Crossing Borders: Chinese Immigrant Children and the Production of Knowledge

Eleven-year-old Chew Gim immigrated to the United States from China in 1909 seeking entry as the minor son of a native-born citizen. He hoped to join his father, Chew Hong, who lived and worked in the U.S.1 The Chinese Exclusion Act, originally passed in 1882, regulated the admittance of Chinese immigrants. Rooted in racism, classism, and xenophobia, the act emerged from anti-immigrant hostility and forcible efforts to drive out Chinese immigrants. This class-based and race-based immigration law thus excluded the entry of Chinese laborers. Chinese diplomats, students, travelers, merchant-class families or the children of natives were exempt under the act.2

Chew Gim, claiming exempt-status as the child of an American citizen, carefully prepared for his immigration interview by memorizing facts about his family’s history and home in China. When he finally came face-to-face with immigration officials, he recalled every detail and answered all of the inspector’s questions accurately. But the previous statements of his father cast suspicion on their case. Upon re-entry into the United States several years prior, Chew Hong had told immigration officials that he had never been married and had no children. Commissioner of Immigration Hart Hyatt North denied the boy admission into the United States, suspecting that Chew Gim was a paper son.

Affidavit of Chew Hong regarding his status and his son's identity
This document shows the son Chew Gim and the father Chew Hong in 1909. Source: Chew Gim, file 10308/114, box 2979, Chinese Arrival Files, San Francisco, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Record Group 85, National Archives, Pacific Region, San Bruno, California.

Chinese immigrants created the paper son and paper daughter system to bypass exclusionary immigration policies. A family seeking to send a child abroad would purchase false papers that identified the child as the son or daughter of a merchant or native-born citizen. Paper sons and daughters thus had to memorize this new family history in order to gain entry into the country. Immigration inspectors, catching onto the scheme, developed more elaborate processes and interview questions to try to determine who was actually an exempt-class immigrant and who was a paper child. Chinese immigrant children, exempt-class or not, thus had to carefully prepare for the interview.

Upon learning that Commissioner North had denied his son’s application, Chew Hong broke down in tears, realizing that they would not be reunited. Commissioner North had never seen a response quite like this. Moved by the love of a father toward his son, North changed his mind. Determining that they were, in fact, related, he reversed his decision and allowed Chew Lim entry to the United States as the son of a native.3

The stories of Chinese immigrant children like Chew Lim are an important part of our collective immigration history. But these stories are also essential to uncovering the significant role of child migrants in the movement of knowledge across geographic and temporal borders. These youth preserved and conveyed important information about their family histories not only across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean but also across time through the generations.4

In an attempt to navigate the complexity of the ever-changing U.S. immigration polices, Chinese youth used the knowledge shared by returning friends and family members to better prepare for their own journey. Once they arrived in the United States, young Chinese immigrants had to apply and adapt their knowledge as they gained further insight into the immigration process. Each successive immigrant tapped into the collective body of knowledge of their predecessors to practice for their own interview before immigration officials.5

The increasingly intense interrogations of the immigration inspectors forced immigrants to develop more effective strategies. Using their experiences, they constructed new knowledge to navigate the system. Albert King described the intense questioning he faced immigrating to the United States as a teenager in 1916. His father had passed away and King was coming to take over the business. This son felt that his fate rested on his ability to not only tell his own history but also to recall the stories his father had told him. Aware of King’s father’s status as an elite merchant, immigration inspectors attempted to extort a bribe from King in exchange for his admittance. They harassed him for his inability to recall tiny details about his father’s life and threatened to deport him, even though they were fully aware that he was his father’s son. Officials eventually relented and granted King’s entry.6

The burden of proof fell squarely on the shoulders of these young immigrants, and they knew that failing to remember details could have severe consequences. Children migrating as paper sons or paper daughters bore an especially heavy burden. They often felt the weight of their family’s hopes and dreams on their shoulders. In order to avoid suspicion about their working-class origins, paper children tapped into the knowledge of other immigrants and studied the system. They learned to adhere to the expectations of immigration authorities. Those claiming to be the children of merchants tried to project an air of respectability. Immigration inspectors expected that children of merchants would exhibit physical markers of status such as fine clothing, jewelry, and good communication skills. The details they provided about their paper families had to match those provided by their alleged family members and the witnesses testifying on their behalf. Failure to do so could have serious consequences.

