Airing Old Secrets

Flags tell the stories of Chinese paper sons and daughters

During Li Keng's interrogation at Angel Island, a guard pointed to her mother and repeatedly asked, "Is this woman your mother or your aunt?" Li Keng says she had to tell unabashed lies.

"We lied!" Li Keng says emphatically. "My father sent papers home and he said, 'Don't forget. If you call your mama 'mama,' then you'll be deported to the village.' And we didn't want that. It was a matter of survival."

It was, however, 2-year-old Lai Wah who is credited with getting the family off the island quickly. After questioning the older girls first, interrogators finally turned their attention to the youngest sister. The others were nervous, afraid that Lai Wah would not understand the importance of her answers. In Cantonese, the interpreter asked her, "Little girl, what is your name?"

Suk Wan Lee tried and failed to enter the United States in 1929 after being detained at Angel Island for a year and a half.
Paul Trapani
Suk Wan Lee tried and failed to enter the United States in 1929 after being detained at Angel Island for a year and a half.
Robert Wong immigrated with his cousin Ted and older sister Sue Shee in 1930.
Robert Wong immigrated with his cousin Ted and older sister Sue Shee in 1930.

"If you won't tell me your name, why should I tell you mine?" Lai Wah retorted. The interpreter laughed aloud, and translated her response into English for the interrogator, who also began to chuckle. Li Keng says that the interrogators were so amused by such fearlessness that they immediately began to stamp the whole family's papers for release.

Li Keng remembers being afraid, not knowing how long her family would have to stay in the island's bleak, cramped barracks. There was also fear of deportation. On their first night on the island, they were told stories about how some people had committed suicide rather than face the shame of being deported, having squandered their chances of starting a more prosperous life in the U.S.

Even the brief, three-day stay left an imprint on Li Keng. "After we were released, we did not want to talk about Angel Island," she says. "We wanted to sweep it under the rug. When I was coming through, I was very young and I didn't understand the implications of the incarceration. But as I grew up, I began to feel very sad and angry."

The story of Lai Wah's sassy response to the Angel Island interrogators has become family legend. But Lai Wah, a 67-year-old with almost childish features, says she doesn't remember it at all. For Lai Wah, the deception and lies that it took to pass through Angel Island have left blank spots in many aspects of her life.

Because Lai Wah's immigration story was built on lies upon lies, basic information -- birth dates or her last name -- has been lost or hidden. Now, the information is gone, buried with the former detainees.

It was not until she was in her 30s that Lai Wah learned the true date of her birth. Throughout her life, when filling out paperwork for school or paying taxes, she had always used the birth date printed on some Angel Island processing documents: Dec. 2, 1933. But when she looked up original immigration documents while applying for a passport in the '60s, she discovered that she had actually been born Jan. 30, 1931. Her daughter discovered a possible explanation for the Dec. 2 birth date - it was the day that Lai Wah was released from Angel Island.

"Angel Island has impacted us," Lai Wah says. "With all the lying, you just don't know what is real and what is not."

And for Li Keng and Lai Wah, the deception did not end with their departure from the Angel Island. Though their father, Seow Hong, had hoped to reunite his family in America, Theo Quee had to continue to play the role of aunt, not mother, to her three children. She lived with relatives in a house a few blocks away from her husband and daughters so that no suspicions would be aroused. Lai Wah says she remembers having to be very careful about referring to her mother as her aunt, especially at school. And once Theo Quee became pregnant with Seow Hong's fourth child, they arranged for a paper marriage to a man named Sheng Wong so that the American-born child would not seem illegitimate. Even today, Theo Quee's three American-born children - including Flo - use the last name Wong, while the eldest sisters who passed through Angel Island go by their real last name, Gee.

"I didn't realize how much the lies and falsehoods impacted our lives," Lai Wah says. "That I am the way I am because of it. I'm more confident now and my mysterious background makes life more interesting. I love that my mom came down this way. I'm sorry that it took so many secrets. I don't want that to happen with my kids or grandkids. I tell them everything I know."

Suk Wan Lee, 92, has the sunken, wizened eyes of one who has lived through the Sino-Japanese War, the Communist takeover of China, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Though Lee has lived in the East Bay since 1991, she tried - and failed - to join her family in San Francisco in 1929. She was detained at Angel Island for 18 months before she was deported.

Suk Wan Lee's parents left for America when she was 13. The Exclusion Act made it risky for her mother to make the journey to the States, and taking Suk Wan was an impossibility. Her sister had been quickly married to a Chinese living in America, so that the Lees would have one less daughter to import. Suk Wan went to live with her grandmother until she was 22, when her parents secured a paper identity for her.

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