Born in the U.S.A.
By Jeff Yang, Special to SF Gate
As right-wing pols call for the elimination of birthright citizenship, the commemoration of Angel Island’s 100th anniversary reminds us what’s at stake for Asian Americans — and the nation as a whole.
On the foggy Saturday morning of July 31, more than a thousand Chinese Americans gathered on San Francisco’s Angel Island to remember a dark and troubled chapter in our nation’s immigration history — a time when the principles we hold dearest as a country were questioned and too often, found wanting.
They, or their parents or grandparents, had been among the hundreds of thousands who’d come through the station fleeing poverty and chaos in China, only to be detained, incarcerated and repeatedly interrogated, sometimes for years.
A detainee interrogation at Angel Island. Interrogations were conducted by two immigration inspectors and a stenographer. Photo Source: National Archives and Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.
The reason for the harsh treatment: Chinese had been legally barred from entry to the U.S. by 1882’s profoundly xenophobic Chinese Exclusion Act, still the only law in our history to ban immigration from a single cited country. There was just one means by which most desperate strivers could enter America: By erasing their names — and with them, their cherished family ties and ancestral connections — and adopting false identities claiming to be the overseas offspring of Chinese who already could assert U.S. citizenship.
That any U.S. citizens of Chinese descent even existed was due to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1898 Wong Kim Ark decision, which affirmed that the birthright citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment applied even to the U.S.-born children of Chinese and other foreign nationals who were legally barred from naturalizing.
Of course, the number of authentic Chinese American citizens produced by Wong Kim Ark was small, and most had few if any children. It was a natural disaster that ultimately opened up the loophole used by some 150,000 Chinese over 61 years of legal exclusion: The great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, which burned down City Hall and completely destroyed the municipality’s document archives, including those related to residency, household status and immigrant registration.
This wholesale erasure of the public record allowed thousands of enterprising Chinese in the U.S. to claim birthright citizenship, even if such status could not be proven (because there was nothing disproving it either); most also simultaneously professed to have sired numerous children on visits to the old country — with each declared child opening a crack just wide enough for a so-called “paper son” to squeeze through America’s shuttered door.
Becoming a paper son meant replacing your name and identity with that of a fictitious “parent” already in America. And so as more and more immigrants used paper status to get into the country, Wongs became Ongs, Wus became Chius, and Lims became Gims — mixing the lineages of three generations of Chinese into a kind of genealogical chop suey, with subsequent descendants often unsure of what relations were real and which were fake.
“My father came to the U.S. from Toisan in 1929,” says Corky Lee, whose illustrious career as a visual documentarian has led to his being dubbed Asian America’s “undisputed, unofficial photographer laureate.” “Things were a mess in China and he’d heard there were better economic opportunities here. He got on a boat with $20, but was lured into a gambling match on board and lost half his money. He was so ashamed to show up in America with just $10 in his pocket that he never gambled again.”
Losing money was one thing; losing his identity was another. Upon his arrival, the elder Lee showed papers he’d bought that declared him a blood descendant of the Quoork family, granting him an American birthright at the expense of his Chinese truth.
It was a bittersweet transaction.
Like most in his situation, Lee’s father was grateful to his adopted homeland, but ashamed of the means he got here and wistful about the price he’d paid. And, like many of his peers, he reflected that conflict in the name of his American firstborn: When Corky was born he was named “Lee Quoork,” reflecting both the fact and fiction of his father’s heritage. (Schoolmates quickly dubbed him “Corky” Lee Quoork, granting him a nickname he’d keep for the rest of his life. “I was still better off than my classmate George Crumholtz,” laughs Lee. “He got stuck with ‘Crummy’!”)
Angels on America’s doorstep
The saga of the paper sons underscores the torturous means by which people have fought for the right to become American. At the immigration station at Angel Island, authorities aware of the paper son phenomenon used every means at their disposal to expose detainees’ false status: Interviewing relatives and friends on the mainland, separating family members to compare their responses to esoteric questions — How many steps from the house to the barn? How long ago was the village well dug? — and of course, incarcerating them indefinitely in bleak, crowded, joyless surroundings.
Physical exams at Angel Island. Photo Sources:National Archives and Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.
“My dad was a paper son from a very poor family in Toisan,” says Eddie Wong, executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, which directs the site’s curatorial and preservationist activities. “Things were so bad that all of the sons went abroad to work, to send money home to support the family. His turn came up and he bought a piece of paper — he managed to get one with his real name on it, Wong — but loose lips led to him getting caught; he was arrested, held for a month at Angel Island, and then deported back to China.”
Detention at Angel Island meant long days and nights in cramped barracks — typically 100 persons to a 1,000 square foot room — unable to interact with friends or family, and with nothing to do between the repeated hammering of interviews intended to crack the migrants’ paper shield. Inmates inscribed their resentment and misery on the very walls that held them from their goal; much of the resulting graffiti has since been revealed to be poetry, written in classical Chinese style and reflecting astonishing insight on their condition.
“I am distressed that we Chinese are in this wooden building / It is actually racial barriers which cause difficulties on Yingtai Island,” wrote one anonymous detainee. “Even while they are tyrannical they still claim to be humanitarian. / I regret my taking the risk of coming in the first place.”
Li Hai of Nancun, Toisan was one of the few detainees who chose to sign the sonnet he contributed: “It’s been a long time since I left my home village / Who could know I’d end up imprisoned in a wooden building? / I’m heartsick when I see my reflection, my handkerchief is soaked in tears / I ask you, what crime did I commit to deserve this?”
These poems, painstakingly copied and translated by the late historian Him Mark Lai, playwright Genny Lim and U.C.-Santa Cruz professor Judy Yung for the must-own volume “Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940” aptly document the two faces of the Angel Island experience — perseverance and suffering. The former sustained the inmates through many weeks, months and years of the latter — and even led those who were turned away to return and try repeatedly again to gain entrance.
