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Malaysia - Kuala Lumpur to United States

1931 | Yap Tai Chong | Male | 20-39 years old

Filed under:

Angel Island immigrant: Yes

Place of Origin
Malaysia - Kuala Lumpur

Place of Settlement
United States

On February 25, 1931, Angel Island immigration officials cursorily reviewed the profile of a 38-year-old man named Yap Tai Chong. Had Yap been traveling to the United States on his own, he would likely have faced great scrutiny, if not outright rejection, at the immigration station. Although Yap was born in Singapore and lived in Kuala Lumpur, he was ethnically Chinese and his papers declared him to be a citizen of China. Yap also hailed from poor beginnings, having worked as a tin miner in Kuala Lumpur for almost eight years. Ordinarily, this profile would have placed Yap in the crosshairs of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. He would have first been targeted for being Chinese, and furthermore, his history as a tin miner would have required he respond “yes” to the pointed question that immigration officials often used to form the basis of exclusion: “Have you ever been a laborer?” Yap’s racial and class identities—Chinese and (former) laborer—would have likely barred him from entry to the United States, especially during the Great Depression, when anxieties about white American unemployment were hitting a high watermark.[1]

Because of his travel companion, however, Yap gained entry to the United States without a hitch. Yap worked  for Loke Wan Yat, the son of Loke Yew, a business magnate who was sometimes known as the wealthiest man in British Malaya. Yap was traveling to the United States in order to serve as Loke Wan Yat’s private secretary. Yap’s “Form of Chinese Certificate,” filled by the commissioner of Chinese customs, specifies that he is credible because his employer is the “bearer of a Section G visa issued by the American Consul General.” The papers also state, “The credentials and references of [Yap’s] employer are quite satisfactory and the American Consul General at Singapore has informed this office that investigations made concerning Mr. Yap establish his permanent domicile in Malaya, ample financial resources and high standing there and recommending favorable consideration by this office.” The fact that Yap was employed by Loke resulted in immigration officials viewing him in a favorable light (as a man of “ample financial resources” in British Malaya) as opposed to an unfavorable light (as a former laborer and a Chinese citizen.)

A related reason why Yap did not have to step foot on Angel Island and face scrutiny was because he was not arriving in the US as a permanent immigrant but as a temporary visitor and he was traveling first class. Loke and Yap sailed into San Francisco on the Asama Maru, a Japanese ocean liner known to many as the “Queen of the Sea.” The two men planned to tour the United States for approximately two months before departing for Europe from New York City, likely in another luxury ocean liner.  The combination of Yap’s secretarial position, his influential employer, and his nonimmigrant status made him a candidate for easy admittance to the United States.  He was a holder of a Section Six certificate that exempted him from the Chinese Exclusion Act.

To fully understand Yap’s story, it is particularly important to consider the cultural context of the world tour trip on which Yap was accompanying Loke. The “world tour” on which the two men were embarking invoked the longstanding Western tradition of the “grand tour,” a social and educational rite of passage whereby aristocratic European (usually English) young men would visit Western Europe “in search of art, culture, and the roots of Western civilization.”[2] Especially considering Loke’s father’s position as a powerful businessman who prospered under British colonial rule, it is likely that Loke was being sent on a world tour in order to highlight his family’s proximity to British nobility, to cement the fact that even though the Loke family was Chinese, they were capable of being educated in the tradition of Western civilization as though they were elite young men from the colonial metropole. Angel Island immigration records do, in part, tell that narrative—the relative ease with which Yap and his employer were able to enter the United States (without Yap being detained at Angel Island at all,) points to the Loke family’s achievement of an elite status that was rarely accessible to colonized Asian subjects.

But Yap’s immigration records also tell a parallel story. The very necessity that he apply for Section Six eligibility under the Chinese Exclusion Act points to the fact that, even with wealth and status, some marks remain indelible. The Act required that Yap prove his eligibility for entry to the United States despite his Chinese identity, and all the racialized threats that the American government associated with it. And for every Yap who squeaked past the wheels of America’s discriminatory bureaucracy, far more were denied entry at Angel Island, or could not even afford to risk overseas journeys that might only result in a closed door. Yap’s story specifically may not be one of exclusion, but his need to prove himself as a Section Six-sanctioned “exception” to the Chinese Exclusion Act only casts into sharper relief the legislative contours of the racial discrimination that surrounded him and defined his historical moment.

[1] File 30130/3-1 (Yap Tai Chong), Investigative Arrival Case Files, San Francisco, RG 85, National Archives, Pacific Region, San Bruno, CA.


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