In the mid-1800s, the Gold Rush drew large numbers of Chinese immigrants to California. As time passed, many of these Chinese miners assumed low-wage jobs, often in the restaurant or laundry business, to make a living.
On May 6, 1882, then-U.S. President Chester Arthur signed into law the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of “skilled and unskilled” Chinese laborers. The proffered reason for this law was that Chinese persons allegedly “endanger[ed] the good order of certain localities” in the United States. (Yes, your BS detector should be beeping now.)
The CEA was in fact a legislative response to accusations that the Chinese, who were willing to work for lower pay than their American counterparts, were to blame for wage depression and economic decline. Beyond that, the CEA was the product of rampant discrimination against the Chinese, who were seen as dangerous intruders at worst and unassimilable foreigners at best.
Due to broad judicial interpretation of its text, and in conjunction with a handful of laws passed shortly thereafter regarding naturalization and reentry, the CEA effectively halted immigration from China for over 60 years. It was the first and only time period in U.S. history when federal law prohibited the immigration of an entire ethnic group. The CEA was finally repealed on December 17, 1943.
As a social science major, attorney, and social justice advocate, I’ve examined this law from various angles—for instance, in the context of general immigration patterns of the 19th and 20th centuries, and alongside the nearly parallel rise of the American eugenics movement. I’ve analyzed the CEA’s provisions and courts’ interpretations of its language, and I’ve contemplated its enduring impact on Chinese-American identity.
But when I’m honest with myself, the main reason I’m so drawn to studying the CEA is that it’s my family’s story. It’s my story.
Fate handed the Chinese a loophole to the CEA’s immigration ban in the form of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The quake caused a fire at the San Francisco Hall of Records, destroying public documents such as birth certificates.
In the absence of records to the contrary, many Chinese used this circumstance to claim U.S. birthright citizenship. The laws permitted U.S.-born Chinese to bring to America their children who had been born in China. Many Chinese thus reported having a son (or less commonly, a daughter) who didn’t actually exist, and that fictitious identity was used to facilitate the immigration of a relative, friend or stranger, who posed as the reported child. These have since been dubbed “paper sons” and “paper daughters.”
My ancestors immigrated to the United States during the time the CEA was in force, and they used paper sonship to do it. I grew up knowing that my maiden name, Quan, was not my “real” last name, but rather, the name of someone who posed as a father in order to bring my relatives to California.
This stirs up mixed emotions in me.
I’m grateful that my relatives wanted more for subsequent generations of their family, came to America in pursuit of increased opportunities, and worked incredibly hard to overcome a host of barriers so that I could be where I am and who I am today.
I’m also proud that they had the courage (or if not courage, at least resolve) to defy an unjust law and oppressive legal system, and to persevere in their endeavors despite the climate of prejudice and racism that met them here.
But I also sense that this story has been a source of fear and shame in our family—fear of being caught and penalized despite the passing of decades, and shame over having technically entered the country illegally, using less-than-honest means.
For years I thought that my family’s paper sonship experience was little more than a cool story. But as I continue to work out my cultural identity, I realize that all of this is hugely important to me. And I want to carry it not only in my history or memory, but in my name. That is why I’ve gone back to using my maiden name as my pen name.
It’s my way of honoring the sacrifices my relatives made to come to America.
It’s my way of declaring that I’m proud, not ashamed, to have paper sonship be a part of my history.
It’s my way of remembering that achieving true equity sometimes requires a long wait or hard fight.
It’s my way of taking ownership of a significant dimension of my personhood.
It’s my way of embracing being Chinese-American, not one or the other.
“Quan” may not be the surname my ancestors five or ten generations ago had. But it is fully and decidedly my real name in that it embodies an important truth about my heritage and represents who I choose to be today.
Note: May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! Learn more about the White House’s #MyAAPIStory project and how you can contribute your voice to this nationwide collaborative.