The Museum of Chinese in America

Founded in 1980, the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) is dedicated to preserving and presenting the history, heritage, culture and diverse experiences of people of Chinese descent in the United States.

A Personal Story of the Impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

(This blog entry was inspired by a kickoff event for the 1882 Project I attended a few weeks ago.)

A Personal Story of the Impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

What’s in a name?

I’ve considered this question from time to time ever since I learned that my American last name was different, in spelling and meaning, from my Chinese last name. As a child growing up, there was always an assumption that my father’s last name was changed on Ellis Island. The running folklore in our family was “ Oh, the officials messed up the spelling, so that’ s why our last name became Lew instead of Lee – Lew/Lee, it’s the same thing.”

But was it really?

As I dug deeper into my family history, I learned that LEW had a unique origin: it was a name that originated in San Francisco after the earthquake of 1906 and subsequent fire that razed municipal buildings housing city records. This major catastrophe gave rise to the phenomenon of paper identities, whereby many Chinese immigrants falsely claimed American citizenship during the exclusion era, when Chinese laborers were prevented from immigrating to the US, and people of Chinese descent were prohibited from becoming naturalized citizens. My great aunt’s father had made such a claim to American citizenship on the basis of the 14th amendment and later declared that he gave birth to a son in Toisan, China during the 1930s – an identity that my father would eventually assume for the rest of his life.

Though my father immigrated to the US in 1951, eight years after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was symbolically repealed, the odds against his immigration remained immense because of a restrictive quota of 105 immigrants of Chinese descent that were allowed into the US each year. Furthermore, my father had to come to the US before the end of 1951 because, according to his paper identity, he was going to turn 16 by mid-December, and the law required him to enter the US before his 16th birthday. Had he turned 16 before entering the US, he would no longer have been eligible for sponsorship by his family. When he arrived in NYC, he was taken to Ellis Island and detained for two months before being reunited with his actual parents and older brother (who had made their own immigration arrangements) in New York City’s Chinatown.

My last name is one among the variety of names that comprise the Lee family tree. Some family members were able to retain the Lee name, while others took on other names to circumvent social, political, and racial barriers to immigration. These anomalies in the Lee family tree are intertwined with stories like my father’s, obstacles certain family members had to overcome to gain access to a new way of life during a time when people from other countries were freely welcomed into the US. My last name Lew is as much a descendant of the first race based exclusion act ever passed by the US federal government as it is a branch of the Lee family tree.

Karen L Lew

Associate Director of Education

MOCA

For more information about 1882 Project, please see: http://www.1882project.org

For an abridged version of my father’s oral history about his experiences on Ellis Island see following link: http://www.nps.gov/npnh/forteachers/ellis-island-oral-histories.htm

Filed under: Education, MOCA, , , , ,

MOCA Collections: “Father, please work hard.”

My first post mentioned MOCA’s bachelor archives, which is MOCA’s first collection of archives from 31 years ago when we constructed our first site. It came from Chinatown’s bachelor apartments.

Although President Roosevelt signed a law to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, a large scale Chinese immigration did not occur again until the enactment of the Immigration Act in 1965. Crowds and crowds of Manhattan Chinese immigrants took over the apartments of later generation Chinese immigrants, who came to New York in the beginning of the 20th century and worked in the laundry business. These apartments are known as the Bachelor Apartments, and are the extraordinary product of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

In the middle of the 19th century, Chinese men were attracted to America’s west coast to construct railroads; however, due to the increasing arrival of miners, Chinese immigrants turned to the laundry business. They washed the miners’ clothes that were caked solid with dirt. Chinese immigrants began moving to the east coast in the early 20th century, and the laundry trade became their main business in the east. The end of the 19th century brought the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade Chinese immigrants from naturalization, multi-racial marriages, etc. This strongly deprived Chinese immigrant men in America the possibility of marriage. As a result, this created the Bachelor Apartments in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

By the end of the end of the seventies, the Chinese population in America nearly doubled reaching about one million. Twenty percent of the Chinese population was living in New York. Regrettably, there has been no official record of this community’s history. During China’s simultaneous rapid development and change, this history has also become extremely important.

