Chinese Share Memories of Exclusion Act

Leung Jin shows a photo of his father’s family in China. (Photo by Lan Mu via World Journal)

The Chinese Exclusion Act, which was repealed in 1943, inflicted a lot of pain on Chinese immigrant families. Many Chinese bought papers and came to the U.S. as the “paper sons” of U.S. citizens, one of the very few avenues for Chinese to come to the U.S. under the restrictions of the Act. These people had to bear a fake last name for their entire life. Also thanks to the cruel law, a whole generation of Chinese immigrants didn’t encourage their children to learn the Chinese language, nor did they share the family history with their children. A whole generation of younger Chinese didn’t know about their roots.

All these bitter experiences and memories emerged on April 21 at “Family Treasures,” an annual event, now in its fourth year, held by the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA). Younger generations of Chinese are invited to share the Exclusion Act-related documents their families kept and the stories behind them. [Editor’s note: Preservationists at the museum advise on storage of documents and heirlooms.]

Leung Jin brought with him some letters and photos left by his late father Bofu Wong. He said his father’s early life was a mystery to him. He rarely mentioned his childhood. Jin, who doesn’t speak Chinese, would like to search for his own roots but doesn’t know where to begin. Jin said his father might be from Taishan, China, and came to the U.S. in 1934 when he was 11 years old. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, his father had to enter as the son of a Chinese American whose last name was Lem Loy. And, therefore, he changed his name to Leung Lem Loy and settled down in Buffalo (where the Lem Loys lived).

Jin said when he was born, his “paper grandpa” in Buffalo had died. His father had never told him anything about the Lem Loy family. He only told Jin that he was a “paper son” without offering any details. Jin said even after the abolishment of the Chinese Exclusion Act, his father still did not like to talk about it. He carried the fake name through death. “I think many ‘paper sons’ were like this then,” said Jin. “They kept it as a secret because they were worried about being deported back to China.”

Leung Jin shows a photo of his aunt. (Photo by Lan Mu via World Journal)

Wong left a lot of letters and photos when he died at 76. But because of the language barrier, Jin didn’t understand a word until recently when he had some of the letters translated into English. Then he learned that his father had two older sisters, an older brother and a cousin in China when he left. One of the letters shows that in 1935, the older brother told Jin’s father that his family was financially struggling, and Jin’s father then sent a $200 check back to his home in Taishan via Chase Bank.

Jin, who has never lived in Chinatown, said things in China feel very far and exotic to him. Now he is eager to search for his family members and his own roots there. “I have never been to China. Now I want to go to the address on the envelopes of the letters to take a look,” said Jin. “I think these people in the photos are my family members. They may be my aunts and uncle. I would like to find them and through them, to learn more about my father and my family.”

Cuilan Chen, who has been collecting old photos and documents related to Chinese immigrants, a project started by her late father Qiafu Chen, also shared her story at the event. She said her father came to the U.S. from Hong Kong via Australia with her grandfather Mengshu Chen. The Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese laborers from coming into the U.S. But merchants, students and scholars were exempted. The Chens were merchants. So they were allowed to enter the country.

Chen said when he was in Australia, his grandfather opened a shop called Shin Yuen Shing. After he came to the U.S., he opened a shop at 55 Mott St. with the same name in 1928. The shop was passed to his father who then went to college to study engineering while he was running the shop. After graduation, her father joined Otis Elevator Company, becoming one of the two Chinese engineers who worked in elevator design in the U.S. at the time. He later participated in designing the elevators in the World Trade Center.

Chen said the discrimination against Chinese was so strong then that his father, although highly educated, couldn’t get his name listed on the employee roster. Because of this discrimination, Chinese parents wouldn’t encourage their children to learn Chinese. So neither Chen nor her two brothers speak Chinese. “Now being bilingual has become an asset. Chinese parents would love their children to learn Chinese. But back then, parents who expected their children to have a successful life would only teach them English,” Chen said.

Because of these painful memories, Chen’s father started to collect historical documents like photos, accounting books, donation receipts, checks and immigration cards in the later years of his life. Part of his collection was donated to MOCA. Now Chen is continuing her father’s unfinished project. She said, with her collection, she hopes to remind younger generations of Chinese to not forget the history, as well as to help them find their roots.

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