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On February 5, 1935, fifteen-year-old Lum Ngow and his mother Ow Soak Yong arrived in San Francisco from China on the President Taft. They had come to join his father Lum Bew, a merchant who ran Lung Kee, a Chinese poultry and deli in Oakland Chinatown. Family members of the merchant class were exempt from the Chinese Exclusion Act and they should have been admitted into the country. Instead, mother and son were detained on Angel Island for eighteen months, fighting a legal battle to prove they were in fact the son and wife of Lum Bew.
At issue was a major discrepancy in their testimonies and that of other witnesses regarding the wedding date of Lum Ngow’s parents. As Lum Ngow (also known as Lee Show Nam) explained to me seventy-five years later,
Before my aunt (Mo Shee) came to America with my uncle (Lum Yun) in 1921, they knew she would have to answer questions from the immigration bureau, like when did your brother-in-law (Lum Bew) get married? And if he had married, there would be more questions, like where is the wife from, what is her surname, how many were at the wedding, who introduced them, did she ride in a sedan chair, and so on. To avoid all these kinds of questions, she was told to say, “My brother-in-law is not married.” But they did not tell my father that was what she said at the interrogation. So when I arrived, they saw that her interrogation records had said my father was not married when she left China for America. Yet, my father had said he got married in 1920 and was sponsoring his wife and son to come to America. So it was all wrong!
In those days, things were very crooked. Someone told my father he could give a three hundred dollar bribe to get us admitted. My father said, “Three hundred dollars is a lot of money. I could buy a new Ford automobile for that amount.” So he didn’t want to pay that much money. He thought there was nothing to fear since our papers were real. So he took it to court instead. The appeal process took eighteen months, during which time I lived there on Angel Island. In the end, the appeal failed and my mother and I were deported back to China in 1936.
It was not until 1958 that his mother would return and be admitted into the United States and not until 1963 that Lee Show Nam would be able to join his parents in America. By then, he was forty-two years old and had suffered through the hardships of the Sino-Japanese War and Communist takeover of China. Still, he was not bitter, for he had persevered and in the end, attained his goal of reaching Gold Mountain.
I met Lee Show Nam at an AIISF gala in 2009 and knew right away that I should interview him. He looked much younger than his age of eighty-seven and he obviously had a great memory for details about his long stay at Angel Island. He attributed his robust health and jet-black hair to his chi gung exercises as well as his stoic attitude toward life: “I don’t let things get to me.” Lee told me things that I had not heard before about the Self-Governing Organization, the smuggling of coaching notes, the “dark room,” and the role of Donaldina Cameron in helping immigrants get landed. I was also intrigued by his immigration case file, which when combined with his oral history interview, clearly shows how thorough and suspicious the immigration officials were in their investigations and how a real son of a Chinese merchant could still fail the test and be deported to China.
Due to no fault of his own, Lum Ngow was caught in a pact of lies that Chinese immigrants often resorted to in order to circumvent the Chinese Exclusion Act and pass the rigorous cross-examination at Angel Island. What many failed to realize is that the Immigration Service had detailed records of all past Chinese immigration cases at their disposal and that, as happened to Lum Ngow’s family, once a lie or inconsistency in the testimonies had been uncovered, it could not be easily retracted. As far as the immigration inspectors were concerned, it was a question of “how do we know they are telling the truth now when they have lied before?” Particularly in regards to Chinese cases like Lum Ngow, the assumption was almost always that they were not telling the truth, even after missionary worker Donaldina Cameron wrote three letters of support vouching for the family’s credibility.
I was born in 1923, the second month and fourth day, in Kuchong village, Zhongshan County. I had a younger sister and an older brother who died soon after I was born. The custom then was that when a child died, the next child would be named after an animal. So I was given the nickname, Ngow (cow). Later, my teacher in Shekki changed my name to Show Nam (longevity) so that it would sound better.
Life wasn’t bad in China. My father was a merchant in America and he periodically sent money home to support us. I helped with the farming and attended school in the village. Still, I wanted to go to America for a better life. People returning from America were able to buy land, build new houses, and get married. So everyone wanted to come to America. No one wanted to remain in the village, especially after the world depression set in and money began to lose its value.
In 1935, my father finally sponsored Mother and I to come. We had to go to Hong Kong for inoculations and the physical exam. Then we had to book passage to America. After we took care of everything, we returned to the village until it was time to sail. My father sent us coaching notes to study, even though we were real relatives and did not have to lie. It included a map of the village.
