SAN FRANCISCO — Sam Louie, a volunteer tour guide at Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay, said he discovered late in life that his father had come to America as a “paper son.” The concept of the “paper son” is the reason many Chinese immigrants were allowed to become American citizens in the midst of pure discrimination. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred most Chinese immigrants — and remained in effect until 1943 — but the 1906 earthquake and fire that struck San Francisco proved valuable to the Chinese, Louie said. Many records were lost or burned, making it easy for the Chinese to claim they were born in the United States, which allowed them to remain and then send for their families or create families among nephews and other relatives who already were here or who they hoped to bring here.
Angel Island opened its facilities 101 years ago to greet the immigrants who had endured a voyage across the world, in hopes of seeking new opportunities and a fresh start. “Life here was better than life in China,” said Louie, elaborating on the social and economic hardships in China at the time. “They had to sell everything just to buy steerage passage,” he said. But their arrival proved to be anything but welcoming. They were separated from their families, thrust into crowded living conditions and forced into lengthy interrogations. Despite all the racism and prejudice that was directed toward the immigrants, there was a “reasoning” behind the harshness.
The idea of “paper sons” was quickly and quietly popularized among the Chinese men because “[They] claimed somebody was related to [them] even if they weren’t,” said Louie. In 1910, the immigration station was charged with differentiating real sons from paper sons by means of interrogations. “The ‘hot seat’ is where the alleged father sat,” said Louie, “along with three immigrant officers and an interpreter…” A typist also accompanied them, recording the alleged father’s response word for word. The interrogation continued when the alleged son was brought in, asked the same questions as the alleged father, and was expected to answer the questions with the same responses as the father. Such questions involved obscure and intricate details about the personal lives of the detainees, such as what side of the room one of you slept on. If the answers did not matched up, it was “Bye bye baby,” as Louie put it.
Louie said he was amazed to learn that his own father was, indeed, a paper son, knowing how difficult it was to defy the immigrant officials. It was then that his mother, sister and two brothers also immigrated to the United States, where they detained at Angel Island. Though his family ultimately recovered from the ordeal, they never spoke about it, he said. Louie added that it’s the other “little stories” of tragedy and survival that make Angel Island worth remembering to honor the thousands of immigrants who were confined within its walls.