Airing Old Secrets

Flags tell the stories of Chinese paper sons and daughters

To immigrate to the States, Suk Wan had to adopt the identity of an 18-year-old named Gum Ngon Su. Though she wore her hair in two simple braids, like other young Chinese girls, Suk Wan was afraid that she might look too old for the part. Still, she carefully studied the coaching papers that had been sent to her, knowing that she would be asked many probing questions about her new identity.

While detained at Angel Island, Suk Wan was interrogated once a month. She had been separated from her parents for over eight years, and it was frustrating to know that they were so close but unreachable. She says she was depressed and angry, and slept most of the time to forget her worries.

Her stay on Angel Island was especially long because there had been discrepancies in her interrogation. In addition to being asked trick questions such as the location of the village sewer, the interrogator wanted to know how many brothers she had. Though she answered according to the coaching papers, one of her paper brothers had answered incorrectly, and their answers didn't match. The interrogator also decided that Suk Wan looked too old to be 18.

It took Wong decades until he felt comfortable returning to Angel Island.
Courtesy of Ed Wong
It took Wong decades until he felt comfortable returning to Angel Island.
Artist  Flo Wong stands in front of a few completed rice-sack flags.
Courtesy of Kearny Street Workshop
Artist Flo Wong stands in front of a few completed rice-sack flags.

Suk Wan was deported, though her family was allowed to see her off at the dock. "I remember all the relatives were there," says Suk Wan's niece, Helen Owyoung, who was 6 at the time. "I didn't understand why everyone was crying."

Suk Wan took the nearly monthlong boat ride back to Hong Kong, and upon her arrival, an official met her at the dock to tell her that her father had hired a lawyer and appealed her deportation. She had been cleared for release. But as much as she wanted to rejoin her family, Suk Wan simply couldn't bear the thought of being detained at Angel Island again. Recalling her detention experience, she decided she would not go back. And because she chose to stay in China, she found herself persecuted during the Communist takeover in the 1950s because her husband owned property and he was jailed. The pier-side farewell would also be the last time that Suk Wan saw her parents, who died over 25 years later in Oakland.

"She always thought that it would have been a different life in America," Owyoung says.

Robert Wong reclines on the green sofa in his dim North Oakland home and begins to speak in a broken patter of Cantonese and English. Dressed in a red flannel shirt, a wool cap perched on his head, the contagiously jovial Robert has just come in from doing yardwork. At 85, Robert is surprisingly spry. He speaks with a vigor that his nephew Ed Wong says embodies his happy-go-lucky personality, even when recalling his trying experience as a Chinese immigrant during the early 1900s.

Robert was 15 when he arrived at Angel Island in 1930. Like many immigrants of the time, Robert was seeking political and economic asylum from the poverty and civil wars that were disrupting village life in China. Everyone was clamoring to get to the U.S., but the Exclusion Act was still in full effect and would not be repealed until 1943. Like most poor Chinese, Robert had no way of entering the U.S. honestly. It was easier for him to adopt a new identity by pretending that his eldest sister, Wong Sue Shee, was really his mother.

Sue Shee, who was 15 years older than Robert, was just about to join her husband, Wong Yet Choy, in the U.S. because Yet Choy had finally secured merchant status by gaining part-ownership of his brother's grocery store in Georgia. One of the couple's sons had died during childbirth, but official records still stated that the Wongs had two sons. Robert, who was about the right age to fill the role, assumed the identity of the deceased son, Wong Kam Ling. It was the perfect solution: There was physical resemblance between Robert and Sue Shee, and the secrets would remain within the family.

In preparation for the interrogation at Angel Island, Robert visited the Wong village 12 miles away from his own, and studied coaching papers. Though he often answered questions incorrectly during the interrogation, the gregarious Robert was good at feigning confusion when he was asked questions to which he did not know the answers. "Oh, I did not understand your question," Robert would tell the interrogators.

Robert, who owned a grocery store in Georgia for 15 years before moving back to the Bay Area, proudly recalls obscure details of his Angel Island experience. Boastfully, he charts his water route from China to Japan to California. He laughs when thinking about being fed bean sprouts for breakfast, and how many of the detainees would fight for a spot at the radiators to warm up the Chinese sausages sent to them by family members already landed in San Francisco.

Robert's willingness to talk so animatedly about his Angel Island experience is fairly rare, an extension of his carefree attitude, his nephew says. Indeed, Robert, who was only a teen during his stay at Angel Island, recalls detention without bitterness. He remembers playing basketball with the other boys in a small courtyard, and listening to Chinese records on a phonograph. And while most detainees ate bland mess-hall food, Robert's distant cousin was a cook on the island, and regularly supplemented his diet with fresh steamed fish she had caught at the pier.

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