What if you discovered the last name you've lived with since birth is fake?
That's what happened in many Chinese-American families who first came to the
U.S. before World War II, when the banned Chinese laborers from legally
entering the country.
The law, formally repealed by Congress 70 years ago Tuesday, prompted tens
of thousands of Chinese to use forged papers to enter the U.S. illegally.
Today, their descendants are still trying to uncover the truth.
Paper Sons And Daughters
William Wong says that even as a child, he knew Wong was his last name on
paper only; his real family name is Gee.
"We knew when we were growing up in Oakland's Chinatown that we were a Gee
family," says Wong, 72, a retired journalist in Piedmont, Calif.
“ Coming to America was a game. And the Chinese knew they were playing a
game, and the Americans knew they were playing a game.
- Byron Yee, whose father entered the U.S. illegally as a "paper son"
Wong's family was one of thousands made up of "paper sons and daughters,"
Chinese immigrants who were the "children" of Chinese-American citizens only
on paper — fraudulent documents with false names. Blood relatives of
American-born Chinese, as well as Chinese merchants, teachers and students,
were among the exceptions to the immigration restrictions, which targeted
After arriving in America in 1937, Felicia Lowe's mother lived under the
assumed name of Kam Sau Quon, impersonating an American-born Chinese girl
who, unbeknownst to immigration officials, was already dead.
Lowe's father lied, too. He was a paper son who legally reclaimed his real
family name, Lowe, when Felicia was 6.
"It was absolutely confusing! My father explained [changing our family name]
was for business reasons, but how could any 6-year-old know what that means
?" says Lowe, now 68 and a documentary filmmaker in San Francisco.
Playing The 'Game'
Growing up in Oklahoma, Byron Yee didn't know much about his father, who
died when Yee was just 11 years old. Yee, now 52, began researching his
father's family history almost two decades ago. It helped inspire his stage
show, Paper Son.
After piecing together documents from his father's old immigration file at
the National Archives, he discovered that his father arrived as a teenager
in Boston, where he claimed his eldest brother as his "paper father."
"Coming to America was a game. And the Chinese knew they were playing a game
, and the Americans knew they were playing a game," says Yee, a filmmaker in
Yee admits that his father probably would not want him to know his true
"Some of [the information in old immigration files] were based on truth, and
some of these were lies," he says. "And I think that's part of why the
Chinese never really talked about it, because they don't want to talk about
'A Total Change Of Heart'
For many Chinese immigrants, those lies were the key to opening America's
golden door, held shut for more than half a century by the Chinese Exclusion
Act. It was the country's first, and so far only, federal law to shut out
an immigrant group based on nationality.
The anti-Chinese immigration law came at a time when low-wage Chinese
workers were seen as unfair competition and unwanted neighbors.
"The Chinese were seen as the dregs of society. They were seen as vice-
ridden. They were seen as disease-ridden. They were seen as unassimilable,"
says Judy Yung, professor emerita of American studies at the University of
California, Santa Cruz.
The law's repeal in 1943 was largely a goodwill gesture in the midst of U.S.
-China solidarity during World War II. While it allowed Chinese nationals in
the U.S. to become American citizens, only 105 Chinese immigrants were
allowed to enter the U.S. annually — tight restrictions that were finally
lifted more than two decades later.
"A total change of heart [on the Chinese Exclusion Act] doesn't come until
1965, when Chinese immigration is put on an equal par with other nations in
the world," Yung explains.
Setting The Record Straight
Decades after the Chinese Exclusion Act has settled into history books, many
of the descendants of paper sons and daughters are still trying to learn
"I know for me it's become extraordinarily meaningful just so that I can set
the record straight within my own family," says Lowe, who's been working on
Wong thought he had the record straight — until he recently spotted
conflicting names in old documents, which led to more questions. "Are we
sure Pop was legal? Or was he truly a 'paper son'?" he asked his sisters.
The family story, and the story told to immigration officials, was that Wong
's father was the real son of a Chinese-American citizen, and that his
grandfather was born in San Francisco.
Now, even that is suspect.
Still, Wong says he's proud of being a "Gee" — so proud that seven years
ago, he had the Chinese character tattooed in red on his left bicep.
Now, he's planning to change his name legally to William Gee Wong.
2Great find. thanks! I think the NPR is usually fair and neutral. Do you
see any evidence
otherwise? If they are fair, we should support NPR with the clause "for
fair and balanced coverage of
Chinese exclusion act was a disgrace. 华人被