We traveled special third class on the President Taft, a 10,000-ton ship. We had a small room to ourselves with two bunk beds and a small table. It was December and quite stormy. We were seasick and stayed in bed. When we felt better, we went to the dining room for our meals. The food, Chinese food, was good. The voyage took twenty days, with stops in Shanghai, Japan, and Honolulu. We got off the ship in Shanghai to go shopping at the large store owned by Zhongshan people. We refused to step foot in Japan. After all, they had attacked and invaded China! But when we got to Honolulu, we got off the ship to walk around. We had an uncle in Hawaii.
Our ship docked at Pier 35 in San Francisco. A large station wagon drove us to another pier to catch the ferry to Angel Island. They just took the two of us, since the rest of the people were going elsewhere–to Panama, Peru, New York, and so on. After we arrived at the island, some lo fan (foreigners) took us to the dormitories. There was a men’s dormitory and a women’s dormitory. The Chinese had their own dormitory, and Indians, Japanese, and Mexicans lived in another dormitory. Since it was past dinnertime, they took us to the dining hall where we ate alone. The food–corn beef, cabbage and rice, tasted awful!
From then on, this was the daily routine. In the morning, a loud speaker blasting the radio woke us up at 5 a.m. Then at 6 a.m. they opened the door and we went down the covered stairway to the dining room for breakfast. Those too lazy to go have breakfast could keep sleeping. Lunch was at 10:00 a.m.—usually bread and jam, coffee and tea. Dinner was at 3:00 p.m. At 12:00 noon, a white guard by the name of Pete would open the door and yell in Chinese, “Jing sung law hall.” In other words, bring your dishes of food to the dining room to cook or warm up. That would be the food that relatives sent from the city, like salted fish, bean cake, and barbequed chicken that could be added to the meal. Otherwise, it was one main dish and one small dish like corn beef and cha gwa (cucumbers), laam gwok (pickled olives), bean curd, and things like that. The food was poor and we seldom had chicken. If you had money, you could buy milk or a piece of pie for five cents from Henry, an Italian who ran the concession. He also sold us stationery paper and envelopes, pencils, toothpaste, and notebooks.
We had a Self-Governing Organization run by sixteen officers elected to these positions: a chairman, vice-chairman, secretary, treasurer, two negotiators who spoke English, two administrative assistants, four monitors, and four law enforcers. They usually asked kids like me to be monitors. Whenever we saw anyone throwing cigarette butts or spitting on the floor, we were to tell the officers and the offender would be confined to the “dark room” for half an hour. It was a closet where they stored old newspapers and brooms. I was confined there once for not shutting off the water faucet in the bathroom. One kid caught stealing fifty cents was confined there for a whole week.
There were basketball and volleyball games, ping-pong, dominoes, and mah jongg, also Chinese chess, newspapers to read, and musical instruments like the butterfly harp and erh hu. There were two radios and a phono-record player. The Self-Governing Organization put out the money to buy these things with the membership dues they collected from the new arrivals. The officers read outgoing letters to be sure there was no coaching information in it, and they were also responsible for receiving coaching notes from the Chinese kitchen help. How did they do this? The cooks would pick up coaching notes in the city on their days off and wrap them in the foil paper that came in a pack of cigarettes. (This was before the days of plastic bags.) All the big shots (officers) sat at the first table near the kitchen and were served special dishes like green beans, chicken, steamed eggs, and so on. The cook would indicate there was a coaching note hidden in the food by putting a drop of soy sauce on top of the dish of food, two drops for two notes. All the time I was there, I never saw anyone get caught passing coaching notes.
There were many kids my age [15 years old]. We played ping-pong, read the newspapers, listened to records, and played dominoes. We were never bored. Someone taught me how to play the erh hu and another guy who was a pilot taught me the English alphabet and simple words like “Good morning,” “how are you,” “table,” and “chair.” One time when we were outside in the recreation yard, a boy by the name of Low Wai Hung shot a bird with a slingshot. Then he threw the ball over the fence and shouted to the guard, “Outside ball!” So the guard opened the door to let him go outside to retrieve the ball. Wai Hung got the bird, plucked it, and had the cook make us gai jook (rice gruel with chicken). That was the only time I ever saw a bird like that. It looked like a fat pigeon, but it was gray color and could not fly [most likely a dark-eyed junco].Once a week I would be allowed to go visit my mother in the Administration Building. Sometimes I would run into Miss Maurer [Methodist Deaconess Katharine Maurer] on the way. She had a room full of playthings and she would give me things like a ruler, pencil, eraser, or puzzle. She really liked Chinese people and would help them write letters and purchase things from the city. She was very nice to me and did not want me to leave. I remember she hugged me and kissed my cheek. She was a very nice woman. There was also a Miss [Donaldina] Cameron at the Presbyterian Church [in San Francisco Chinatown] who was very helpful to the Chinese. My father got her to write a letter on our behalf. Her letters usually helped people get landed, but not us.