As the saying goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” New York Chinatown History Project, which is the predecessor to the Museum of Chinese in America, was the start of a roadside cultural and historical institution that was established by former executive director Charles Lai and New York University professor Jack Tchen in 1980. At the time, Lai and Tchen discovered that when new immigrants moved into the empty apartments of previous tenants and new businesses replaced old ones, the streets were then filled with various Chinese individual’s fascinating historical remnants. There were business signs, letters wives wrote to their husbands from far distances in China, WWII soldier uniforms, as well as complete bundles of Chinese newspapers. These precious historical remains that Lai and Tchen collected became MOCA’s first archive.

Among these files, there is a letter that a son wrote to his father seen in the picture of the mentioned letter:

We received the 5000 yuan father sent home. It was pretty much all used to repay the debt, and there isn’t much money left over. However, expenses at home are extremely great; supplies are expensive, the price of rice has gone up, and next year another sister is starting school. All together 3 sisters are in school and expenses will increase. We’ve already sold our gold and jewelry in order to relieve our desperate situation. Father, please work hard to send money home.

This letter was written on December 15, 1943 of the lunar calendar, the same year that the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed. It was also when the Chinese Exclusion Act had the longest affect. At the time, although fathers in America were living apart from their family, they still bore the responsibility of raising their families far away in China.

Yue Ma
Associate Director of Collections

Letter from Son to Father

美国华人博物馆馆藏

上篇中提到美国华人博物馆的一批光棍档案,这是美国华人博物馆31年前建馆时收藏的第一批档案,来自于唐人街的光棍公寓。

虽然罗斯福总统于1943年签法废除排华法案,但大规模华人移民是直到1965年颁布了移民改革法之后才再次出现的。一批批落户曼哈顿的华人新移民接管了20世纪初期来到纽约并在这个城市从事洗衣行业的华裔移民及后代所居住的公寓。这些公寓号称光棍公寓,是排华法的特别产物。

十九世纪中期,中国男子被招来美国西海岸修建铁路,但是随着越来越多的淘金矿工的到来,华裔转向洗衣业,清洗矿工们换下的那些硬得能够立起来的粘稠状衣服。到二十世纪了早期,华裔开始搬来东海岸,洗衣业成了他们在东部的主营业务。19世界末期开始实施的排华法禁止华人归化入籍,并禁止与华人与外族通婚等,这几乎剥夺了在美华人男子娶妻成家的机会,于是产生料曼哈顿唐人街的光棍公寓。

到了七十年代末期,在美国的华人人口数达到了几乎一百万,翻了将近一番。他们当中百分之二十生活在纽约市。遗憾的是,对于这个社区的历史去没有正式的记载。在中国迅速发展变化的同时,这个历史也变得格外重要。

俗话说一个人废弃的东西可能会成为另一个人的宝贝,纽约华埠历史研究会,也就是美国华人博物馆的前身,就是这样一个始于路边的历史文化机构,由美国华人博物馆原执行总监黎重旺及纽约大学教授陈国维先生于1980年创建。当时,黎先生和陈先生注意到:当新移民搬进已故去老租客空下来的公寓,新商户取代老商户的时候,路边便堆满了各种各样满载华人历史遗迹的有趣的物品,有商户的招牌,被远隔在中国的妻子写给丈夫的信,二战士兵服,以及成捆的中文报纸。这些珍贵的历史遗迹被黎先生和陈先生收藏起来,成为美国华人博物馆的第一批档案。

在这批档案中,有这样一封儿子写给父亲的信,见附图,信中提到:

家中收到父亲寄来的五千元,差不多都用来偿换债务了,余下的钱已不多。但是,家里费用非常之大,商品昂贵,米价上涨,明年又多个姊妹入学,一共3个姊妹读书,费用将加重。我们已变卖了金器、首饰以解燃眉之急。请父亲勤些寄钱回家。

