth date printed on some Angel Island processing documents: Dec. 2, 1933. But when she looked up original immigration documents while applying for a passport in the '60s, she discovered that she had actually been born Jan. 30, 1931. Her daughter discovered a possible explanation for the Dec. 2 birth date -- it was the day that Lai Wah was released from Angel Island.

"Angel Island has impacted us," Lai Wah says. "With all the lying, you just don't know what is real and what is not."

And for Li Keng and Lai Wah, the deception did not end with their departure from the Angel Island. Though their father, Seow Hong, had hoped to reunite his family in America, Theo Quee had to continue to play the role of aunt, not mother, to her three children. She lived with relatives in a house a few blocks away from her husband and daughters so that no suspicions would be aroused. Lai Wah says she remembers having to be very careful about referring to her mother as her aunt, especially at school.

And once Theo Quee became pregnant with Seow Hong's fourth child, they arranged for a paper marriage to a man named Sheng Wong so that the American-born child would not seem illegitimate. Even today, Theo Quee's three American-born children -- including Flo -- use the last name Wong, while the eldest sisters who passed through Angel Island go by their real last name, Gee.

"I didn't realize how much the lies and falsehoods impacted our lives," Lai Wah says. "That I am the way I am because of it. I'm more confident now and my mysterious background makes life more interesting. I love that my mom came down this way. I'm sorry that it took so many secrets. I don't want that to happen with my kids or grandkids. I tell them everything I know."