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Exclusion and Confession, the two slamming doors of America

When the PBS documentary on the Chinese Exclusion Act aired, I needed to watch it alone. All day I’d been clearing out my late father’s basement in San Francisco. From his travels as a merchant seaman, he’d collected crazy finds: a piece of railroad track, a gas mask with instructions in Hebrew, a gold-flecked rock from Alaska engraved with the year 1956, burial jade from Hong Kong, a shield-size turtle shell from Tahiti. But what got me was the least traveled item—a dusty unopened bottle of Seagram’s 7—left over from our plentiful family Chinatown banquets at the once-elegant, now-shuttered Four Seas. I took the whiskey upstairs, set it down, and watched the documentary with half an eye while shredding social security records, pay stubs, and utility bills. I eyed the whiskey and felt my father eyeing me.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first law to ban a nationality, as well as a victory for labor.* Since the 1840s, whites moving to California considered the state to be for whites only and thought that any job held by a non-white was stolen from them. It didn’t matter that the jobs the Chinese had as cooks and laundrymen for the mining camps kept the white men clean and fed, or that shoveling snow across the Sierras was a job no white man would do.

A photograph of Ross Alley, Chinatown, San Francisco, c. 1900, by Arnold Genthe

A photograph of Ross Alley, Chinatown, San Francisco, c. 1900, by Arnold Genthe

Out of the four thousand workers on the central track of the railroad, more than two thirds were Chinese. Railroad executive Charles Crocker initially didn’t want to hire the Chinese because he thought they weren’t strong enough, but my Cantonese ancestors proved otherwise. They were sturdier (because their diet was healthier) and better workers (they didn’t drink alcohol, so they were never hungover) than white men. Upset by competition from Chinese laborers, although the Chinese numbered only .002 percent of the US population, California’s Workingmen’s Party organized around the rallying cry “The Chinese must go.” The Exclusion Act was ratified in 1882, and for the next few decades, it arrested the birth of entire generations of Chinese Americans.

All his life, my father raged that the Exclusion Act was a brilliant piece of legislation because it was bloodless. He’d intone, “America didn’t have to kill any Chinese; her law assured none would be born.”

Nineteenth-century China was a continuous series of upheavals. The Opium Wars (1839–60); the Nanking Treaty (1842), which ended the first Opium War; and the unequal treaties that followed weakened the already crumbling Qing Dynasty. The Tai­ping Rebellion (1850–64), the Hakka–Punti Clan Wars, and the many ensuing local rebellions devastated my ancestral coastal city of Canton. There were endless floods, famines, and typhoons, and in 1894 the bubonic plague killed nearly eighty thousand. Disease, starvation, and dislocation forced a mass exodus from Canton. My great-grandfather left China, arriving in California just before Exclusion to work the gold mines, becoming part of the male bachelor population of Chinatowns across America. He was lucky to have had progeny in China. Laborers in America couldn’t marry because of the country’s anti-miscegenation laws, and in 1905 the California civil code was amended to forbid the marriage between “white persons” and “Mongolians.”

So I didn’t need that infamous Arnold Genthe photo of the dozens of men filling San Francisco’s Ross Alley to feel the loneliness of the male-dominated Chinatown. I knew that dark stream of men that flowed like river dirt down every alleyway; I knew what the men smoked, what their hands reached for underneath their padded tunics. I knew why their faces were stilled with fury and why their eyes had a hostile stare. I spoke their dialect: I could translate their silence. My father called them “orphan bachelors.” My growing up was about watching them growing into the forgotten soldiers sitting out their days in the park, their gazes becoming only more furious.

Officially, the Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, but it was continued with the national origins quota. My father called it the Little Exclusion, because only 105 Chinese were allowed entry per year. The quota wouldn’t be eradicated until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.

When the 1906 earthquake destroyed government records in San Francisco, many Chinese claimed citizenship and also registered having sons—some real, some fictitious. The fictitious sons had names only on paper. My father’s older sister, already in the country, bought a paper name for her only sibling. By posing as the son of a Chinese-American merchant in the Central Valley, my father circumvented the Exclusion Act.

When he was fourteen years old, he was given a coaching book so that he could learn his paper father’s genealogy. He studied the map of his paper village until he could blindly walk to the well, the grain barns, and the schoolhouse. He knew when the last typhoon had hit, the woven pattern in the destroyed courtyard. Through rote memorization, my father became another man’s son.

In 1940, on the SS Coolidge, my father measured time by counting eggs. Every Sunday, steerage passengers got one hard-boiled egg. After the fourth egg, the ocean liner passed under the Golden Gate Bridge and arrived at Angel Island, where my father was detained. It was known as the Ellis Island of the West; my father and other detainees called it Mook Ook, Wooden House. His interrogation took months, and when he was finally allowed ashore, he found work wrapping wontons at Tao-Tao, San Francisco’s famous basement restaurant, and repaid his sister the four-thousand-dollar cost of his paper citizenship.

