Angel Island: Following the paper trail

Sam Louie, a volunteer with the California State Parks, tells students about the immigrant experience while standing at the men's barracks at Angel Island. Photo by Lynne Perri

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — What if your grandfather wasn’t really related to you? What if you brother had never been your brother? Many Chinese-American families are discovering that their ancestors, immigrants from China in the 1840s, were not who they say they were.

This phenomenon is called “paper sons,” families created on paper so that nephews, nieces and friends could legally enter the United States. Why would they lie about their own family?

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which wasn’t repealed until 1943, dealt a major setback to the immigrant community, but with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire came an opportunity, said Sam Louie, a Chinese-American who is now a tour guide on the island. With most records lost or burned, Chinese men would go to City Hall and claim that they had been born in the U.S. since “natives” were one of the few exceptions to the exclusion rule.

And if you were a native and had family in China, you had the right to bring them to the U.S., he added. This is what many of the Chinese men did, but they also wanted to bring daughters, nephews and friends. A new concept emerged, that of creating “paper sons,” and to combat this, the U.S. government created an immigration station here to weed out the real families from the paper ones, using interrogation that could last several days and detention that could stretch into months or years.

Chinese men and their families would have to answer questions about family life back home, some as specific as where a son’s bed was, which led to the development of “coaching books,” in the hope that everyone could pass the interrogations.

Louie learned late in life that his father and mother, who were both immigrants from China, had been detained on Angel Island. He learned from his researchthat his father was probably a paper son. “My grandfather born here? No way!” said Louie. His three oldest siblings had lived in the barracks at Angel Island at young ages, ranging from 6 to 12 years old. He said that whatever happened at Angel Island stayed there, as his family never talked about it. “Most of the people in my family who had been at Angel Island are not alive anymore. I can’t ask them,” said Louie.