Previous articleNext article FreeBetween Two Worlds: Chinese Immigrant Children and the Production of Knowledge in the Era of Chinese ExclusionWendy L. RouseWendy L. RouseSan José State University Search for more articles by this author San José State UniversityPDFPDF PLUSFull Text Add to favoritesDownload CitationTrack CitationsPermissionsReprints Share onFacebookTwitterLinked InRedditEmailQR Code SectionsMoreHistory through the eyes of its youngest creators is revealing in that it offers perspectives rarely considered and stories seldom told. The experiences of children provide a unique window into the past. Migrant children, with their experiences crossing borders and bridging chasms between cultures, have been especially influential in moving, constructing, and reconstructing knowledge. Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg remind us of the importance of examining the history of “knowledge on the move” and especially of “the role of young people in migration, including their part in initiating the process of relocation and contending with the challenges posed by migration.”1 Lässig and Steinberg have argued for a broad definition of knowledge that includes scientific and scholarly as well as social and everyday knowledge. Similarly, this article considers the importance of everyday knowledge, especially through family history, cultural understanding, and practical knowledge about surviving and adapting in an often hostile world. Chinese immigrant children who traveled to the United States during the Chinese Exclusion Era played a significant role in moving knowledge across geographic and temporal borders, bridging cultural knowledge divides, and constructing new knowledge about the meaning of American democracy.Crossing BordersChinese immigrant children preserved and conveyed important knowledge about their family histories across the Pacific Ocean and across the generations. Chinese children who arrived in the United States during the Exclusion Era (1882–1943) faced substantial barriers to entry. Chinese immigrants began migrating to the United States as early as the 1850s, shortly after the discovery of gold in California. Initially welcomed and often recruited as laborers, Chinese immigrants played a significant role in developing the mining, agriculture, fishing, railroad, and manufacturing industries of the West. By the 1870s, however, economic recession combined with increasing anti-immigrant hostility led to violence and forcible efforts to drive out Chinese immigrants. Political organizations such as the Workingmen’s Party of California formed with the goal of eliminating Chinese labor. They lobbied Congress to exclude Chinese immigrants. This anti-Chinese hostility resulted in the passage of several discriminatory immigration laws, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Exclusion Act was a race- and class-based immigration act that banned Chinese laborers and their families from entering the United States. Diplomats, students, travelers, children of natives, and merchant-class families were exempted from this act. However, exempt-class immigrants had to prove their eligibility to enter the country by eliciting witnesses to verify their exempt-class status and testify on their behalf in front of immigration authorities. Failure to demonstrate sufficient evidence could result in deportation.2In an attempt to circumvent the exclusion laws, Chinese immigrants used their knowledge about US immigration policy to create a paper son/paper daughter system. Families scraped together the resources, often borrowing money and going into further debt, in order to send a child to the United States. They hoped that the child would find work abroad and be able to send money back to help support the family in China. They purchased false papers through brokers that detailed a family history identifying the immigrant as the son or daughter of a merchant, a native-born citizen returning to the United States after an extended visit to China, or the child of a native-born citizen. Using the knowledge passed on to them by previous immigrants, Chinese children immigrating as paper sons or daughters learned about what to expect in the immigration process and memorized the details about their paper family. Adult companions coached children who were too young to read or write, telling them what to say to immigration officials. Even those children who were exempt under the exclusion laws often memorized their responses and practiced the answers they would provide to immigration inspectors.3After arriving in the United States, Chinese immigrants had to apply and adapt their knowledge as they gained further insight into the immigration process. They were detained for weeks or months while authorities investigated their case. The immigration bureau greatly expanded during this era as the United States increasingly became a gatekeeping nation. Called before immigration officials, children were required to prove their exempt status and their right to enter the country. In order to avoid suspicion about their working-class origins, immigrants 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 written and oral communication skills. Failure to behave or dress accordingly increased their risk of deportation. The majority of immigrant children who arrived in the 1880s and 1890s, however, bypassed this class-based requirement by claiming exempt status as a returning native or the child of a native. Regardless of their social class, children had to provide details about themselves, their families, and their homes in China. Their responses had to match the answers given by family members and witnesses testifying on their behalf. A Chinese American interpreter, with personal knowledge about Chinese language and culture, provided translation services. A stenographer recorded their responses for the official record. The information that