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Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Chinese "paper sons"

Keye Luke of Charlie Chan fame may have been the second naturalized citizen from China in 1944.
A “paper son” was a young male Chinese immigrant who came to the United States between about 1910 and 1944. He would claim to be the son of a citizen when in actuality he was the son of that person on paper only.

In 1882, during the US presidency of Chester A. Arthur, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. Previously, Chinese immigrants were welcomed as they flowed to the gold fields of California where work was plentiful. When the gold played out and competition for jobs became more acute, an anti-Chinese sentiment evolved as they moved to cities like San Francisco to take jobs as low wage earners doing restaurant and laundry work. Sound familiar?

Initially the Act suspended Chinese immigration for ten years but as time passed, the law was renewed to make Chinese citizenship virtually impossible until 1944. Even then the quotas remained small. It wasn’t until 1965 with the passage of the Immigration Act that meaningful quantities of Chinese immigrants occurred.

That story seems quite tidy except for a natural disaster that changed the face of Chinese immigration into California. That disaster was the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Coincidentally, the earthquake destroyed city hall and along with it, all the birth records of the city’s residents. Many savvy male Chinese immigrants seized this opportunity to claim false citizenship and the US government had no choice but to take them at their word since the records had been destroyed that may have proven otherwise.

With citizenship, these men could travel to China, spend a period of time, then return to claim a false marriage and/or the birth of one or more children still in that country. Since they were now considered citizens, their Chinese children were also considered citizens. The loophole was that many of the children were not actually kids of the “father” but were “paper sons”. The men would sell citizenship papers to young men in China and claim them as their kids to bring them to the States.

The US government knew of this practice so when the kids arrived at the Angel Island entry point in San Francisco, they were given extensive tests and interviews to prove they were who they claimed to be. This required hours of study and memorization in order to convince the immigration authorities they were legitimate.

Some rumors say that Keye Luke, who played Charlie Chan’s number one son in the 1930’s films, was the second naturalized citizen from China in 1944 after the Magnuson Act repealed the Exclusion Act. He would have been first but he was working on a film that day and a Chinese doctor from New York became number one.

It was a different form of illegal immigration compared to the hordes flowing across the southern border of Arizona today who feel they are entitled to be here regardless of citizenship.

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