Tales of the Country

How Tokyo Rose, "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Amelia Earhart are endangered by money-saving moves at the National Archives in San Bruno

One day, Thomsen remembers, he located the immigration file of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, whom historians refer to as "the father of modern China," after years of chasing the official's papers across the country. Dr. Sun overthrew the Manchu dynasty to found the Republic of China in 1911 (a Nationalist movement that predated the Communist People's Republic of China). The file documents one of Dr. Sun's successful arrivals in America, during which he posed as a native-born resident of Hawaii to collect money and drum up support for his revolution.

But often as not, the truly compelling stories in these archives involve not the noted or famed, but one or another of the faceless thousands of individuals who have landed over time on America's Pacific shores.

Leon Shee looks up from a small square black-and-white photo. The picture was taken more than 90 years ago, when she was 22 years old and applying to enter the U.S. Her face seems innocent and frightened underneath an arch of razor-cut bangs. The puzzle pieces of her immigration file tell this story:

Leon Shee was a seamstress; her parents were dead, and she lived in China with an aunt. ("Shee" indicates "from the family of Leon." There is no record of her first name.) A man, working on behalf of someone in the United States, paid her aunt $260 to bring Leon Shee to Mexico. There, she was married to another man, an ethnic Chinese who was a legal U.S. resident. The pair sailed to San Francisco together aboard the S.S. Aculpulco. When they arrived at Angel Island, Leon Shee was detained by immigration officials and interrogated repeatedly. Hers was a familiar story: Women, seeking marriage and a new start in America, were instead sold into prostitution. The transcripts of her interrogation are painful to read.

"[D]on't you know that you are being brought here to this country to be sold as a slave girl?"

"I didn't know that. ... If you don't believe that we are married, just look at our marriage certificate."

"... If he wants to sell you in a house of prostitution, you will go, will you?"

"Yes, if he is hard up and wants me to go to a house of prostitution, I will go ... when we are married, we must do as our husbands want us to; if he wanted to kick me to death he could do so ...."

"Did [the man who brought Leon Shee to Mexico] tell you why he was bringing you to this country?"

"He told me to come and live as a housewife."
"Didn't he tell you you would be sold as a slave girl?"
"No."

"Did you know that this man who claims to be your husband was not going to keep you as his wife?"

"No."
Leon Shee was deported to China on Sept. 4, 1906, after nearly five months on Angel Island. Her picture remains in San Bruno, part of the alien documents thrust into the limelight recently when the INS announced it wanted to move all such records into the government's cave in Missouri.

Chinese-American scholars and community leaders lobbied hard over the San Bruno documents. Last month, a compromise was reached: Alien case files will remain in San Bruno until those related to the Chinese Exclusion Act have been indexed and archived. Only about 70,000 of the 250,000 Chinese Exclusion Act files have been opened and indexed.

Indexing the files is an archaeological dig into humanity. Worn photos, letters -- even a wallet -- are stuffed in the files. About one in every 30 holds a particular type of family treasure: a tissue envelope, faded from red to nearly pink, hand-decorated with gold glitter or brightly colored ribbons, which holds a tissue-paper chart that folds out to reach several square yards in area, with characters meticulously drawn in black ink. These tissue-paper documents are family trees, customarily presented with a bride to prove her worthy of marriage.

Last year, the federal government significantly tightened its restriction on providing medical and welfare benefits to resident aliens. Many elderly immigrants found themselves without proof that they were legal residents entitled to government benefits. The archive staff was hit with requests from panicked families, churches, and social workers, seeking to prove that immigrants were entitled to the Medicare benefits they had been receiving.

In some cases, the proof in the unindexed alien case files of San Bruno is all that exists.

Inside a group of plain manila folders, housed in nondescript institutional gray boxes, are the life stories of the men who lived in the custody of the United States government on Alcatraz Island. Some of them are famous, the subject of major motion pictures even. Others remain largely unknown, yet they are no less interesting. The events and adventures of life on "The Rock," from 1934 until the penitentiary closed in 1963, are tucked away inside shelf after shelf of those gray boxes.

Events that include the morning of July 31, 1945, when a prisoner named John Giles very nearly became the first man to escape from Alcatraz.

At the time, Giles was 50 years old, and had lived on the Rock for a decade. The youngest of four children, he left home in Tennessee when he was 15 years old to make his own way. Giles moved from place to place, never staying anywhere long. He worked as a surveyor's helper in the U.S. Reclamation Service for about four years, and also worked as a surveyor in Canada.

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