The Unspoken History of a Chinese Family

(Photo by Rong Xiaoqing via Sing Tao Daily)

(Photo by Rong Xiaoqing via Sing Tao Daily)

[Translator’s note: “Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion”, an exhibition about the centuries-long history of trade and immigration between China and the United States, opens September 26 at the New York Historical Society. With 300 historic objects dating back to the American Revolutionary era, the exhibition will be one of the most comprehensive on this theme. It asks the question “What does it mean to be an American?” 

A centerpiece of the exhibition is a trove of documents from third-generation Chinese immigrant Amy Chin. They date back to the darkest time during the Chinese Exclusion Act, a federal law that banned Chinese from emigrating to the U.S. and restricted civil rights of Chinese immigrants who already lived here. The law was enacted in 1882 and repealed in 1943. But its effects didn’t completely disappear until 1965.

Sing Tao Daily had an exclusive interview with Amy Chin.]

“Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion,” an exhibition about the centuries-long history of trade and immigration between China and the United States that the New York Historical Society plans to unveil this fall, will showcase the family history of Chinese American Amy Chin. The organizer hopes to offer history with a personal touch. Chin, who has been digging through family documents as well as public records to prepare for the exhibition, found herself on a discovery journey full of surprises.

The New York-born Chin, 52, is known in the Chinese community for her previous job as the executive director of the New York Chinese Cultural Center. She and Marci Reaven, vice president for history exhibitions of the New York Historical Society, got to know each other at various art events. Reaven learned Chin’s family kept an old coaching book for immigration interviews, which she found in her father’s safety deposit box when the old man passed away in 2007. When Reaven started to prepare for the upcoming exhibition, she thought to borrow the coaching book from Chin for a display. But after they talked, Reaven discovered that Chin had more old documents that could almost make a family museum.

“We are not famous, we are not the first Chinese immigrant family and certainly not the last. But we do have a lot of documents that are piled up in cardboard boxes, albums and drawers, including my grandfather’s tax return in 1949 and the air ticket my father held when he came to the U.S. in 1951,” said Chin.

When she got the invitation from Reaven to chronicle the immigration history of her family for the exhibition, Chin dived into the yellowish crispy papers at home as well as those in libraries, the National Archives and genealogy websites. What she found surprised her.

Chin said the official story of her grandfather, which she heard many times as a kid, is that he was born in the U.S., sent back to China as a baby, and came back to the U.S. in 1913 as a U.S. citizen. That was after the multi-day fire in San Francisco in 1906 burned all the birth certificate records in the governmental archive, and there were no longer official records of people’s citizenship. But through her research, Chin found records that show her grandfather was in the U.S. in 1903. This undoubtedly is related to the Chinese Exclusion Act. “He must have come to the U.S. in 1903 or before without papers, and then went back to China and came back claiming he was a citizen,” said Chin.

When she was a kid, Chin always knew her father had a friend whose last name was Lau. But the friend’s English last name was Chin, the same as her family. When she curiously asked her parents about this, she was always shushed. Now she understands — “Uncle Chin” must be an unrelated “paper relative,” whom her citizen grandfather helped to bring into the U.S. as one of his sons, in order to bypass immigration restrictions.

Chin knows her father came to the U.S. in 1951. But she didn’t know he was detained on Ellis Island for three months right after he arrived, until she found his detention and release forms during her research. She knew her family tried to apply for an apartment in a government project in the Bronx but was declined. The family later bought a property nearby. Now she knows the reason she didn’t end up growing up in the government building is because it had a “white only” policy at the time.

A page from the coaching book. (Photo by Rong Xiaoqing via Sing Tao Daily)

A page from the coaching book. (Photo by Rong Xiaoqing via Sing Tao Daily)

The coaching book, likely from the 1920s, has the questions that an immigration officer might ask printed in Chinese translation that was in the language style of that era. The answers were written by hand, first with ink brush, and then updated with ballpoint pen. The questions may sound bizarre to today’s readers. For example, “Which direction is your family’s house facing?”

Chin figured the coaching book was what her grandfather handed her father and her uncle to help them prepare for the immigration interviews they’d have when they arrived in the U.S.

“When I was a kid, the adults didn’t like to talk about this. They might be worried if the government found out, they’d get in trouble. That might be the reason they kept so many papers. They were preparing for government inspections all the time. That’s how much the Chinese were traumatized by the Chinese Exclusion Act,” said Chin. “Unfortunately, today’s Chinese immigrants know little about our own history.”

Chin also found a lot of similarities in the circumstances then and now. “In the early 19th century, there was a route to ship Chinese immigrants stealthily to the U.S. through Canada. American ship crews and attorneys made a lot of money out of it. Now the immigration policy in this country is still broken. And such trade is still going on,” she said.

Chin said she might put her findings in a book to help younger generations understand history. “The Chinese Exclusion Act was launched out of the fear that Chinese laborers were here to grab jobs of the Americans. Now so many rich people from China come here to shop and study. This could also cause sinophobic concerns. If we forget history, it could happen again,” she said.

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