When Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, it froze the size of the Chinese immigrant population in the country. No new Chinese, except for a select few, including scholars and diplomats, were allowed into the country. Those already here were largely barred from citizenship. The act blocked Chinese men who had immigrated during the Gold Rush and the railroad boom of the late 19th century from reuniting with their families.
But when the great earthquake of 1906 hit San Francisco, lighting fires that leveled hundreds of city blocks, some Chinese immigrants sensed an opportunity.
By claiming to be citizens whose records had been lost in the destruction, they became free to travel to China; once there, they could either bring back blood relatives or sell their paperwork to others who would claim to be family members -- paper sons.
"About 80% to 90% of the 175,000 Chinese that came to America between 1910 and 1940 were paper sons," said Judy Yung, professor emeritus in Asian American Studies at UC Santa Cruz whose father was a paper son.
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But the legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the paper son phenomenon lingers. The result is that a younger generation of Chinese Americans like Steve Yee grew up confused about and disconnected from their family history.
Yee said his father hid his secret so well that the family wondered if they would ever find out much about his real background. Joe Yee worked long hours at the family-owned grocery store and rarely talked to his children about himself or his past.
His children knew he served in World War II and was awarded a Bronze Star. They knew he traveled back to China once to wed their mother in an arranged marriage. And they knew he defeated discrimination by asking a white friend to buy their home and deed it to the family.
Other than that, their father remained a mystery. He was not so much concerned about his children learning their Chinese roots as he was about their becoming Americans.
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For her own children's sake, Yee's sister Lillie Yee-Shiroi, 61, also wanted to learn more about her father's life and family history. There was so much basic information they didn't know. What was her father's real birth date? When did he arrive in San Francisco? On what boat?
"When my son was in fifth grade he had to do a family history project and make a family tree," recalled Yee-Shiroi, a retired social worker who married a Japanese
"On my husband's side there were all these relatives. On my side, besides my brothers and sisters, there was question mark, question mark, question mark."
I confess I've thought of the 'paper sons' as sort of ancient history -- I had not considered the lingering effects of that period of history on the families of 'paper sons.'
I think it's important for our adopted Chinese children to understand the history of the Chinese in America, not just the history of China. Though recent immigrants to America, our kids as Chinese-Americans need to be connected to the rich history of the Chinese in America, which is part of their history now, too. I've mentioned it before, but a great read for adults wishing to learn more is Iris Chang's Chinese in America.