When the Chinese Confession Program was instituted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1956, it was presented as an amnesty program to ferret out all paper citizenships. But the program’s more subversive intent was to divert Senator Joseph ­McCarthy’s communist hunt onto the Chinese. As mandated on posted bulletins, the Confession Program offered amnesty for all paper sons who entered the country under false papers, but in practice all confessors were required to surrender their passports and be amenable to deportation.

My youngest brother, Tim, and I are Confession babies. I was born the year the program began. Tim was born a decade later, in the last year of the program. My parents had bought Kim Hing Grocery from an orphan bachelor for three hundred dollars, stock and lease. The store was on Pacific Avenue, above the tourist row of Chinatown businesses. We lived next door at the Villa Rosa.

When our father was at sea, our mother ran the store. The FBI often came to ask about our father’s citizenship status, and this frightened her. When he was onshore, agents shadowed him while he played chess at Portsmouth Square or had coffee at Uncle’s Café, and demanded his proof of confession.

“If I confess, you deport. If I don’t, you deport,” my father rebuked. “I no fool.”

At the Li Po Tavern, agents interrogated his friends, using his alias paper name. The brotherhood made sure each man could honestly state, “I know no one by that name.”

I was trained too. When asked his name, I would answer, “I call him Father.”

In the ten years of the program, 13,895 confessions exposed 22,083 paper sons and led to the loss of 11,294 immigration slots. What the numbers don’t tell is how Exclusion and Confession worked in concert to cultivate suspicion within the community and ruin loyalty within families. Confessors were forced to surrender the names of every member of their paper families as well as their blood kin, or risk deportation. Just when Chinese Americans began living as free legal families, the Confession Program destroyed trust. Every family knew the dissent, the feuding, and the confusion of trying to make a unanimous decision.

As my father huddled with his friends, I listened to him pronounce daay bort, proclaiming the word “deport” by breaking it into syllables that creaked like a door opening and shutting. Even at age four, I felt its decree. My father’s tone was defiant, his intent to oppose always present. He cradled danger and sailed close to the wind.

Because “deport” is the first En­glish word I heard my father speak, it is my first En­glish word. My father learned his En­glish from onshore fights with fellow merchant seamen. In En­glish, his cursing made a felon sound like Mary Poppins, but in our dialect his cursing was deadly. Ours is the thug’s dialect, the Tong Man’s hatchet-­speak. Every curse was a plunging dagger: Kill. Kill. You.

In the end, my father entered the Confession Program too, for the marriage. He confessed his paper name so that my mother could become a naturalized citizen and sponsor her own mother to America. Stripped of his citizenship, he was reclassified as a resident alien.

My father lamented Confession, which ruined his already fragile marriage. I was terrified that either he would be deported or that he would leave the United States himself. China was the other woman.

Obligation was my payback. As a child, I was tasked with filling out his Alien Registration Card. Checking “yes” or “no” had consequences that felt as grave as life or death. Every year, I filled out the form, forging his signature, not only because he didn’t know En­glish but also because Confession made him furious whenever he was asked to sign anything from the government.

The Confession Program also created a profound divide between us siblings. After our father confessed, my sister and I, adoring teenagers, took his original name, Ng. Then the maritime industry went into decline and our father became angrily unemployable. Is that why our younger brothers keep his paper name, Toy? One name blood, the other bought; one true, the other a lie. Our dissident names only magnified our severed familial allegiance.

In our brief moment of childhood unity, Chinatown was a village with a hundred grandfathers, the remnants of Exclusion. I called out: Drink Whiskey Grandpa! Lame Leg Grandpa! Salty Grandpa! My father kept a wicker chair in our grocery store for any of them who wandered in.

The orphan bachelors shuffled along Dupont Avenue, our own Chinese-­American song of everlasting sorrow. They hung out on street corners, perched on hydrants, and leaned against lampposts. At Hang Ah Tea Parlor, when their bowls of plain congee arrived, they pulled out pink paper cones from their tattered jacket pockets and sprinkled tidbits of meat into their gruel. Without family, they tried their luck at the mah-­jongg hall; without wives, they sang love ballads in the underground music clubs and drank through the night at Red’s Place.

In my childhood, orphan bachelors were as common as pigeons cooing on rooftops or drinking from street puddles. Portsmouth Square, where California’s first American flag was raised in 1846 and the Gold Rush was announced in 1848, became the orphan bachelors’ living room.

My great-grandfather was one. After leaving the gold mines, he worked as a farm laborer, living in an unheated shack in Marysville, an early Gold Rush town in Yuba County. If he wanted to go to San Francisco, he walked onto the highway, stood on its shoulder, and waited for the Greyhound, which sometimes stopped.

