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A Chinese American immigration secret emerges from the dark days of discrimination

The U.S. banned Chinese immigration in 1882. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906, because it destroyed records, opened the door to immigrants whose only 'family ties' were made of paper.

January 24, 2010|By Ching-Ching Ni

For his children, the mystery surrounding Joe Yee's past started with his name.

Growing up in Sacramento, Steve Yee, now 56, remembers piling into his father's big Pontiac Streamliner to visit the Ong family association. The group's members welcomed his father in a Cantonese dialect and addressed him as one of their own.

But Joe Yee never explained to his six American-born children why, if he were part of the group, his last name was not Ong. Odder still, their father claimed to be an only son, with no surviving relatives in China or America.

"For us, the question was always 'so who are you anyway?' " Steve said. "There was the sense that you have no past."

It wasn't until years after their father's death in 1979 that his children learned the answer to that childhood mystery. What they learned shed light on a chapter of Chinese life in California that is little known today but was key to shaping the immigrant communities of the last century.

"My father was a 'paper son,' " said Steve Yee.

When Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, it froze the size of the Chinese immigrant population in the country. No new Chinese, except for a select few, including scholars and diplomats, were allowed into the country. Those already here were largely barred from citizenship. The act blocked Chinese men who had immigrated during the Gold Rush and the railroad boom of the late 19th century from reuniting with their families.

But when the great earthquake of 1906 hit San Francisco, lighting fires that leveled hundreds of city blocks, some Chinese immigrants sensed an opportunity.

By claiming to be citizens whose records had been lost in the destruction, they became free to travel to China; once there, they could either bring back blood relatives or sell their paperwork to others who would claim to be family members -- paper sons.

"About 80% to 90% of the 175,000 Chinese that came to America between 1910 and 1940 were paper sons," said Judy Yung, professor emeritus in Asian American Studies at UC Santa Cruz whose father was a paper son.

"Almost no family would talk about it, fearful of being discovered or deported."

Even after the anti-Chinese immigration law was repealed in 1943, immigrant quotas remained tightly restricted. Only in the 1960s did new legislation broaden immigration from Asia and give paper sons a chance to tell the truth about their past and restore their real names.

Even then, many, including Yung's and Yee's fathers, did not participate in the "confessional" program and chose to stick with their adopted names for fear of retribution.

"My father's story is the story of most of the Cantonese people that came here during the '40s, '50s and '60s," Steve Yee said. "He lived under the fear that he could be deported any time if he was discovered. So he took his real [identity] to his grave thinking it's the best thing to do."

Legacy of confusion

Chinese Americans today make up 40% of the roughly 5 million Asians in California and they represent the largest Asian population in the country. China ranks second only to Mexico in terms of new U.S. immigrants.

But the legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the paper son phenomenon lingers. The result is that a younger generation of Chinese Americans like Steve Yee grew up confused about and disconnected from their family history.

Yee said his father hid his secret so well that the family wondered if they would ever find out much about his real background. Joe Yee worked long hours at the family-owned grocery store and rarely talked to his children about himself or his past.

His children knew he served in World War II and was awarded a Bronze Star. They knew he traveled back to China once to wed their mother in an arranged marriage. And they knew he defeated discrimination by asking a white friend to buy their home and deed it to the family.

Other than that, their father remained a mystery. He was not so much concerned about his children learning their Chinese roots as he was about their becoming Americans.

Steve Yee's older sister Lillie was the only child who understood enough of the home village dialect to communicate with their mother, who spoke no English.

Worried about Lillie's progress in school, their father insisted the others stop speaking Chinese at home. Today, none of the six children speaks Chinese.

"Basically we were told to put down your chopsticks, we're going to eat hot dogs and watch the Giants like everybody else," Yee said.

After their youngest sibling was born, their mother developed schizophrenia and was institutionalized. Their father eventually lost his business and began drinking. He died 30 years ago, a broken man.

Yee said that his relationship with his father was always distant and that it became especially strained toward the end of the older man's life, in part because of the changing times. Against his father's wishes, Yee grew his hair long and became an artist instead of an accountant or lawyer.

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