Sun, Feb 03, 2008 - Page 18 News List

[BOOK REVIEW] 'Paper Families' shines light on US immigration policy

Estelle Lau takes a balanced look at the US Exclusion Laws of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and at the lives of Chinese nationals who got around them

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

By Estelle T. Lau
214 pages

From 1882 to 1943 people perceived as being of Chinese origin were barred from immigration into the US under what have become known collectively as the Chinese Exclusion Laws. It remains the only exclusion based on race, rather than nationality, the US has ever enacted.

Even after 1943 it was all but impossible, at least on paper, for them to get in - a quota system established 105 as the total number of Chinese immigrants permitted, and even that minute number was not taken up, so stringent was the small print. Only in the mid-1960s, in the wake of a Civil Rights movement highlighting racially motivated discrimination generally, was the ban finally lifted.

Many continued to arrive after the ban, however, and many of them entered the country successfully. The way this was done was through a section in the laws that allowed entry to the children of US residents. Chinese who were already citizens therefore filed details with the authorities of children who had been born to them in China, but who in fact never existed, and then sold these "slots" to prospective immigrants via their agents.

The problem for the authorities was that in those pre-DNA test times there was no way of establishing for certain who these people waiting on San Francisco's wharves actually were. Were they really the children of US citizens they claimed to be? The only way to check, or attempt to check, was to question them at length on the families they said they belonged to, the villages they'd supposedly come from, and even the number of pigs the man living in the second house along in the third row of houses from the north possessed. Long accounts of these extremely detailed interviews still survive, together with "crib sheets" describing a huge range of just such information that the US residents provided along with their "slots." A study of these forms the basis of this book.

The focus of Chinese arrivals was California, where large numbers had arrived in the wake of the 1849 Gold Rush, both to pan for gold themselves and to work on the railroads. Even then state legislation was enacted against them - there was a tax specifically on Chinese gold miners, their queues were forcibly cut off, and they were denied the right to testify in court (which meant that the numerous assaults on them couldn't be prosecuted).

Yet even at its height before 1882, Chinese immigration had accounted for under 5 percent of all arrivals in the US. So what were the reasons for the discrimination? One was that the Chinese were willing to work for lower rates than their counterparts and so were seen as undermining wage structures. Another was that they appeared clannish and unwilling to assimilate - a strange view for San Francisco in the mid-19th century where polyglot adventurers from every part of the globe were congregated. On a more mythic level, their numbers were perceived as being virtually unlimited, and China was thought of as a fountain of would-be immigrants that nothing could exhaust.

But at root lay the ancient desire for a scapegoat. With so much tension in the air, and so much poverty for the majority (though riches for the lucky few), some group had to be found to blame for the many disappointments. In Europe in the 1930s this unhappy lot fell on the Jews. In California in the second half of the 19th century it was the Chinese.

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