Sometimes I was asked to serve as a messenger on these visits. I remember this case of a brother and sister who were living in different dormitories. After they were interrogated, he asked me to take a letter to my mother and tell her to give it to his sister. Then another time, the sister gave my mother a coaching note to give me to take to her brother. The guards never searched me and I was able to help them out in that way.
I waited ten days (after my arrival) before they called me for the interrogation. It took place in an office on the second floor of the Administration Building with two immigration inspectors and interpreter Hall Lan [Mabel Lee] present. I was well prepared. We were real, so there was no need to be afraid. I remember the interpreter asking me, “Is your grandmother joy sang (still alive)?” I didn’t understand what she meant by joy sang. Then she asked, “Do you still have a grandmother?” Who would know that my aunt had said my father was unmarried? So there’s the mistake! And my father refused to pay bribery, so we had to fight it out in court. That was the situation!
According to Lum Ngow’s immigration file (34831/2-2), he was called to appear before a Board of Special Inquiry fifteen days after he arrived at the immigration station. His parents and he were interrogated for four days and asked a total of 808 questions regarding family relationships and village life. Their answers were compared to previous testimonies given by six relatives who had immigrated to America earlier. The Board was quite thorough in their summary report, which numbered eight pages long. They denied Lum Ngow and his mother Ow Soak Yong admission on the grounds that their relationships to the father and husband Lum Bew had not been satisfactorily established. Aside from finding no resemblance between father and son, Chairman Moore noted many discrepancies in their testimonies regarding marriage and death dates, sleeping arrangements in the house, their neighbors, details of their wedding and the birth of their first child, the number of trips Lum Bew made to Hong Kong, and whether the sister-in-law had bound feet or not.
In response, Lum Bew went to great expense and trouble to appeal the decision. He retained attorney Thomas Lew to file an appeal to the Secretary of Labor in Washington, D.C., and when that failed, he retained attorney Chauncey Tramutolo to petition for a writ of habeas corpus from the District Court. Three months later, mother and son were informed that the petition had been denied. Tramutolo then asked that the case be reopened to hear the testimony of two new witnesses–sister-in-law Mo Shee and business partner Low Ping, in order to address the discrepancy in the date of Lum Bew’s marriage to Ow Soak Yong. Mo Shee claimed that she had attended Lum Bew’s wedding before she left for America but that her husband had instructed her not to say so at her interrogation because of a family quarrel over money matters.
Q: In view of the fact that you have on one occasion deliberately given false testimony under oath before this Service, can you state any reason why this board should regard your present testimony as that of a person entitled to be believed?
A: After all, I am sorry for what I said when I first came in. She is my sister-in-law and I thought I should tell the truth or she would never be admitted.
Low Ping likewise testified that he was present at the wedding, but when he was confronted with his previous answer at his own interrogation that he did not attend any weddings during his visit to China in 1921, he could only say,
A: (After a long hesitation) I did not think it was important so I just said no.
Q: Then your judgment as to whether or not a matter is of importance determines whether or not you will tell the truth about that matter?
A: I have told you how I felt. I have nothing more to say in that respect.
Lum Bew, Ow Soak Yong, and Lum Ngow were cross-examined separately and asked a total of 171 questions. Ow Soak Yong was asked,
Q: Was your previous statement that you had never seen your sister-in-law, MO SHEE, the result of a mistake on your part or a deliberate mis-statement of the facts?
A: It was my mistake. I was too hasty in making the answer.
Q: The record shows that you were not at all hasty and that you were repeatedly questioned on this point, eliminating any possibility of an honest mistake….Do you wish to make any additional explanation or comment?
A: I really have no explanation than what I have already given. I know I made a mistake, such a mistake that I don’t blame you a bit for denying my admission. However, I was not deliberately telling you an untruth.
Q: It seems very strange to this board that at the previous hearing you were unable to identify a good clear photograph of this MO SHEE taken about the time you were supposed to have last seen her and that you can now promptly identify a photograph of this woman taken at the present time which is some 14 years after you last saw her. How do you explain that?
A: Her picture was shown to me at my first hearing. I really was able to recognize her but when I said I had not met her I could not say I knew that picture.
Q: According to that, your previous testimony concerning MO SHEE was not an honest mistake on your part then but a deliberate mis-statement of the facts. How about that?
A: I know I made a mistake but I didn’t know I could correct my mistake at the time and I realize now that I did wrong.
In his four-page summary, Chairman Moore concluded that the evidence presented at the re-opening “in no way cures any of the adverse features” of the case. “On the contrary, I believe there is further proof that the testimony given as evidence to support the applications is false and perjured.” He therefore moved to deny both applicants admission into the United States on the same grounds as before, and Board members Cole and Silver concurred.
