LOS ANGELES (WOMENSENEWS)–An exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum here, “made in usa: Angel Island Shhh,” tells of struggles nearly lost by the artist’s parents and much of their generation.
The exhibit includes the recordings of interviews conducted by Flo Oy Wong, an award-winning Chinese-American artist, with 20 Chinese immigrants who were detained at San Francisco’s Angel Island Immigration Station. Twenty-five rice sacks hang on the wall, each representing an interviewee, plus five more for the artist’s parents and three sisters. On each bag, Wong stenciled “Angel Island” and detainees’ immigration names printed in red, white and blue, representing an American flag. The detainees’ real names–the “secrets”–are printed in black and concealed in a small pouch sewn to the flag.
Wong spent three years digging through immigration records at the National Archives regional office in San Bruno, Calif., tracing the Angel Island detainees and their descendents who provide the exhibit with the human impact of discriminatory immigration laws.
It took more than half a century for these Chinese-Americans to speak out. Wong’s parents, like many others, died before she began her research.
“She got people to open up and start talking about things they had hid deep within themselves for decades. The installation represents a community coming to terms with its own past that it once viewed as shameful,” said Krissy Kim, assistant curator of the museum. The exhibit reflects the museum’s mission to preserve and share the diverse history of the United States, especially the obscure stories left out of school textbooks.
‘Paper People’ Created to Elude Immigration Law
Wong’s family’s secret began when her father, Seow Hong Gee, arrived in San Francisco on May 27, 1912, aboard the S.S. Manchuria. Gee was detained on Angel Island for almost three weeks for interrogation, with little food and in living quarters that had triple-tiered bunks and no heat.
His experience was not unusual. Many detainees relied on relatives who lived in San Francisco to bring canned food for sustenance, and the detainees wore several layers of clothes to fight the biting winds of the San Francisco Bay. Some were detained for months. Others, convinced they could not face the humiliation of deportation, hung themselves in the one area with privacy–the toilets.
Those Chinese who survived Angel Island discovered they were on their own: The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese wives from joining their laborer husbands who came to the United States.
As a result, a “great disparity” existed between the number of Chinese men and Chinese women who were allowed to immigrate to the United States, said John Gjerde, a history professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Until 1965, when the law was changed, many Chinese women who wanted to join their husbands adopted fake identities in order to enter the country as someone’s sister or daughter. A black market for these identities thrived in China for those desperate to come to the United States. The false identities became known as “paper people.”
The schemes worked because China did not have the type of birth and death records the U.S. government needed to uphold the Exclusion Act and verify relationships between family members. It was impossible for immigration officials to determine whether a man who claimed he had three brothers and four sisters was telling the truth.
Toddler Sister Clears Way for Artist’s Family to Immigrate
In 1933, Gee’s wife, Suey Ting Yee, purchased the identity of a young woman named Theo Quee Gee, who lived in Toishan, the same village as Wong’s mother.
Wong’s mother and sisters landed at Angel Island, with her mother posing as Theo Quee Gee–her husband’s “paper sister”–and guardian of the three children.
“Throughout the Angel Island interrogations, my sisters had to call my mother ‘auntie’ instead of ‘mom,'” Wong said. But it was 2-year-old Li Wah, then the youngest daughter, who helped her mother and sisters get through immigration.
Li Wah, like the others, was asked questions to ensure that each person’s story matched up. Any difference would have put them on the next ship back to China.
“The interrogator asked the Li Wah, ‘Little girl, little girl, what’s your name?'” said Wong, mimicking an interrogator’s voice. “My sister flippantly answered in Chinese, ‘If you don’t tell me your name, I’m not telling you my name.'”
The interrogator couldn’t stop laughing at the brazen response so he let the family go.
Parents Take Strict Measures to Avoid Detection
After leaving Angel Island, Wong’s parents feared authorities would discover their real relationship, and decided it would be safest to live several blocks apart in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco. But the secret grew more complicated when Wong’s mother became pregnant in 1934 with their fourth daughter, while still posing as her husband’s sister.
To provide legitimacy for her baby and the others that followed, Wong’s father paid a man to marry Wong’s mother in name only. On Feb. 14, 1934, Theo Quee Gee became Mrs. Sheng Wong at the Chinese Community United Methodist Church in Oakland. Wong said this man was never a part of her family and she never saw him.
Wong, her fourth and fifth sisters, and her younger brother were all born in America and have Western names. But bearing the last name of their “paper father” Wong, they grew up as “paper daughters and son,” all the time fearing disclosure of their secret might result in deportation.
During her childhood, Wong tried to assimilate into American culture. She became the first and only Girl Scout in her family, an activity she said is “unheard of in a Chinese family.” She graduated from University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in English in 1960 and married a year later. She was a housewife when her children were young, then taught English for a while and eventually took art classes in Oakland, which inspired her to express herself through art.
Another work at the exhibit, “My Mother’s Baggage: Paper Sister/Paper Aunt/Paper Wife,” includes photos scanned from Wong’s family album and glued inside six antique suitcases that together form a kind of book. Using letters cut out from magazines, Wong recreated her story, numbering each suitcase with a page number for viewers to follow.
“I remember as a child, I would often get confused: The forms would ask for my mother’s maiden name, and I didn’t know which it was,” Wong recalls in the exhibition catalogue. “Her authentic maiden name was Yee, and sometimes I would answer that, but other times I would write down Gee.”
Art Releases Pain of Family History
After tucking the secret away for 45 years, it was her husband, Ed Wong, who encouraged Wong to transform her family’s secret into art. He’d met a former Angel Island detainee during one of the tours he led as a volunteer on the island and recounted the detainee’s story to his wife.
“Ed was so passionate about it,” Wong said. “And I too wanted people to know about our experience. And so I decided to do ‘made in usa: Angel Island Shhh.'”
“Retrieving the story was very painful,” she said. “Then after talking about it, I can now talk about it like it’s fact, because I released the pain of the experience.”
Rosa Yum is a student at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
For more information:
Japanese American National Museum:
“Flo Oy Wong: Angel Island, Immigration and Family Stories”
Kearny Street Workshop
“made in usa: Angel Island Shhh”:
Chinese Exclusion Act: