Chinese journey to America marked by trials and triumph
By Ling-Mei Wong
Boston native Alice Kane, nee Yee, spoke at the Central Library on “They Came for the Gold and Stayed: An Introduction to Chinese-American Genealogy” on Feb. 27.
Kane was born in Boston’s South End to Chinese parents from Toishan. She worked in the microtext department of the Boston Public Library, giving her invaluable experience in microfilm research. Kane was later certified as a genealogist.
Kane looked at Chinese immigration to America and where to find Chinese ancestors. Most came from the Pearl Delta of China in Guangdong Province, where the land was lush but unproductive. The siren song of the Gold Rush drew many in 1848 and more Chinese laborers came to build the Transcontinental Railroad in 1863.
“Many men and women came of their own volition,” Kane said. “But the demand for labor meant many were tricked or kidnapped to the United States or other places.”
While the Chinese were initially welcomed as immigrants, this did not last long. “The hard work of the Chinese miners made them rather successful and they started to earn the jealousy of American and European miners,” Kane said.
The Page Act of 1875 excluded “undesirable” immigrants with a criminal past, mental illness and Chinese descent, making it the first piece of U.S. legislation to name a specific group. Fear of Chinese laborers and female prostitutes infecting the white population resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which only allowed diplomats, merchants and students to enter the country. These restrictions required a completely new system for documenting Chinese immigrants, which were not lifted until 1943 with small quotas of 105 Chinese immigrants a year. Quotas were normalized with the Immigration Act of 1965, Kane said.
“Most other immigrants were allowed into country,” Kane said. “The Chinese had to undergo physical exams. The immigration service developed more procedures to fine-tune how to identify a Chinese person, whether they were natural-born or children of natural-born citizens, and not laborers.”
The Chinese laborers typically came to earn their fortune in America, returned to their families in China and then came to the U.S. again to work. Because the first laborers had citizenship, the children they had in China were eligible to come to America when they were of age. Chinese men documented one child a year — whether they had that many or not — and could sell the official document in China to another person that would become their “paper son,” Kane said.
For genealogy buffs, the legacy of Chinese discrimination yields a great deal of paperwork to trace one’s roots. Kane’s great-grandfather Yuen Yee may have entered the United States through the port of San Francisco, which was documented in an admission ledger. She is seeking to confirm he is the same man as her great-grandfather.
Immigration records also have a great deal of information. Kane showed a copy of her father’s naturalization petition, which showed his port of entry, the Chinese village he came from and the date he entered in 1956 by airplane.
Other valuable sources of information include public records, voter registration, military records and exclusion case files. “State and local records help get more information about your family members,” Kane said.
Online genealogy resources
- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services: www.uscis.gov
- Search Roots Village Database: http://rootsdb.org/looking-leaves-finding-roots
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