the children provided thus became a permanent part of the family’s history and was subject to the scrutiny of government officials for generations to come.As Chinese immigrants passed their knowledge about the immigration process back to their friends and families in China, each new immigrant was able to tap into that collective body of knowledge to prepare for their own interview before immigration officials. During the interrogation process, some children claiming exempt status responded to the questions so accurately and quickly that immigration officials worried they had been coached. The investigators found themselves increasingly struggling to determine who was telling the truth. Providing details that were too specific suggested that a child had rehearsed the story they told the authorities.4 But since both legitimate exempt-class child immigrants and paper sons/daughters often practiced their stories in advance, immigration officers had to identify who was who. Corroboration of the immigrant’s testimony was necessary. Yet the testimony of family members sometimes contradicted their statements. When eleven-year-old Chew Gim faced US immigration officials in 1909 seeking entry as the minor son of a native, he remembered every fact he had been taught and answered the immigration inspector’s questions accurately. But the testimony of his father, Chew Hong, cast suspicion on the case since seven years prior he had told immigration officials that he had never been married and had no children. Commissioner of Immigration Hart Hyatt North denied admission to Chew Gim due to the inconsistencies in his father’s testimony. Chew Hong was devastated by the decision that his son would not be allowed to enter the United States. Commissioner North, moved by the father’s tears, quickly changed his mind, noting that “the unaffected grief displayed by the alleged father” when informed of the decision convinced him that they were, in fact, father and son.5Not all children were so lucky. Child immigrants who struggled to remember details jeopardized their right to enter the country. Hesitant or inaccurate responses led to scrutiny. Immigration inspectors used their knowledge about the immigrants and their efforts to bypass the Exclusion Act through the paper son/daughter system to design increasingly more detailed questions about the applicant’s family, house, and village in China. Albert King experienced this more intense questioning when he immigrated to the United States as a teenager in 1916. King’s father, a prominent merchant, had passed away and King intended to assume responsibility for the family business. He described the corruptness of officials in both China and in America who, aware of his status as the child of a wealthy businessman, tried to solicit a bribe from him in order to guarantee his entry into the United States. Although the immigration inspector in the United States knew and liked his father, King faced harassment in the interrogation process because of his apparent inability to remember details about his father’s life. He explained that he had heard multiple stories about his father’s family (possibly because his father may have immigrated as a paper son). King bore the responsibility of remembering his own history as well as the history his father had told him. Apparently, he missed some important details. When he recited the story he had been told, the immigration inspector called King a liar and threatened to deport him. Yet there was substantial evidence to verify that he was in fact his father’s son, and despite the immigration official’s threats, King was eventually admitted to the country.6The burden of proof thus fell squarely on the shoulders of these young immigrants, and they knew that failing to remember details could have severe consequences. Fong Bow arrived in San Francisco in May 1909 seeking entry as the son of a native. His application was denied due to discrepancies between his testimony and the testimony of his alleged father, Fong Lung. They differed on some death dates and on estimated distances from their home to the market in their home village in China. More substantial was the fact that Fong Bow said his mother had bound feet, while Fong Lung insisted that she did not. These discrepancies suggested to immigration officials that Fong Bow was a paper son. He was denied admission and sent back to China on the next steamer at the expense of the steamship company.7Most Chinese immigrants, however, accurately recalled the details of their family history (real or paper) and were able to successfully navigate the immigration process with the help of family members, paper families, immigration brokers, and attorneys. Their families in China and the United States especially depended on the success of their journey. Chinese immigrant children were moving knowledge not only across physical geographic space and national boundaries but also across temporal space and generational boundaries. Immigrant children who entered the United States as paper sons or daughters retained internal memories and connections to their homes and families back in China while maintaining an external connection and public facade of their relationship to a paper family.