Bronx-born Amy Chin is keenly aware of the Exclusion Act's impact on her forebears. Photo: Xiaoqing Rong

A Chinese American story of prejudice and 'paper sons'

Bronx-born cultural adviser Amy Chin tells Xiaoqing Rong about her family's secret past and how America discriminated against the Chinese with the Exclusion Act

When I was in junior high school, I got a homework assignment. It asked all the kids to talk to their grandparents about their family history. The first thing my mother said was, "You cannot tell the whole truth." She would be a bit horrified if she knew I am now telling our family secrets! But I think she would be pleased, too. Over the past few years, I've lost a lot of my family: my father, my mother, a sister and my brother. I feel like if you don't write down the history, then it's lost.

I was born in New York in 1962. My family came from Taishan, in Guangdong. When I was a kid we lived in the Bronx. I remember my parents had applied to buy an apartment in (nearby) Parkchester but they were turned down. I found out recently that Parkchester had an all-white policy then. They didn't accept people of colour. That was a part of the family history I should have been told. When I prepared for the exhibition (of Chin's family's history at the New-York Historical Society), I went through the family and national archives. That was not the only thing I discovered that shocked me …

I also found that, in 1951, when my father got off the plane (from China), they sent him to Ellis Island. He was detained and interrogated there for three months. I guess it was not a happy time for him. He didn't talk about it.

My grandfather was born in 1878. I was told he was born in California, that his birth certificate was burned in the (1906) San Francisco earthquake, that his parents took him back to China when he was an infant and that he came back to America in 1913 as a US-born citizen. But documents I uncovered showed he crossed the border without immigration papers in 1903. That was a big surprise.

Until 1924, there was no immigration law (in America) except for the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882. The Irish, Germans and Italians who came before (1924) were let in. Only the Chinese were kept out. I've looked at newspapers from that period and found that in the early 1900s there was a popular route that brought Chinese across the border from Canada. After they crossed the border, they would surrender and get themselves arrested for violating the Exclusion Act. Then a lawyer would represent them in court. They'd have witnesses say, "Oh yeah, he was born in America. His parents were friends of my parents." Hundreds of Chinese came in that way. People working on the boats and Canadian railroad, and American lawyers all made money out of the Chinese.

The Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, but it wasn't abolished until 1965. My grandfather went back and forth to China (his whole life) and his wife never came here because of the restrictions. Each time he went back, they had more children. My father and his siblings were born in China. My grandfather sponsored them to come here when they got older.

When I was young, I remember my father had a friend. In Chinese we called him Mr Lau, but his English name was Chin. I asked my parents, "How come you call him Mr Lau when his last name is Chin?" And I was told, "Shush!"

I always knew we had "uncles" who were, indeed, my grandfather's paper sons (non-relatives who bought identity documents from US citizens to bypass the Exclusion Act). It was common in the Chinese community, but we were not supposed to talk about it. In the 1960s, these paper sons wanted to apply for an amnesty and get their real names back. That caused worry for my parents. There was still an element of fear that you could be deported (for having sold the papers).

My parents kept a lot of documents and pictures. I have my grandfather's tax return from 1949 and my father's air ticket to the US from 1951. I guess that's because inspectors would go around checking the documents of the Chinese. If you didn't have them, you'd be in trouble. When my mom passed away, in 2006, I discovered a coaching book for immigration in her safe deposit box. The questions are printed and the answers are handwritten, I think by my grandfather, and my father updated them later. The book is the most amazing document. Questions such as "in which direction is your house facing?" were what (a Chinese emigrant to the United States) might have been asked. When my grandfather sold papers to another man to come as his paper son, that man had to memorise all the details of my family using that coaching book. It was also used by my father and his real brothers. Even if you were a real son, if you gave the wrong answer they could say you were fake and not let you in. The level of interrogation is unimaginable. We forget how badly Chinese were once treated in this country.

After 1965, my mom sponsored her family to come here. Throughout my whole childhood I felt like there was always somebody coming. We often had people sleeping on our couch. Nobody came without help. Somebody had to pave the road for you. We are all walking in someone else's footsteps and it's important to know whose footsteps those are. One reason the Exclusion Act came about was that people were saying, "The Chinese are taking all our jobs. They don't have good families like we do. They have filthy habits." What they were saying was, "The Chinese are not like us and they cannot be American."

You see some similarities between then and now. The rich Chinese are investing heavily here, but there is a lot of resentment. It could easily become, "These rich Chinese are taking advantage of our economy and not giving back. They don't deserve to be here." If you don't know your history, history can be repeated.



This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Amy Chin