Eventually he moved into the back of our grocery store, but the health department soon evicted him, and then my father and I delivered hot meals to his SRO. At ninety, Great-grandfather hanged himself in his room.

As every family has an orphan bachelor in America or a grass widow left behind in China, every family has a hatchet man, a gambler, an opium eater, a prostitute. Every coolie is a dear American ancestor.

At her eightieth-birthday celebration, Aunt Maybelle talked about Great Uncle’s abandonment of Big First Wife. As Maybelle damned Confucian patriarchy, I kept asking, “What about Exclusion?”

Like many, Maybelle didn’t realize the depth of the damage caused by Exclusion and Confession or want to know its lasting damage on many Chinese-­American families. By the time Exclusion was repealed and Big Wife was allowed to join her husband, she was beyond childbearing. Under the cover of duty, Great Uncle arranged for a Little Wife to live in his second home down the block.

Confucian misogyny paired powerfully with the racism of American Exclusion. If it takes five generations to bleed out the trauma of alcohol, might ten generations bleed out the damage of Exclusion?

As if.

I was a child bewildered by pride and sorrow, called upon to attend funerals. My father believed no man should be an orphan at death, that family should deliver the dead. So I stood in as a ghost daughter and bowed at the head and foot of every orphan grandfather. Planning many sudden funerals strained my parents’ marriage further; attending them inspired me to write the orphan bachelors back to life before I even knew what stories were.

In old China, a daughter had her mouth stuffed with ashes to silence her birth cry and then was dunked into a bucket of water—double assurance that, if alive, she would not live.

In new Chinese America, children were so rare, my father said, the quiet had a deathly air. He found all he needed on Dupont Avenue: the butcher, a cobbler, an herbalist, a fortune-­teller, and a letter-­writing scribe. Smiling, he finished with, “ . . . and a balloon peddler!”

Loving a daughter was a revolutionary act in Chinatown, and because I was his firstborn, my father took me everywhere and let me see and hear everything. At the unemployment office, I watched him pay a man a dollar to fill out a form. I read the checked boxes: Have you tried to find work? Are you able to work?

“I could do this for you,” I told my father.

The orphan bachelors’ never-born progeny will always haunt me. If they had been born, would they be the alcoholics, the workaholics, and the rageaholics living next door today? Would they, like us, have sibling rancor?

My generation eluded Exclusion’s barren horror, but no family escaped undamaged. In ours, out of four siblings, only one procreated—and it wasn’t one of the daughters. My best Chinatown girlfriend had her tubes tied at eighteen. Just because.

Exclusion deprived me of my sexual wealth. Exclusion killed my desire to procreate. The progeny the orphan bachelors couldn’t have, I chose not to have. I made childlessness my birthright. My orphan grandfathers gave me their talent for solitude.

American laws make the soil in which we bury our dead: in 1850, the Foreign Miners Tax; in 1855, the Head Tax (under which shippers had to pay fifty dollars per Chinese passenger they transported to California); in 1860, the denial of admission for all Chinese to San Francisco City Hospital and the denial of admission for all Chinese children to the city’s public schools; in 1862, the Chinese Police Tax (to protect white labor from the competition of coolie labor); in 1870, the Sidewalk Ordinance (banning the use of poles to carry laundry or vegetables) as well as the Cubic Air Ordinance (requiring five hundred cubic feet of air per Chinese person in Chinese rooming houses); also in 1870, ordinances restricting Chinese theaters’ performance times and banning the use of gongs; in 1873, the Queue Ordinance, under which all Chinese arrested had their queues cut upon arrival in jail; in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Today, the arrived and the arriving face a list of laws that sunder families. The laws have dizzying forms: I-129, I-130, I-551, G-325A, DS-5535. The laws and the agencies responsible for upholding them have scary names: ICE, the Criminal Alien Program, DACA. My father would nod, and say, “There’ll be more.”

If I were a refugee, an asylum seeker, or an immigrant knocking on America’s door, I couldn’t do what my father did. My American birthright doesn’t give me his moral courage. I would be running in place just trying to breathe.

Like today’s brave parents, my father did his best. His worry was for the descendants. “Generation after generation, it will be the children, and their children, who will absorb the suffering.”

I once asked, “How did you do it?”

He, the orphan, the castaway son, told me, “It’s what a father does.”

“Deport” is the word my father stood up to. He was among the last to be detained on Angel Island in 1940. He entered the Chinese Confession Program in 1966. He regained his citizenship through naturalization in 2001.

My father’s death date is April 27, 2015. At the end, he relinquished his desire for his bones to be returned to China. In death, my father became an American. I can hear him pronounce, “Exclusion and Confession, the two slamming doors of America.”

’s novels are inspired by the Chinese Exclusion Act (Bone) and the Chinese Confession Program (Steer Toward Rock). She teaches creative writing and literature at UC Berkeley and UCLA.

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