The Progeny of Citizen Wong

This April 16, Alice Wong walked into the National Archives and Records Administration in San Bruno for the first time. The people who work there were waiting for her. Alice had phoned the archives on the suggestion of her grandfather, who had read a newspaper article about the dispute over Chinese Exclusion Act files held in the San Bruno archives. He suggested there might be documents relating to his father in them. So Alice, a 20-year-old from suburban South San Francisco, went to the archives to look at her great-grandfather's immigration records.

She certainly was not prepared for the reception she got. Neil Thomsen, an archive employee who works with the Chinese Exclusion Act records, asked for her autograph. Then she was introduced to the entire staff: "This is Wong Kim Ark's great-granddaughter."

"I was like, 'Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?' " remembers Wong, munching on a burger at Denny's. Hair pulled back in a ponytail, sweat shirt pulled down below her waist, Alice is the quintessential suburban post-adolescent. "I knew absolutely nothing about who the heck this guy was."

Other people know a lot about -- and owe a lot to -- Wong Kim Ark.
Born in San Francisco in 1873, Wong Kim Ark spent most of his life as a cook in various Chinatown restaurants. In 1894, Wong visited his family in China. Upon his return the next year, he was denied re-entry to the U.S. because he was deemed an alien. Wong sued the United States government, and, in a case that made its way to the Supreme Court, the justices ruled that from that day forward anyone born in the United States was a citizen. Wong Kim Ark had changed immigration law forever, and opened the way for millions to become full American citizens.

"I was reading the files where it said that 'no person should have the right of citizenship because of accidental birth upon our soil,' " says Alice, who emigrated from Hong Kong 11 years ago. "I got mad."

In May, she and her sister went to Angel Island with their grandfather, Wong Kim Ark's son, Wong Yook Jim, who now lives near Sacramento. There was a celebration; the island's detention center had received National Historic Landmark status. Wong Yook Jim, now 83, had not been on the island since the weeks he spent there as a child, detained just like his father, awaiting entry into, or expulsion from, the United States.

"I've never seen my grandfather cry before," says Alice. "It was like you could feel all of the emotion and anger and everything."

Alice, who attends San Mateo College, signed up for an Asian-American ethnic studies class this semester. "I thought I'd better learn something about Asian-American history," she says. She has a report due later this month. The subject: Wong Kim Ark and the Chinese Exclusion Act.

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