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 China to visit their families back home, they would need to recite the information they had previously told immigration authorities again to gain reentry. Even as they built new lives for themselves and established homes in the United States, they retained memories of their past lives and homes. For some immigrants, memories of their real families may have faded over the decades, and the consequence was the disappearance of knowledge over generations. The perpetuation of a false family history in the official record was more likely to persist over time. The result was a loss of memories of their biological family and the reconstruction of family narratives around a paper family. In 2013, Byron Yee publicly shared his Chinese American family history, noting that he never knew that his father was a paper son until he began researching his family tree as an adult. From the time his father had immigrated to the United States as a teenager to his adult life, Yee’s father kept his real family history a secret and passed on a false family identity. Yee speculated that his father did not want him to know the real story out of fear of discovery by immigration officials. It was only after his father’s death that Yee uncovered his family’s complicated immigration history.8 Many child immigrants, however, maintained their connections with both families and passed on to their descendants two histories: the history of their paper family and the history of their biological family, a public history and a private history. Both stories were crucial to their new identities as Chinese Americans. Storytelling thus became an essential part of the transfer of knowledge between the generations. By recording and recounting their personal migration histories, Chinese immigrant children helped construct a collective knowledge about the history of the Chinese American experience.Bridging Cultural DividesChinese immigrant children living in the United States often became cultural interpreters, bridging cultural knowledge divides. Regardless of whether they arrived as exempt-class immigrants or paper sons/daughters, children bore a heavy responsibility and duty to help support their families. Some children continued to work and live on their own, sending remittances and letters describing their life in America back to their family in China. Other children traveled with or reunited with relatives in the United States, attempting to reestablish the family unit in America. Parents expected their children to retain their Chinese identity through the study of Chinese language, history, and culture. Yet they also expected their immigrant children to absorb as much new knowledge as possible about the English language and about American life to share with their families. Educators concerned with assimilating immigrant youth also encouraged Chinese children’s rapid absorption of knowledge about the English language and American culture. Chinese immigrant children, like the children of other immigrants, were therefore in a unique position to bridge gaps between generations and cultures. The typical middle-class child in San Francisco’s early twentieth-century Chinatown spent their mornings attending public school and their afternoons at Chinese school. Some children resented the time commitment required for their education and the high expectations placed on them by their parents. Most, however, recognized that this dual education expanded their opportunities and uniquely prepared them to serve as intermediaries between two worlds.Immigrant children frequently served as cultural translators for their parents as they constructed new knowledge about how to survive in American society. Educated in American schools, Chinese immigrant children understood more English than their parents and were therefore able to help them with interpretation when necessary. In this way, Chinese immigrant children helped to socialize and familiarize their immigrant parents with American culture. As a result, parents asked their children to assist in adult tasks such as paying bills, negotiating contracts, or running the family business. Yet this role reversal sometimes upset the traditional balance of power within immigrant families. Children began to question parental authority and rely on outside authority figures as role models, sometimes resulting in familial conflicts. Parents complained that children had no respect for their elders and refused to listen to them.9As their knowledge about the differences between the generations grew, child immigrants similarly complained about the older generation. One seventeen-year-old Chinese girl who had immigrated to the United States with her family in 1908 when she was only five years old described the conflicts that emerged between herself and her parents as a result of the role reversal. The daughter of a middle-class business owner, Esther Wong told interviewers in 1924 that she resented the adult work that her parents required her to take on at an early age. She worked in her father’s garment factory as a child, and by age twelve she was supervising the employees at the factory. As a teenager, she had to care for her ill mother and take over the household chores. Wong explained that she did not attend school until she was eleven years of age. Wong resented what she described as their strict Chinese-style parenting strategies. She rebelled at points, even objecting to her parents’ decision about which suitor she would marry, preferring instead American ideals of companionate marriage. Ultimately she succeeded in refusing to marry, forcing her parents’ acquiescence by threatening to leave home. Through the conflict, she attempted to inform her parents about her knowledge of American cultural practices while they tried to teach her about Chinese cultural traditions.10 Intergenerational conflicts were common among all immigrant parents and their children, but the liminal position of Chinese immigrant families in American society during the Exclusion Era made them especially vulnerable to the hostility of outsiders, especially as segregation remained a daily part of life and deportation persisted as an ever-present threat. The negotiation of these intergenerational tensions was thus vital to the success of Chinese American families in the United States.Beyond their family life, Chinese immigrant children also bore the burden of bridging gaps between two often conflicting cultures. In 1924, Fred Wong described his experience with his white classmates as a student