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The Exclusion Years: How a Law Shaped the Chinese American Experience

By Clarence Leong   This is an excerpt from a book in progress on Chinese immigrants to America in the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act who...

By Clarence Leong


This is an excerpt from a book in progress on Chinese immigrants to America in the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act who adopted false identities to get past the racial restrictions on immigration.

The first chapter is about the original home of many of the immigrants who came during the exclusion era, a county called Toishan in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong (or Canton, in its earlier English spelling). It explains the exodus of people from there in search of a better life in the United States, and introduces the three main characters this book follows: Fow Sang Chin, Jew Shiu Dun and Tung Pok Chin. The second chapter portrays the intricate human network that enabled these Chinese to game the U.S. immigration system, focusing on the risks, uncertainties and contingencies involved. It builds up to this chapter where the years of preparation culminate in this final hurdle of being interviewed by immigration officers before entering the United States.


Chapter III: The Interviews

Kingdon Swayne was a Quaker from Bucks County, Philadelphia, who graduated cum laude from Harvard and earned a Bronze Star for his service during World War II. The high point of his career as a Foreign Service officer came when he was asked to be the translator for the Japanese prime minister at a White House luncheon when John F. Kennedy was president. More than a decade before, at the start of his career, he was assigned to do a less glamorous job—processing applications for American citizenship by Chinese who claimed their fathers had migrated to America and become citizens. This whole scheme “was a scam,” read his obituary, published in 2009 after he had died at 88. “And he was proud that he broke it up.”[1]

One of the many Chinese whose applications Swayne processed was Fow Sang Chin, a Toishan native who arrived in Boston by plane in 1951. Like the thousands of compatriots who had come before him, Chin spent months—even years—preparing for this trip. He had to reinvent his identity completely, taking a new name, learning about new family members, even memorizing the physical layout of the village he now said he was from. Between him and the promise of a prosperous life—the likes of which Toishan could never provide—was Swayne and the interviews. Swayne’s task was to catch any discrepancy in his testimonies, prove that he was an impostor, and deport him back to China.

The law that made immigration almost impossible for the Chinese unless they committed themselves to an elaborate, life-changing scheme of deception was the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed by President Chester A. Arthur in 1882. It banned Chinese from entering the United States, with the exception of merchants, tourists, teachers, students, certified returning laborers and diplomats. The law had been the culmination of three decades of racist agitation against the Chinese in California. When a depression hit in 1870s, Chinese became the easy scapegoats for every societal woe[2]. Anti-Chinese riots erupted in many towns. In 1878, The Wasp’s published a cartoon entitled Uncle Sam’s Farm in Danger by George Keller that depicted swarms of locusts with sinister Chinese faces and queues landing on a farm, while a worried-looking Uncle Sam and his hired man try with all their might to fend them off. The caption at the bottom reads, “Seventy Millions [sic] of people are starving in the northern provinces of China. All who can do so are making preparations to come to the United States.”

The importance of the Exclusion Act to the history of United States immigration policy must not be overlooked: it was the first time the government singled out a group of people based on their race and barred them from immigration. And it worked—the number of Chinese immigrants dropped by over 80 percent in the following year to just over 8,000[3]. In a cartoon published in Puck magazine that year, an “Anti-Chinese Wall” was being built by laborers—among whom are Irishmen, an African American, a Civil War veteran, an Italian, a Frenchman and a Jew, who are using blocks with the words “prejudice,” “law against race” and “fear” written on them and “congressional mortar” for mounting.

In reality, the law created to block the entry of Chinese was not so impenetrable. But getting past it required changing who you were. Knowing that many of these men claiming to be the sons of American citizens were fake, officers would rattle off questions for hours on end, demanding a slew of information from the immigrant during oral interviews.

In 1951, after Chin arrived at the airport in Boston, he was held for weeks to wait for the interviews. He passed the time by practicing calligraphy, using the brushes and ink box which he had brought over from Hong Kong.

When Chin was eventually called in for the interview, officer Swayne began as any officer would, by asking these two questions: “Do you speak English?” (“No.”) and “Do you need a translator?” (“Yes.”) These were the only two truthful answers Chin gave in the interview. With every question and answer, Chin was fashioning a new identity for himself in front of an immigration officer. Their entire conversation would be recorded word for word, and a transcript of it would be kept at the National Archive and Records Administration where, years later, their descendants would be able to find it.

The first of two interviews went smoothly, when he was asked questions about his personal details, his family and the village he claimed he lived in. Swayne then called upon the man supposed to be Chin’s father to ask him a host of similar questions. With the fastidiousness of a lawyer preparing for a cross examination to extract useful evidence for building a case, Swayne placed the testimonies against each other to spot any discrepancy. When Chin returned for the second interview, Swayne was ready to put him on the spot with some difficult questions that, with luck, would catch him out.

“Your alleged father testified that there were 70 houses in your village,” Swayne said. “In the first interview, you said there were 51. How do you explain that?” Chin had merely seconds to come up with an explanation. The longer he took, the less credible he would seem.