“After getting deported, my dad waited a year, bought another Wong paper, and this time made it through,” says Wong. “The first thing he did was move to Chicago, because, he says, ‘San Franciscans talk too much.'”
My name is a scar
For his part, Wong’s father rarely talked about his paper son status at all. The remembered humiliations of detention and the lasting guilt at having borne false witness had created walls of shame around his Angel Island story, as restrictive as those that had jailed him decades before.
That desire to forget the past comes with its own price, Genny Lim notes. “My mother and father and sister all came through Angel Island, and I never even knew that until I started to do research on the subject,” she says. “My father even accused me of digging up something that shows our community in a very negative light — that we came here illegally, that we violated the law. His psychology is marked by this trauma that we Chinese are unwelcome here, that we are never going to be bona fide Americans. So he and my mother were afraid to participate in politics and in the civic process, because they never felt they had the right to do so, and were afraid that they would be condemned if they did.”
In 1980, Lim was moved by her parents’ plight to write a play about the Angel Island experience, “Paper Angels,” which still stands today as one of the most vivid and important illustrations of this painful era in immigration history. Written as a series of sharply drawn vignettes, it follows a group of detainees of varied background and purpose as they undergo ruthless cross-examinations, attempt to reconcile the bright promises made to them and the miserable reality of their internment, and ultimately, survive or succumb to stress, rage and frustration.
It ends with a resonant moment, as young, pregnant Mei Lai delivers her baby — a son, blessed by accident of geography with the right to U.S. citizenship; this leads the warden to release of Mei Lai and her husband out of “special consideration” for her status as the mother of a newborn American.
It is a hopeful ending to an otherwise bleak narrative, but one that highlights once again the dangerous rhetoric that has entered into recent discourse on immigration. In our contemporary era, Mei Lai’s son Yang would not be seen as a symbol of new hope in a new nation, but an “anchor baby” — an ugly term in an even uglier debate.
There’s little evidence that our borders are being threatened by an invasion of pregnant women, seeking to use their offspring as a tether to America (and the legal reality is that illegals still face deportation even if they have American-born citizen children).
Nevertheless, this alleged phenomenon has inspired leading Republicans like Sen. Lindsay Graham, Sen. Minority Whip Jon Kyl and Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to call for hearings to discuss repealing or altering the 14th Amendment to eliminate jus solis, the standard of citizenship for any and all born on this nation’s soil and under this nation’s laws. It should be noted that without jus solis as laid out in the 14th Amendment and upheld in the Wong Kim Ark decision, some 90 percent of the Chinese American population might not exist today — and nor, in essence, would America.
That’s because birthright citizenship is a quintessential part of what makes our nation what it is — a free and democratic society that abhors tyranny and welcomes its victims; that treats people as individuals and respects their civil and human rights; that does not discriminate based on race, culture or country of origin.
Combined with our relatively liberal naturalization policies, jus solis preserves the open-source, open-ended nature of American identity: It reinforces the notion that America is not a race or a people but a shared idea, and one not defined by a static snapshot of today (or yesterday) but by ongoing reconstruction and evolution, built on transparent, common and fundamental principles.
Modern-day critics of birthright citizenship note that the U.S. and Canada are the only major developed nations that embrace jus solis; that would seem to be an argument for, not against, jus solis in the case of America, which in all other respects, those very same critics proclaim to be an exceptional nation.
It’s that exceptionalism that inspired those early Chinese pioneers to come here in the face of physical risk, personal loss and racist laws and attitudes. What’s sad is that those who are skeptical of America’s ability to transform and integrate — those who question the integrity of the American dream — have begun the process of recapitulating the darkest rhetoric and most abusive legal policies of that era.
“At least for my time on this earth, I’d hope that America would always be the world’s great symbol of opportunity,” says Genny Lim. “Our ideals, when practiced, are incomparable. What our constitution stands for, what we stand for as a people, are really the gold standard for every immigrant living around the world under tyrannical and corrupt regimes. But you look at things like SB1070 in Arizona, and it’s hard not to see it as the seed of a Mexican Exclusion Act — we’re just switching the target from one race to another. And that’s the terribly sad thing about ‘Paper Angels’: It doesn’t just document a moment in history; it’s become a commentary on current-day issues. It’s a cautionary tale that we need to take to heart.”
The July 31 Centennial Commemoration on Angel Island was extremely well attended, and by all accounts, tremendously emotional. “I was amazed at the turnout,” says Monica Lee, whose father, Mon Lee, came to the U.S. as a paper son at the age of 12 toward the end of the exclusion era. “My dad was really eager to have me and my mom see what he went through in his weeks of detention. And you could tell that he was deeply moved; he likes to come across as a tough guy, he’s always boasting how he’s ‘hard-boiled,’ but he was tearing up here. The only other time I’ve seen him cry was at my college graduation.”
The event is just the beginning of the Centennial season: From September 15-17, DirectArts‘ New York City revival of Genny Lim’s “Paper Angels” will be coming to the San Francisco Fringe Festival at Portsmouth Square; tickets to the multimedia production, directed by Victoria Linchong, are absolutely free (but they’d love your support!). Lim is also collaborating with Lenora Lee’s Asian Improv aRts in the work “Passages,” a unique reading/movement performance at Dance Mission Theater (September 24-26, 3316 24th Street). Erika Lee and Judy Yung (co-author of “Island”) are on tour with their new book “Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America,” the most comprehensive history of the place and its period to date. Finally, the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation is throwing its Centennial Gala on October 23 at the Intercontinental Hotel (call 415-262-4429 for details). And if you haven’t yet had the chance to visit Angel Island itself, do it — you won’t regret it.