at the University of Washington in Seattle. Wong was born in China and immigrated to Canada after grammar school. He completed high school in Calgary before moving to the United States to attend college. Wong explained: “The American students regard us as a curiosity. They think we Chinese are people of the Stone Age and our people back home are still living in huts and holes under the ground.” He often found himself explaining Chinese history and cultural practices to his white classmates. At times, the condescension and air of superiority in their questions and tone upset him. At a social event at his church, a female student approached him and asked him if people in China lived in houses. Shocked and offended, Wong educated her with a biting response: “I know that our ancestors lived in beautiful houses and wrote poetry describing them before the Anglo-Saxon people knew what clothing was.”11Some children willingly took on the role of cultural ambassador, attempting to forge connections and understanding between Chinese and American cultures. In 1905, Bessie Ah Tye was a student in San Francisco who sought to dispel myths about Chinese culture. She told a reporter writing an article on the modern life of Chinese American girls for the San Francisco Call, “Foreigners are prone to judge us from the outside. The tourists see all that is lowest and basest in Chinatown; they see only what the guides show them. The best side—the real home life of the better classes—is too sacred a thing for display and, because unseen on the surface, it is overlooked.” Rachel Lee, who had immigrated to the United States at the age of nine, was also interviewed for the same article. She told the reporter that it was her ambition to translate books in order to facilitate communication between the cultures: “I want to interest our women in you through your stories; then in turn, I would interest you in us, through ours. Nations cannot understand each other without an exchange of literature, can they?”12As cultural mediators, immigrant children and second-generation children frequently described a feeling of belonging to two cultures. This dual identity and the pressure of living in two worlds often created a sense of marginalization for immigrant children. Chinese immigrant children sometimes felt like they were never fully accepted by either Chinese or American society.13 Some of these children sought to resolve this conflict by communicating their intimate knowledge of Chinese culture to outsiders in hopes of bridging these cultural boundaries. Likewise, they sought to share their experiences growing up in American culture with their more insular and isolated parents. Through their experiences, they constructed new knowledge about what it meant to be Chinese in America and forged a unique identity as Chinese Americans.Redefining American DemocracyPrior to their arrival in the United States, Chinese immigrant children typically had some knowledge about American life passed on to them from the stories of immigrants who had traveled to the United States before them. Laudatory stories about “Gold Mountain” generally reflected idealistic notions of American life. Yet, these ideals often fell far short of reality. Chinese immigrant children constructed new knowledge as their actual experiences with discrimination and segregation in the United States changed their perceptions over time and reshaped their worldview. White teachers in the public school system sought to inculcate their students with state-sanctioned knowledge about American history, culture, and values. Chinese immigrant children thus learned about the principles of American democracy in theory in the public schools while witnessing firsthand its partial application in the reality of their daily lives. Thus, through a careful negotiation between the values taught in the public schools versus their lived experiences, Chinese immigrant children constructed important new knowledge that would prove crucial to their survival in their new home. They communicated their experiences and shared their new knowledge with their families in China, thus altering expectations of the immigrant experience. Increasingly, they constructed new knowledge as they fought for equality and redefined the meaning of being an American.The experiences of Chinese immigrant children revealed a contradiction in their knowledge as they struggled to resolve the conflict between their idealistic expectations about equality in America and the reality of their daily life. In 1924, an anonymous Chinese immigrant told an interviewer that when he was a boy in China he had learned that America was “a wonderful place to live where everyone had plenty and was happy.” He looked forward to traveling to the “Gold Mountain” to meet the wonderful people he had heard so much about. Although he expressed overall satisfaction with his experiences in America, he revealed to the interviewer that he was shocked to encounter discrimination. Shortly after his arrival, he realized that Americans viewed Chinese as different and “only fit for cooks, gardeners, laundrymen and to mend chairs.”14 Because of prejudice, Chinese immigrants faced limited employment opportunities in the United States.Many other child immigrants were similarly stunned when they came face to face with overt racism and violence. J. S. Look and Andrew Kan were both teenagers when they arrived in San Francisco in the 1880s. Look remembered that American boys threw stones at him as he walked down the street. Kan was likewise shocked by the cruel treatment he received: “The hoodlums, roughnecks, and young boys pull your queue, slap your face, throw all kind of old vegetables and rotten eggs at you. All you could do was to run.”15 This direct confrontation with hostility dramatically changed their perception of America.Chinese immigrant children also faced blatant discrimination in the form