Before the Chinese Exclusion Acts of the 1880’s stifled passage and entry of all Chinese workers to America, grandfather worked as a tenant farmer in Salinas, California. Stories of my grandfather, a six foot tall man lifting 100 pound bags of potatoes, were legendary in my family. Grandfather returned triumphantly to China with enough money to buy land, live comfortably in a house o top of a hill, and educate all six of his sons. But upon completion of their schooling, his sons would not be content to till the land.
The eldest son journeyed to America in 1913 and continued thousands of miles across country on a train to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The second son, my father, left a young bride in the village and went to work in Hong Kong. The third and fourth sons departed for the great commercial cities of Guangzhou and Shanghai.
My father was a determined young man. He knew that his success in life was in America, not in China, a hotbed of political unrest and instability.
One hot humid sweltering day in August 1922, my 20 year old father brought a 21” x 35” x 22” dark green steamer trunk trimmed with leather, shiny brass locks, and round brass studs on board the S.S. Nanking docked in Hong Kong harbor. He hand carried his vaccination certificate and a health inspection card which all immigrants and steerage passengers must keep to avoid detention at quarantine. Father boarded ship intent on crossing the Pacific Ocean in just over 30 days, disembarking in San Francisco, and catching a train to Pittsburgh to join his older brother. Packed in his steamer trunk was a 1915 edition of English and Chinese Phrases and Mercantile Dictionary, by Cheuk Ki-Shan, Canton, China, published by the Wo Shing Publishing Office in Hong Kong.
My father planned on engaging in business in America.
There was one other thing my father carried on board ship… but secretly hidden. It was a study book filled with details of a Fong village and all its inhabitants. The location of the houses and the catholic mission and school were carefully sketched and labeled. The calligraphy on rice paper was precise, and so were the sample questions and answers.
Another passenger, a young boy, accompanied my father on board the S.S. Nanking.
The two paper Fong brothers were to spend their month on board the S.S. Nanking quietly memorizing the contents of the study book. They spent hours rehearsing the questions and answers perfectly. They knew that their stories must match that of their paper father, who lived in Stockton, California, and was to come to San Francisco to vouch for his two sons after their arrival on Angel Island, just within the Bay entrance of San Francisco. Not only did they digest the names of paper grandparents and where they lived, but also commit to memory the names, ages, progeny, and descriptions of their living quarters of each Fong resident in the Fong village. They noted the location of the village river in proximity to all the houses.
On the 2nd, 5th, 18th, 20th, 23rd, 26th, 28th, and 31st days of the journey, my father was subjected to a health inspection. (done by the ship’s surgeon)
On September 12, 1922, ,the two paper Fong brothers disembarked on Angel Island and found themselves housed in the wooden barracks on the rise of the tall mountain with a commanding view of the City. They had plenty of time to prepare for their interrogation while they waited with the others in the cramped quarters of the men’s barracks. They must have read the carved poetry of their predecessors… voices of the past… plaintive, pining, seeking release from confinement. Some of the lines recalled home and loved ones, but most were laments despairing and devoid of hope. These words must have caused moments of serious reflection for the two young men.
Finally, on September 28, 1922, my father’s turn to be questioned came. He declared that he was 18 years old, a son of a native, and as a student, he was headed for Stockton, California to join his father. He answered each question factually from memory. Next, his paper brother, aged 13, took his turn. Father was to be recalled a second time for questioning. Concurrently, the paper father came from Stockton to provide testimony and to proclaim that the two Fong brothers were his sons.
The stories matched to the satisfaction of the authorities. On my father’s action sheet was written “9/28/22 SFR” and “Reported Favorably”. My father, in contrast to others not so fortunate, was successful and spent only 16 days on Angel Island. He was issued a debarkation card which bore his name, #20996, and “China Mail S.S. Co’s SS. Nanking Voy. 20 from Hong Kong to San Francisco”. He was present this card to the immigration officer at the port of debarkation.
Before parting ways, the two paper Fong Brothers went to the Fong Get Studio on Grant Avenue in San Francisco. They stood proudly, but formally, in western suits and caps, books in hand, the other arms resting on a pedestal which also supported a flower pot. This picture marked the end of their paper relationship and the beginning of a new lives in America… separately.
In July 1957, when I was a 12 year old moving from Canonsburg, Pennsylvania to San Francisco, father pointed out the landmarks of the great Bay while we cruised on a ferry from Oakland to San Francisco. As we passed the San Francisco- Oakland Bay Bridge, father pointed out a larger island just beyond Alcatraz Island.
Father said, “That’s Angel Island.” He said nothing else. The poignancy of that silence did not hit home until I uncovered father’s travel documents from his steamer truck and claimed his file from the National Archives in San Bruno many years later.
Father might have been a scholar in another age in china studying for the examinations, but this was not to be his destiny in the young Republic of China. Instead, in America, he was in business for himself… never working a day for anyone else. His children and grandchildren went on to be the scholars that he couldn’t not be… three teachers and three college professors… graduates and students at the University of Pittsburgh, UC-Berkeley, Stanford, Radcliff, San Francisco State University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Virginia, UCLA, USC, Arizona in Tempe, and Ohio State University.
On a marble headstone in the old Chinese cemetery in Colma, anyone can read my father’s true name written out in Chinese characters. Also revealed is his birth date, date of death, and name of village. Just above the vertical lines of characters, in English, is his paper name.
Submitted by a proud 4th daughter of a laundryman and grocery store proprietor…Jennie A. Horn, retired teacher/administrator – San Francisco Unified School District. Photos courtesy of Horn Family.