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My Great-Grandmother’s Passage to America Through Angel Island

Happy Independence Day!

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I like doing these genealogy posts on historical holidays because it makes the celebration more personal. I thought about doing some profiles of family soldiers in the Revolutionary War, since I have some documented servicemen on my father’s side, but I’ll save that for next year. I think the American story tends to get romanticized a little after that war. We imagine winning our freedom and opening our gates to a flood of immigrants seeking refuge from persecution. The America of today is unrecognizable compared to the America that was originally celebrated on the first July 4th holiday, better in a million ways and (but?) much harder now to enter as a new citizen.

Only once has America officially shut her borders to an entire race of people for no other reason than that race was determined to be too dangerous, damaged, infectious, and inferior to be given citizenship. In 1882, President Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which made it impossible to come in to America unless you could (A) say that you were already an American citizen returning from another country or (B) prove that you had some worth to the country above being an unskilled laborer (laborers being the vast majority of Chinese immigrants at that time). There were also exceptions for family members of American citizens, including wives and children, with limited sponsorship open to more distant relations like siblings, parents, cousins, etc.

The act wasn’t repealed until 1943, but my great-grandmother immigrated to America from China in 1921. How?

As soon as the Chinese Exclusion Act became law, it became much harder for Chinese people to enter the country. Even those who were entitled to enter under the act (including Chinese people born in America) were detained until they were able to prove themselves through papers, interviews, and support from people already inside the country. For more than 20 years, people attempted to forge papers or slip through the borders at Canada and Mexico, but most of the people who made the journey from China were ultimately deported back to Asia.

Then, in 1906, San Francisco was slammed by a huge earthquake and subsequent fire which wiped out a large part of the city and the citizenship records contained within. As a result “paper sons” were born. People who forged citizenship papers like California birth certificates were suddenly much more difficult to cross-examine because the state files had been lost. As the newly “native-born” Chinese citizens were admitted, a surge of relatives came forward, claiming to be wives, sons, and daughters born to these citizens during time spent in China.

American immigration officials soon realized that many of these applications were false and in 1910 they established Angel Island as a major immigration detention center. Chinese people arrived at Angel island and were detained for weeks or months while immigration officials tried to determine if their papers and relationships were real. This meant repeated interviews grilling each family member about each other, their own histories, etc. If a person failed the interviews, they were deported.

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My great-grandmother arrived in America in October of 1921 as the new daughter-in-law of an American-born Chinese man who was bringing his wife and children to his country. Arriving with my great-grandmother was her new husband, her mother-in-law, and three other people who had joined the family as “paper sons” in order to make the journey. It’s likely that the money received from the paper sons financed the passage for the three legitimate immigrants, but it also made their immigration more dangerous. Any sign of subversive behavior would raise the red flag for the whole group.

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My great-grandmother was named Wong Shee. She was 19, had only known her husband for a day before marrying him, and had only married him days before getting on the ship. She came from a different village, seemed to know no one else in America, and could not read or write. She was interviewed repeatedly with the assistance of a translator during her detention at Angel Island and from those interviews we know that her mother had bound feet, she had two sisters and one brother, and that her new husband lied that he had never been married. He had been married and had one son who had died in infancy. Whether or not this discrepancy lengthened their time on Angel Island is unclear. Ultimately, they were both cleared for citizenship along with my great-great-grandmother, a paper son, and a paper daughter. The other paper son was deported back to China.

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I have to assume that Wong Shee wanted to come to America. At the time, it’s unlikely that better prospects waited for her back in China. I prefer to believe that her desire to be an American was so strong that it took the sting out of the fact that they withheld American freedom from her during a detention that likely included a humiliating medical exam, unsanitary conditions, cold metal bunks, and days of waiting in between interrogations. I also like to think of how she might have felt as she left Angel Island as an American citizen, stepping onto the docks at San Francisco and being greeted by the sounds of the Cathay Club band, a group of Chinese American citizens who met the new arrivals with patriotic songs, pressed uniforms, and all the promise of a fresh start.

It’s worth noting that three years later, even family members were banned through the Immigration Act of 1924. If she had waited those three years, she would not have been able to come to America until the forties (if she came at all). Instead, she spent that time living in Oakland, having the first two of her six children, and keeping house. As a new citizen, she didn’t do anything specific that contributed in a great way to building up our country, but her children served in the military, held public offices, and had lots of American kids of their own.

I met her sixty years later and don’t remember her well since she died when I was still very young, but I have video of her celebrating her 81st birthday surrounded by her American children and their American children and grandchildren.

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3 Comments

  • Reply Christina

    That is fascinating. Your great-grandmother’s story reminds me of the Shanghai Girls novel by Lisa See, with the paper sons and all. It’s so neat that you are able to discover all this information about your ancestors.

    July 4, 2016 at 1:21 pm
    • Reply Carly Morgan

      Thanks and I love that book!

      July 4, 2016 at 3:49 pm
  • Reply Anonymous

    This was an amazing article. Thank you for sharing this. As much as I grew up believing that newly arriving citizens didn’t have to suffer the way your great grandmother did I see the same suffering for new citizens today. My grandfather was an Italian immigrant who came through Ellis Island and was discriminated against quite a bit (even after his service in World War II). The other side of my family also likely came through Ellis Island around the time of the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s. We don’t know much about their stories because the Irish were so hated at the time that our family often changed their names to be less Irish and get jobs or just to survive. This article is so amazingly important for every one born in the country or emigrating to the country, especially in the current hate filled and fear filled political climate. THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS!

    July 4, 2016 at 8:18 pm
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