Lum Bew did not give up. His attorney Chauncey Tramutolo made another appeal to the Secretary of Labor in Washington, D.C., which was turned down, followed by another petition to the District Court, which was also denied. Mother and son were to be deported on the next available ship. By now, they had been detained on Angel Island for more than a year. Tramutolo then contacted Donaldina Cameron for help. According to her first letter dated April 2, 1936, to District Director Edward Haff, she had conducted her own investigation and was “convinced beyond any doubt that they are in fact husband, wife, and son.” She requested that deportation be delayed so that attorney Tramutolo could present further evidence. As she explained in the letter, “Please remember that my underlying motive for interceding on behalf of this family is the deep desire I hold to further decent family life and right home influences among the Chinese people, who because of Immigration Regulations have missed so much of the blessing that other nationalities have enjoyed.” Her request was granted.
Tramutolo next took new photographs of the father and son and had a physiognomist testify to their similar features. He also found a new witness, Chun Wai Hin, who remembered meeting Lum Bew’s wife in China on two occasions. However, his credibility as a witness was questionable.
Q: When you returned to this country in 1922 you stated before this Service that during that trip to China you had not visited any resident of this country who happened to be at his home during your trip and that you had not met the wife of any resident of this country during that trip. How do you reconcile those statements with your present testimony?
A: The reason that I replied “No” to some of the questions asked was that I did not want to appear as witnesses for anyone coming to this country. During my trip to China at that time I did visit the home of LUM BEW, and the home of WONG JONG and the home of WONG YOUNG and WONG SUNG and the home of WONG YUK LUN; the home of QUAN SING.
Q: Then you admit that whether or not you answer these questions truthfully is determined by your own wishes and convenience at any particular time. Is that right?
Q: Under those conditions how is the Board going to know or not whether you are telling the truth at this time?
A: I am telling you the truth now—every word of it.
But the Board evidently did not believe him. Even though Lum Bew and Ow Soak Young gave similar details about their encounters with Chun Wai Hin, the Board dismissed the new evidence on the grounds that “the parties have had ample opportunity to prepare themselves for examination on this matter, the principals having been permitted to visit frequently and for considerable periods.” Moreover, they doubted Donaldina Cameron’s judgment on the case. “We feel that Miss Cameron probably is not in so good a position from which to judge the truth or falsity of the statements in question as is this Board.”
In her second letter to District Director Haff dated April 10, 1936, Donaldina Cameron had asked for six months parole on behalf of Ow Shee and Lum Ngo, during which time Lum Bew and Ow Shee would marry according to the laws of California and Cameron would stay in close contact with the family. Although parole was often granted to European immigrants, and Japanese picture brides were admitted on the condition that they (re)marry in a civil ceremony, the same privileges were not accorded Chinese immigrants. Mother and son were deported back to China on June 19, 1936.
When asked how he felt about being deported, Lee Show Nam said matter-of-factly, “My mother felt bad about being deported, but I was okay. The way I looked at it, if I had been admitted, I probably would have served in the military in World War II and maybe been killed. If I had been admitted, I won’t have had a Chinese school education and my Chinese won’t have been as good. So there’s good and bad in being landed or not.”
Upon his return to China, Lee Show Nam attended school for over a year before the Japanese invaded China. “Japan bombed everywhere—the bridges, the electricity plants, the bus stations,” he said. “Our teacher died and our school closed.” He escaped to Hong Kong and found a job fixing tape recorders in a machinery shop. But when Japan bombed Hong Kong in 1941, he returned to his village in Zhongshan County and farmed. He also got married and had three children. Then after the Communists took over the country in 1949, Lee escaped with his family to Hong Kong and started a business there. He waited until 1963, after his father “confessed” to INS that he had immigrated as a “paper son” and took back his real surname Lee, before he could immigrate to America with his family. “It was very quick. We got the papers signed in Hong Kong and there were no interrogations when we got here. Kennedy was President then and the immigration laws had improved. And we came by airplane that time.” The family settled in Oakland, California, and Lee Show Nam worked at his father’s deli in Chinatown until he retired in 1980.
When asked about his feelings toward Angel Island after all he had been through, Lee did not hesitate to say, “The Chinese Exclusion Laws discriminated against the Chinese and made it hard on them by imprisoning them. Now it’s better and people are allowed to come. Before, they looked down at the Chinese. Now we even have a Chinese mayor [Jean Quan] and a Chinese governor [Gary Locke]. There were no opportunities like that before.”
AIISF is very sorry to pass along the news that Mr. Lee passed away on December 28, 2015. We greatly appreciate all he did to tell the story of the immigration station at Angel Island.
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