Sun, Jan 02, 2005 - Page 18 News List

The story of Angel Island and its women is revealed

The immigrant experience of Asian women and the their 'paper sons' is laid bare in this scholarly but interesting book

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Asian American Women
Edited by Vo Sciachitano, Armitage, Hartm Weathermon
University of Nebraska Press
369 pages [US, paperback]

After the notorious Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, Chinese laborers and their families were barred from entry as immigrants into the US. The act was finally repealed in 1943, but between these years only "merchants" from China and their relatives were officially permitted entry. Their port of entry was usually San Francisco, and to establish their credentials, lengthy interviews took place. Those waiting for clearance were kept on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay.

Much has been published about Angel Island and it has been seen as a sort of symbol of the lot of the Asian immigrant in general. An essay reprinted here gleans small amounts of new information, however, by analyzing the Chinese poems scratched on its walls. These walls were photographed in 1972 when the buildings were scheduled for destruction, thanks to the enthusiasm of an Angel Island State Park ranger and an academic at the San Francisco State University, two men who both realized their unique historical importance.

This is only one aspect of the arduous life endured by Asian women in the US detailed in this book. It's a selection of essays from the pages of Frontiers, an academic journal devoted to women's studies. Six of the essays are taken from a special issue of the journal devoted to Asian American women published in 2000, and nine more were then tracked down in earlier issues and added.

Many stayed on Angel Island a long time, with those who were rejected sometimes remaining as long as a year while lawyers appealed their cases in Washington. One phenomenon resulting from the Exclusion Laws was that of "paper sons." Established immigrants would return to China and announce the birth of a son, thereby establishing the right of immigration for one more individual. This slot would then be sold to a relative, or simply the highest bidder. Hence the detailed questioning by the US authorities about such things as the color of the family clock, or the kind of flooring in the living room.

Help was at hand in the form of coaching specialists who indicated important and frequently-occurring questions. Books containing these were usually mailed to potential immigrants while they were still in China. Many studied them assiduously during the trans-Pacific voyage (which took on average 20 days), but threw them overboard once they were in sight of Hawaii.

Other Asian experiences covered in this book include the internment of American-Japanese during World War II (but also the release of selected student-age internees to enable them to attend universities and colleges, an "enlightened" practice given little publicity to date), the particular trauma involved in being a Vietnamese bride married to a GI, and the use of "comfort women" -- who were forced into prostitution by the wartime Japanese military.

Many of the essays are based on extensive interviews with single Asian American women. A chapter on a Japanese war bride, for instance, is essentially an account of the experiences of the writer's Japanese-born mother (her ex-GI father was less keen on being questioned), accompanied by reprinted family photos. Because of the prevalence of prostitution in Japan following the American occupation, Japanese families often automatically assumed such brides were former prostitutes, and continuing contact with them following marriage to a GI could be difficult.

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