Airing Old Secrets

Flags tell the stories of Chinese paper sons and daughters

Bay Area artist Flo Wong was born in Oakland during the 1930s, and grew up with what she calls a "currency of secrecy." Her family, like many Chinese immigrants of the early 1900s, used secrets and lies to circumvent the Chinese Exclusion Act, an 1882 federal law aimed at curbing the numbers of Chinese coming to the U.S.

The Exclusion Act was meant to keep out the relatives of Chinese laborers already here. Many immigrants learned they had to lie about their identities in order to be reunited with their families. The result was an intricate system of "paper sons" and "paper daughters" -- immigrants who used fake identity papers to enter the U.S.

After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed many federal immigration documents, the paper identity system flourished. When immigration officials discovered the paper system in 1910, they began detaining and questioning immigrants at Angel Island. Chinese were held for a few days, or as long as two years, while they were interrogated about the smallest details of their lives in China to see if their answers matched those of a sponsoring relative.

By sewing rice sacks onto American flags and embellishing her work with sequins and hand-painted text, Sunnyvale artist Flo Wong pays tribute to the Chinese immigrants who were detained and interrogated at Angel Island.
Courtesy of Kearny Street Workshop
By sewing rice sacks onto American flags and embellishing her work with sequins and hand-painted text, Sunnyvale artist Flo Wong pays tribute to the Chinese immigrants who were detained and interrogated at Angel Island.
Flo Wong's three older sisters, Lai Wah, Li Hong, and Li Keng, were detained at Angel Island in 1933.
Flo Wong's three older sisters, Lai Wah, Li Hong, and Li Keng, were detained at Angel Island in 1933.
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.
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.

About 175,000 Chinese immigrants were detained at Angel Island from 1910 to 1940. Ultimately, about 90 percent of the immigrants with apparently legitimate paper identities were released. But the process created a generation of Chinese immigrants for whom a sense of illegitimacy has lingered. The shame, anger, and fear of deportation created a code of silence in Bay Area Chinatowns. To this day, many former detainees will not speak openly about their experiences.

Historians say that the experience, which separated families, buried family histories, and left some people with multiple identities, still affects how many Chinese-Americans view American society.

Now, the first wave of Chinese immigrants is dying off. Many go to their graves without speaking about the secrets of Angel Island. Second-generation Chinese-Americans like Wong have been forced to cobble together family histories through reluctantly told oral histories, and impersonal -- and perhaps illegitimate -- INS documents.

In 1997, Wong began mounting discarded rice sacks on American flags and embellishing them with paint and sequins in a visual arts tribute to her mother and mother-in-law, who had each adopted false identities in order to join their husbands in the U.S.

In the process of telling her own family's story, Wong discovered that the experience is a common link among many Chinese-Americans. "It became a universal thread to trace immigration history that is really only a generation away, but that was never talked about," says Wong, 65.

Eventually, Wong was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant to make flags telling the stories of 23 other former detainees. Her work will culminate in a multimedia art exhibit titled "Angel Island Shhh," debuting in San Francisco in June.

Because she personally interviewed a detainee or descendant before creating each flag, Wong's exhibit is a unique combination of oral history and art. The flags will be displayed on Angel Island - only the second time the island will host an art exhibit -- in the same immigration station barracks where some of Wong's family members spent weeks while waiting to be released.

Wong is one of many in a Bay Area movement of second- and third-generation Chinese-Americans who hope to illuminate an experience that has largely been kept secret. Her style of art - collages of sequins, paint, and photographs -- is the raw product of a mostly self-taught art-activist who weaves together oral history, myth, imagination, and confusion. It is this visual representation of history that previously has earned Wong exhibit space at the Smithsonian, the de Young, and the Triton Museum.

By explaining that her parents also passed through Angel Island, Wong has been able to convince many aging, reticent former detainees to tell her their immigration stories. In two cases, the detainees passed away soon after their interviews, and Wong was the last person to hear about their Angel Island experiences. In numerous cases, Wong heard

stories that former detainees had not even told their children.

And certainly Wong's interview requests have been refused more than a few times, by former detainees who quietly shake their heads, or brusquely tell her that Angel Island is none of her business.

Still, Wong has managed to record the stories of 25 former detainees for her exhibit. Here are a few.

Li Keng Wong, 73, hasn't always felt comfortable talking about her time on Angel Island. But now, in her retirement, she speaks with a sense of duty. She has told her story in classrooms, and recently starred in a Disney documentary about American immigration. To many in the Chinese-American community, Li Keng's attitude shift is a model for how a once-shameful experience can be converted into one of cultural pride.

Li Keng, Flo's older sister, was detained at Angel Island when she was only 7. For her, Angel Island was traumatic, an unpleasant end to a 19-day boat ride on the U.S.S. Hoover from Hong Kong.

Li Keng's father, Seow Hong Gee, had been a laborer in the U.S. for more than a decade, when he finally saved enough money to bring his wife, Theo Quee, and three daughters from China. But the Exclusion Act made it impossible for Seow Hong to bring his wife to San Francisco. In order to reunite his family, Seow Hong had to claim his wife was really his sister, and instruct his three young daughters to pretend that their mother was actually their aunt.

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?"

"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.

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.

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.

"Doesn't bother me," Robert says of his willingness to talk about Angel Island. "I'm not scared. They want to deport me? I pay taxes for 60 years." Still, like most of the former detainees Flo Wong has interviewed for her exhibit, Robert feels more comfortable speaking about Angel Island in Chinese after being heavily prodded, and he has never told his children about his time there.

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