这封信写于1943年农历12月15日,排华法废除的同年,也是排华法影响最长的时刻。当时身在美国的父亲虽然不能与家人生活在一起,却仍然肩负抚养远在中国的全家的责任。

马越
馆藏部副主任

Filed under: Collections, , , , , , , ,

1882 Chinese Exclusion Act

As part of the Tenement Museum’s 400 Years of Immigration History campaign on Twitter, MOCA tweeted and blogged about the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

The first major wave of Chinese immigrants came to the United States following the 1849 California gold rush. The vast majority of the incoming Chinese were men who worked in labor-intensive industries like railroads, mines, and canneries. Because Chinese laborers were willing to work for lower wages than their European counterparts, companies often used the Chinese as strikebreakers. Labor competition led to resentment of the Chinese and political agitation to limit the number coming into the country. Read the full post here.

~Special thanks to MOCA education intern, Katherine Park.

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MOCA Collections

I was very excited when I started writing this blog, and it suddenly reminded me of when I was young. Every time I wrote an essay I almost always used “I was very excited…” to start writing, which is how most young people started an article in China during the certain time period. At the time we would write in this popular way even without being excited. This time, there really are a lot of things to be excited about. For more than three years since I started working here, I’ve been waiting for the day we would open our new museum. In a blink of an eye, it’s already been several month since the new museum opened. The museum’s opening has created an opportunity for us at the collections department to use the entirety of the old site to develop collections preservation and research work. Recently MOCA started a blog, and it’s really another thing to celebrate!

Something I’ve always felt was unfortunate has inspired me to write in Chinese about some thoughts on my work. Despite the fact that I am here now, before I accepted this job at MOCA, I didn’t know about this museum’s existence. This made me realize that many new Chinese immigrants may be like me— they don’t know about this museum’s existence. Moreover, they don’t know about the opportunity of interacting with this museum and more individuals, or that they are actually linked in countless ways.

Using MOCA’s blog, I prepared a series of ways using Chinese to introduce our museum’s collections to the Chinese in America, and to introduce this “home” for Chinese Americans to Chinese immigrants like me. I hope everybody will take a step towards understanding the Collections and Research Center and how we preserve Chinese American and immigrant history. I also hope I can collect even more donations from the newer immigrant generation such as historical documents, pictures, and objects so we can have a more abundant collection in our museum and enrich Chinese American history.

Getting back on track, today I’d like to tell everyone about a book in our collections that is hand-written and more than seventy years old—‘Coaching Book’.

A few months ago California apologized to Chinese Americans for the bill passed by America in 1882 known as the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Chinese Exclusion Act was to last 10 years when it was first passed, but by 1902 the act became permanent. It wasn’t until 1943 when America joined forces with China against Japan that President Roosevelt finally signed a bill repealing the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited the Chinese from buying land, multiracial marriages, and more. It had an immense impact on Chinese immigrants, which created phenomena like Chinatown’s bachelor apartments and “bought papers” with fake identities that were used to come to America.

The first collection of archives MOCA constructed thirty years ago was from Chinatown’s Bachelor Apartments. I will give a detailed introduction about this collection in the next entry. Today, I want to first discuss the recent topic of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which has made many later-generation Chinese Americans search for stories about their grandparent’s “bought fake identity papers” in order to enter America.

In our museum’s archives there is an extremely precious handwritten ‘Coaching Book.’ In reality, this

A "coaching book" from the MOCA collection.

book is a manual that trains people on how to “buy papers.” The book is 50 pages front to back, and at the time Chinese immigrants struggled to memorize and recite the book’s details for a smooth entrance to America. People who bought identities had to familiarize themselves with the book and destroy the book before reaching America in order to avoid the immigration office from seizing evidence and sending them back. According to reports, 56,113 Chinese immigrants came to America from 1910 to 1940; most importantly, they entered the country from San Francisco’s Angel Island. At the time, many Chinese immigrants were taken into custody, while some were sent back.