of segregated facilities. J. S. Look was surprised to discover that Chinese people were not welcome in restaurants and theaters that catered to white people in San Francisco.16 Chinese immigrants in Seattle were also denied access to local businesses. Fred Wong, a Chinese immigrant student, recalled that a barber gave in to pressure from the community and refused to cut the hair of Chinese students. A landlord in Seattle refused to rent to two Chinese college girls because the white neighbors complained about Chinese living in the neighborhood.17Segregated schools further revealed the degree of hostility and racism that Chinese children faced. In 1860, the California state legislature passed a law prohibiting Chinese children from attending school with white children. The state superintendent of public instruction, Andrew J. Moulder, argued that such an extreme step was necessary to protect white children from the “moral and physical ruin” that could result from “contamination and pollution by a race reeking with the vices of the Orient.”18 By 1870, a new state segregation law failed to mention the Chinese at all. Alternating through periods of strict and lax enforcement to complete neglect of the new school laws, the Chinese community turned to mission schools and private tutors to supplement the education of their children.19 In 1884, a San Francisco Chinese couple, Mary and Joseph Tape, attempted to enroll their daughter, Mamie Tape, in a local white public school. When the school refused to enroll Mamie as a student, the Tapes took their case to the courts. In Tape v. Hurley, the California State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Tape family, arguing that Mamie Tape had the right to attend the school since no law specifically prohibited the Chinese from going to school with whites. In response, the state legislature passed a new state segregation law and the San Francisco Board of Education opened a segregated public school specifically for Chinese children in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1885. Complaining about the quality of education at the Chinese school, parents continued to challenge the segregated school law into the twentieth century.20 The courts, however, consistently ruled in favor of segregation. Despite legal and political challenges to the law from the Chinese American community, the segregated-school law officially remained the law of the land until 1947.Through these multiple encounters with racism and segregation, Chinese immigrant children constructed new knowledge about surviving in a segregated system. Combining the knowledge they accrued through the American education system with the knowledge of their actual lived experiences, Chinese immigrant children began to construct a uniquely Chinese American identity. Some boldly spoke out publicly about the injustices of segregation and sexism, claiming their rights as Americans and as human beings. While traveling with fellow college students on a train around 1920, Fred Wong listened for hours as the other students debated whether fraternities and sororities should allow Chinese students into their ranks for fear that socializing between the races would lead to interracial marriages. Wong fought back, arguing that Chinese men do not want to marry white women; instead, he insisted that “what we want [is] to have an equal opportunity in our intellectual pursuit and to be treated as human beings.” He further argued that “they must change their hearts; they must bear in mind that all men under the sun are worthy in the measure of their intelligence and moral excellence not according to their grade of life or the hue of their skin.”21 Wong’s statement revealed the ways in which he had internalized the academic knowledge he had acquired through his education and the nonacademic knowledge of his daily experiences to reconstruct the meaning of liberty and equality to create a new vision of what a truly democratic American society should look like.Knowledge could also be gendered and shaped by the unique experiences of Chinese immigrant children living in a patriarchal world. In 1905, Yuk Ying Lee, a Chinese immigrant girl attending Lowell High School, protested the segregation of Chinese children in the elementary schools, noting that all other children enjoyed the right to attend integrated public schools. Facing a double-bind situation that required her to simultaneously challenge racism and sexism, Lee went even further by insisting on the rights of all Chinese girls to an education. Lee criticized parents who conformed to traditional Chinese gender roles and denied their daughters an education. Because Chinese girls often faced dual barriers of racism and sexism, Lee was part of a new generation of educated women in both the United States and China who were challenging constricting gender norms across cultural boundaries and constructing new knowledge about what it meant to be a modern Chinese American woman in the early twentieth century.22ConclusionChinese immigrant children conveyed knowledge across time and space, carrying crucial details about their personal and family history with them as they traveled across the Pacific Ocean and selectively passing on knowledge to future generations. As a means of survival, they also transformed that knowledge and constructed new narratives about their family history through the paper son/paper daughter system. These false narratives were conveyed to immigration authorities, to white Americans, and oftentimes to the larger Chinese American community. Out of fear of discovery and potential deportation, Chinese children who immigrated through the paper son/paper daughter system carried this knowledge, with its false family narrative, into their adult life, perpetuating a paper family history that sometimes endured undiscovered for gene

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