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Chinatown author tells family stories under Exclusion Act

20 December 2008 No Comment

William Wong is a renowned journalist and writer who was born and grew up in Oakland’s Chinatown. He is the author of Yellow Journalist: Dispatches from Asian America and Images of America: Oakland’s Chinatown and a co-author of Images of America: Angel Island.

510report’s Guo Shipeng interviewed him for a story on the 65th anniversary of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which fell on Wednesday, December 17. Wong responded to Guo’s questions with long and interesting answers, in which he told about his parent’s hard journey for a better life in America and gave some insightful comments on the Chinese American community’s past, present and future.

When did your parents move to the U.S.? Were they ever held on the Angel Island?

My father arrived in the United States in 1912, when he was 16 years old, according to his immigration papers. We don’t really know the real story of why he came then, but family legend has it that his mother sent him to join people from his village, who had settled in Oakland, running a small business, to help the family back in the village with whatever he could earn here.

He stayed on Angel Island for about a week the first time. In subsequent years, he traveled back to China three or four times, finally bringing his wife and three daughters to Oakland in 1933. Each time he came back, he had to be verified as legal, and we don’t know how much time, if any, he had to spend on Angel Island. When his wife (my future mother) and three daughters came for the first time, they were detained on Angel Island for about a week.

Again, my mother came in November of 1933, with two of her own daughters and a daughter (older than her two) from my father’s first wife. My mother had to come in as my father’s sister, not his wife. That was because the law at the time didn’t allow Chinese men to bring in their wives, but for some reason, the law allowed them to bring in a sister. So that is what my father did — bring in his “sister” who was really his wife.

When she became pregnant in Oakland in 1934, they had to solve this legal dilemma, she being officially a single woman. So they hired a man named Wong Sheng to be my mother’s paper husband. That is why the four children born in Oakland (daughter numbers 4, 5, and 6, and then finally me, the only son) carry the family name of Wong, not Gee, which is what my father’s name really is.

How do you feel about the Chinese Exclusion Act and its repeal in 1943?

Angry and sad about the act itself, even though I never suffered directly from its effect. Angry and sad because this act greatly delayed the natural integration of Chinese (and other Asians) into American society. The first 30 or so years of significant Chinese and Asian immigration (from the Gold Rush of 1848 to 1882, when the exclusion act was passed) were harsh on Chinese and Asian immigrants. Yet many of them worked hard to survive and to contribute to the building of the Western United States (agricultural and railroad building, especially).

Then for about 60 years (1882 to 1943), Chinese and other Asian immigrants really suffered and the full development of Chinese and Asian families and communities was greatly suppressed by the exclusion act. That was undeniable institutional racism. That meant that Chinese and other Asians in America at the time did not have the same opportunities as white Americans who had come to America from Europe. Not only didn’t these Chinese and Asians have equal opportunity, they were badly treated, humiliated, and made to feel inferior to “regular” Americans, mostly white Americans.

Angry and sad because of all these lost opportunities for Chinese and Asians like my parents and countless others who might have prospered more and earlier than today’s Asian and Chinese immigrants, who came after the immigration reforms of 1965.

How’s the Chinese American community doing now?

If you didn’t know about this ugly part of Chinese American/Asian American history (1850s to 1950s) and only knew about the fairly recent Chinese/Asian immigrant narrative from the past 40 years, you might think that things are pretty good for this slice of the American population. Some of that is indeed true. Many Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans are high achievers and are relatively well integrated into many facets of American life.

Now, under the new Obama administration, there are samples of ultimate success for a few Chinese Americans and Asian Americans. Plus a plethora of other Chinese American “stars” like Yo Yo Ma, I.M. Pei, Maya Lin, Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, David Ho, Gary Locke, Michelle Kwan, et. al. It is hard to argue that Chinese Americans (and Asian Americans) are “discriminated against” or thought lowly of, when one considers this all-star cast.

Yet I wonder, if there hadn’t been an exclusion act, how many more Chinese American and Asian American “stars” there might have been far earlier in American life and how much richer and advanced America might have been had there not been a Chinese Exclusion Act, or the Jim Crow laws that kept African Americans “separate but equal” (a laughable concept!) in the American South, or the extermination of Native Americans, or the institutional racism against Mexicans and other Latinos.

What do you expect for the future?

It is a good thing that America today is a fairer and more equitable society. The election of Barack Obama last month confirmed the advances our society has made over the past half century.

We do know, however, that the seeds of racial hatred still are being sown somewhere (many places, actually), but the encouraging note is that the Obama phenomenon points us in a better direction and we have hope now that we Americans won’t go backwards in terms of racial and ethnic relationships. We won’t always go straight forward either; there will be setbacks, but our direction is much clearer now and in a much healthier direction with Obama’s leadership, example, and inspiration.

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Click here to visit Wong’s OAKLAND CHINATOWN HISTORY website and here for a historical profile of the Angel Island Immigration Station.

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