In the eight decades when exclusion was enforced, a tug-of-war transpired between those tasked with securing the U.S. borders and the hundreds and thousands of Chinese who would not be deterred from their search for a better life. Their dedication led them to devise an elaborate system of deception to frustrate the immigration officials and federal court judges’ efforts to enforce exclusion.

The Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution stated that any person born in the U.S. was a citizen, which meant that he or she had the right to confer citizenship on foreign-born minor children. The Chinese exploited this to their advantage. The government had few ways to verify those who claimed to be native-born, since Chinese people rarely felt the need to register marriages or births. The 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco destroyed what few documents the government kept, making it easier for the Chinese to make their claims.

Once Chinese immigrants became American citizens, they leveraged that status to bring over more family members or make money. The first step was a visit to the old country. Returning U.S. citizens were subject to lengthy interrogations about their time outside of country. During these interviews, Chinese Americans would falsely report foreign-born sons and daughters to the authorities, creating so-called “paper slots” that could be either used by more distant relatives or sold in the future. People who entered the U.S. through such means were called “paper sons” and “paper daughters.”

Several generations of Chinese slipped through this tiny crack in the system in the first half of the 20th century. They would go on to open laundries, toil in Chinese takeaway restaurants and serve in the American army during World War II—using names that were not their own. From the beginning of exclusion to 1940, more than 100,000 Chinese entered the United States. Chinese who tried to game the immigration system had an estimated 90 percent success rate[4]. The irony of history has it that within the small percentage of immigrants who were turned away at America’s gate, there were actually some real sons of American citizens[5]. Since they did not prepare as hard for the interviews as the impostors, they were tripped up by the officers’ obsessive questioning, which was their only means to root out the fake sons, but ended up hurting the real ones.

The man who sold Chin his papers—his “paper father”—first arrived in America in 1920. Like many other Chinese who had American citizenship, he made trips to China. At the time, everybody returning from abroad had to be interrogated, including American citizens. This was when he told the authorities that he had four sons, when in fact he only had one. These paper slots were a long-term investment that would yield returns in 10 to 20 years. People in the villages called those with papers to sell “Golden Mountain uncles.” In this intricate system, familial obligations and trust played a hugely important role. Nobody would be selling these paper slots in the open—the market relied on word-of-mouth. Existence of the slots was passed between family and friends[6]. All of it hinged on trust.

The U.S. authorities had long watched Chinese immigrants with suspicion, yet struggled to come up with an effective way to separate the real from the fake.

“If the stories told in the courts were true, every Chinese woman who was in the United States 25 years ago must have had at least 500 children,” an incredulous federal judge said in 1901[7]. Even though the immigration officials knew about the vulnerability in the system, there was little they could do about it. A 1907 report filed by the immigration bureau concluded that,

“No matter how trustworthy and honorable a Chinese merchant or laborer may be in the conduct of his daily business, he seems to have no compunction whatever in practicing deceit concerning matters in which the Government is interested.”[8]

The official response to this problem involved bending some rules too—court officials would ask irrelevant questions outside of the legitimate scope allowed to their role. They justified this practice by saying its purpose was to detect fraudulent cases by showing inconsistencies in the minutiae of daily life. No matter the barriers set up by the authorities to block unlawful immigration, Chinese who were methodical and studious enough had a way around it.

It had taken Chin two to three years to prepare for this undertaking. For someone who had not left his home village in Toishan his whole life up until that point, making a trip to Hong Kong, a British colony at the time, was quite an undertaking. He had to make multiple such trips because Hong Kong was where his paper father’s family lived, and he had to learn everything he could from them. He took staged family photos with them as part of constructing an edifice of make-believe. Chin purchased a brand-new suit and tie to replace the traditional changshan that people still wore in the village. To begin a new life abroad, he would first have to leave the present one behind.

For Chin to immigrate successfully, the paper slot he was offered would have to be real, and all his alleged family members in the United States had to be able to produce the same details that Chin had already committed to memory. This meant not just the names and birthdays of each family member, but also the exact location of their house, information about the villagers and much more. To face the challenge, people involved in the business of selling paper slots also produced coaching books that followed the question and answer format in the interviews to help people prepare for the grueling interrogation. At the back of these coaching books is typically a map showing the layout of the village, what it was called, how many rows of houses were there and where the ancestral temple located. Some immigrants were asked to draw a map of the village in the interview[9].

Newly arrived immigrants often had to wait for weeks in trepidation and discomfort before a few interviews were done and their applications cleared. The interviews could go on for hours. Tung Pok Chin, a Toishan native who left for America in 1934 recounted his experience in a “dingy little room” at the Boston Immigration House where he was interrogated:

“And the questions they used were tricky. Questions were asked nonstop, one after another under a glaring light, and the key questions were repeated over and over again to catch any inconsistencies. And of course they expected quick answers—who would not know his own parents’ names at the snap of a finger?”[10]

As generations of immigrants passed under the scrutiny of the government, the amount of facts to memorize piled up and the coaching books thickened. The immigration officials’ questioning would go back three generations if they had to. Immigration officials became masters of trivia about village life in south China and showed it in the questions they asked, such as whether or not the women there had natural feet or bound feet in keeping with a long-practiced Chinese custom. Rather than the interview being a real test of identity, whoever had a great memory or could think fast on his feet would be more likely to succeed.