Fong Bow arrived in San Francisco in May 1909, seeking entry as the son of a native. But discrepancies between his answers and the responses of his alleged father suggested he was a paper son. They disagreed on death dates of family members and distances to the market. Fong Bow also indicated that his mother had bound feet while his alleged father insisted she did not. Immigration officials denied Fong Bow entry and he was sent back to China on the next steamer.7

The ever-present threat of deportation loomed over immigrant children living in the United States, reminding them of the necessity of remembering the details of the story they told immigration officials. If they ever decided to return to visit their families in China, they would need to recall these facts. Using their knowledge of the system, they built complex networks of friends, families, and allies in the United States and China that worked together, sharing knowledge to protect the community.

The information they provided to immigration officials became a part of the official record. This permanent family history was subject to the scrutiny of government officials for generations to come. Even as they built new lives for themselves and established homes in the United States, child immigrants retained memories of their past lives and homes. As they grew and had families of their own, many paper children passed on to their descendants two histories: the history of their paper family and the history of their biological family, public and private memories. Both stories were crucial to their new identities as Chinese Americans. Storytelling thus became a crucial part of the transfer of knowledge between the generations.

By recounting their personal migration histories, Chinese immigrant children helped construct a collective knowledge about the history of the Chinese American experience. Today, their often painful stories allow us to reflect on our immigration history as we challenge the xenophobic and racist immigration polices in our present.

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Wendy L. Rouse is associate professor of history at San José State University. For more information on the experiences of Chinese immigrant children see her Children of Chinatown: Growing Up Chinese American in San Francisco, 1850–1920 (UNC Press). Her most recent book is Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women’s Self-Defense Movement (NYU Press), and her Twitter handle is @WendyLRouse.

  1. Chew Gim, file 10308/114, box 2979, Chinese Arrival Files, San Francisco, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Record Group 85, National Archives, Pacific Region, San Bruno, California. ↩︎
  2. Erika Lee, At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882–1943 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Lucy E. Sayler, Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Erika Lee and Judy Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). ↩︎
  3. Chew Gim, file 10308/114, box 2979, Chinese Arrival Files, San Francisco, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Record Group 85, National Archives, Pacific Region, San Bruno, California. ↩︎
  4. Wendy L. Rouse, “Between Two Worlds: Chinese Immigrant Children and the Production of Knowledge in the Era of Chinese Exclusion,” in “Knowledge and Young Migrants,” ed. Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg, special issue, KNOW: A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge 3, no. 2 (Fall 2019): 263–82. ↩︎
  5. For much more on the experiences of Chinese immigrant children see Wendy Rouse Jorae, The Children of Chinatown: Growing up Chinese American in San Francisco, 1850-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009). ↩︎
  6. C. H. Burnett, “Life History of Albert King as Social Document,” July 31, 1924, Major Document 193, box 27, folder 193, Survey of Race Relations Collection, Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, Stanford University. ↩︎
  7. Fong Bow, file 10329/63, box 322, Chinese Arrival Files. San Francisco, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Record Group 85, National Archives, Pacific Region, San Bruno, California. ↩︎

Suggested citation: Wendy L. Rouse, "Crossing Borders: Chinese Immigrant Children and the Production of Knowledge," Migrant Knowledge, March 2, 2020, https://migrantknowledge.org/2020/03/02/crossing-borders-chinese-immigrant-children-and-the-production-of-knowledge/.
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