As a result, of all the things our museum has collected this 50 page completely handwritten book is extremely precious. Inside it prepares detailed information on several generations of ancestors, direct and distant relations, and detailed information on family names, in a method of Q&A. It also prepares even more detailed questions. Those individuals who bought papers had to also familiarize themselves with detailed arrangements of the family compound.

As the picture of the book shows:

“House #7, Cheng Wang, abroad about 19 years, wife at home, son Ya Fei about 10 years old, total 3 people

House #12, Yong Qing, abroad, wife at home, no children, total 2 people

…”

This book lists 19 houses in all, including all details big and small. As you can see, our grandparent’s generation had to memorize this book in order to enter America and avoid having their visas rejected. It really wasn’t easy.

Yue Ma, Collections Manager

1.31.10

美国华人博物馆馆藏

当我怀着激动的心情,下笔这篇博客的时候,突然想起小时候,每次写文章几乎都用“怀着激动的心情”来开头,那时候,人云亦云,还没有来得及体会一下什么是激动的心情就已经写下去了。而这一次,值得激动的事情还真的不少。从三年多之前开始这份工作以来,我就盼着新馆开幕的一天。转眼,新馆开幕已经几个月了;新馆的开幕,使我们的馆藏部门有机会拥有老馆的全部面积开展馆藏保存、研究开发工作;如今MOCA又开了博,真是可喜可贺!

一件让我一直觉得非常遗憾的事使我萌发了用中文写写自己工作的想法:尽管身在这个领域当中,我却在应聘美国华人博物馆的工作之前,并不知道这个博物馆的存在。由此想到大多数来自中国的新移民可能会跟我一样,是不知道这个博物馆的,更不知道自己跟这个博物馆还有着众多的交流机会,和千丝万缕的关系。

借MOCA开博之际,我准备以系列的方式用中文向在美华人介绍我馆的馆藏,将这个在美华人之家展现给跟自己一样的华人移民,愿大家进一步了解这个保存华人移民历史的馆藏研究中心,也希望能够收藏到更多新一代移民捐赠的历史文件、照片、和实物,以丰富我馆的馆藏,丰富在美华人的历史。

言归正传,今天想展现给大家的是一本我馆珍藏的拥有七十多年历史的一本手写本《话记部》。

加州日前通过法案就美国1882年开始的《排华法案》而向华裔道歉。最初的排华法案为期10年,1902年变成永久法案,直到1943年美国与中国联手抗日时,罗斯福总统终于签法废除了排华法案。排华法案禁止华人买地、禁止华人与外族通婚等等,对华人的影响是巨大的,也由此产生了唐人街光棍公寓、“买纸”以假身份来美等现象。

美国华人博物馆30年前建馆的第一批档案就是来自于唐人街的光棍公寓,关于这一批档案,我会在下一篇作详细的介绍。今天,我想先说说最近排华法的重提,使很多华人移民后代探寻他们的祖父“买‘身份’纸”进入美国的故事。

在我馆收藏的档案中,有一本非常珍贵的1935年手书的《话记部》,它实际上是一本提供给“买纸”人的训练簿,正反面共50页,是当年华人为顺利进入美国辛苦背诵的细节。买此身份的人要熟读该书,并在抵美前销毁,以避免被移民局抓到证据遣返。据悉,1910年至1940年间来美国的56,113华人,主要是从旧金山天使口岸入境的,当时很多华人遭拘禁,有的被遣返。

因此,我馆所收藏到的这本《话记部》是非常珍贵的。该书共50页,以问答形式,全部用毛笔手书。内容除了备有祖孙几代、直系旁系、姓氏名谁的详细资料之外,还准备了更多更为详尽的问题,买纸者还必须详熟大家族的院落布局。

如附图所书:大七间 成旺屋 出外约十九年 妻在家 子亚飞 约十岁 共三人

……

大十二间 永情屋 出外 妻在家 未有子女 共二人

……

该书共列出十九间大屋,事无巨细。由此可见,祖父辈当年为入美,要做到熟背本书,避免遭拒,实属不易。

马  越, 馆藏部副主任

1.31.10

Filed under: Collections, MOCA, , , ,

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