Facing the stern gaze of Kingdon Swayne who just posed a trick question to him, Chin was very fast on his feet. In mere seconds, he found a way to wiggle out of the quicksand. “You see, my father hadn’t been back to the village for a while. Since the last time he was there, a big flood had wiped out a dozen houses and so the village is now left with fewer of them,” he said. The answer passed muster. Swayne moved on. An alternative version of the story circulated among the Chin family, which said that bribery might be involved, but that is impossible to verify. In any case, Swayne decided that there was not enough evidence to exclude Chin, and he walked out onto the streets of Boston as a citizen of the United States.


In June 1936, a Chinese man disembarked from the American ocean liner SS Coolidge in San Francisco. Standing 5 feet 9 inches tall, he had a mole on his right neck and a brown spot on his left temple—notable physical marks that caught the attention of immigration officers. His paper name was Jew Shiu Dun, which he would use for the rest of his life in the United States. He was from a county adjacent to Toishan called Hoiping, about 80 miles southwest of Guangzhou.

Jew’s “paper father” had entered the United States in 1931 while claiming to be a native-born U.S. citizen, and died two years later in Texas. The new family that he now belonged to was large, made up of eight brothers, two sisters and his parents. Two of his paper brothers had already landed by then, and were known to U.S. authorities as Jew Shiu King and Jew Shiu Kee. They were witnesses for his case. Two other men posing as part of the family tried to land some years before but failed to pass the interview and were deported.

On paper, Jew was 30, and had lived his whole life in Hong Kong. The officer who interviewed him would later file a report that runs on for pages about the discrepancies between his testimony and those of his brothers. Jew and his witnesses disagreed on matters including how often they had corresponded, when he got his first job, and whether or not he smoked.

“Applicant, whose fingers are yellow from nicotine stains, testified that he sometimes smoked” wrote the officer. “Jew Shiu Kee was asked in reference to applicant, ‘Does he smoke?’ and he replied, ‘No.’”

With regards to his former home on Connaught Road in Hong Kong, Jew also had a difficult time making his testimony match that of the others. While both his “father” and one of his brothers said they had two servants at home, Jew insisted, “We only had one and never had two.” The officer also inquired about the bathroom situation. Jew said that there was a stationary toilet that everybody in the house could use. When his brother testified, he said, “Yes, there is one [toilet] on the main floor of the building, for men,” but “women have their own receptacles in their rooms.”

To prepare for the interview, the officers did a substantial amount of research on Hong Kong. They purchased a Directory & Chronicle of China, Japan, Strait Settlements etc. for the Year 1935 and learned that in 1929 there was a water shortage so acute that “water had to be imported by steamers and supplied to the public from tanks on the water front.”

“Do you recall any occasion when water could not be obtained in HK from the regular water system there?” they asked Jew. He could not recall an instance when there was water shortage or when steamers had to bring water, which the officers found suspicious.

“Inasmuch as the applicant was about twenty-two years old,” the officer wrote. “In 1929, when the acute water shortage mentioned in the directory occurred, it is believed that he could reasonably be expected to have knowledge concerning some if he had really resided at HK at the time, as claimed.”

As if the reasons to doubt his claim to be a Hong Kong resident for all of his life were not enough, the officers showed him a series of postcards of iconic scenes from Hong Kong and asked him to identify them. There was the statue of Queen Victoria, the Supreme Court built in neoclassical style, a public garden and Des Voeux Road, one of the principle business streets in the city. It was like showing someone who claims to be from New York the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and Times Square. Jew was not able to identify a single one of them. All he said was they looked familiar to him.

The verdict was clear. “The showing made in this case is most unsatisfactory, and is one which convinces us that the applicant is not the son of Jew Fung Hay, but is an impostor who is seeking to gain admission thru [sic] fraud and misrepresentation.” Jew had five days to appeal the decision to the Secretary of Labor, which could be done without cost and with the assistance of legal counsel. If the appeal failed, Jew could not reapply for admission to the U.S. within a year from the date he was deported.


The episode ends here because all the available materials I have regarding Jew Shiu Dun leave off at this point. The search for more documents is ongoing.



[1] Naedele, Walter F., “Kingdon W. Swayne, 88, Bucks teacher,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 May 2009

[2] Ibid.

[3] Madeline Y. Hsu, Dreaming of Gold, p.67

[4] Madeline Y Hsu, Dreaming of Gold, p.87

[5] Ira Lee, former interpreter at the Angel Island Immigration station, quoted in Madeline Y. Hsu, Dreaming of Gold, p.71

[6] Madeline Y. Hsu, Dreaming of Gold, p.86

[7] U.S. Treasury Department, Annual Report 1903, p.98, quoted in Madeline Y. Hsu, Dreaming of Gold, p.75

[8] U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, Annual Report 1907, p.107, quoted in Madeline Y. Hsu, Dreaming of Gold, p.69

[9] For instance, see the Chinese Exclusion Act Case File of Byron Yee:

[10] Chin, Paper Son, p.12