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Zhongshan, China to San Francisco, CA

1914 | C. Tony and May Leong | Couple | 12-19 years old

by Tony C. Leong, Jr., Ph.D.

Filed under: ,

Angel Island immigrant: Yes

Place of Origin
Zhongshan, China

Place of Settlement
San Francisco, CA

Tony C. Leong, Jr. contributes a fascinating and detailed account of  secrets uncovered in the tangled tale of paper sons so common among  Chinese Americans.


Tony Leong aka Chew Tong Chun in 1914

After the initial confusion, noise and chaos upon her arrival to Angel Island where she saw for the first time in her life people of different ethnicities some dressed in strange attire; saw but heard fellow Chinese speaking unfamiliar Chinese dialects; noticed kind and well-intentioned white missionaries helping people around her; matron guards in uniforms instructing and ordering people to go this or way or that; and the eventual realization that she was detained on an island far away from her intended destination of San Francisco, my mother quickly realized that she was totally and utterly alone. Each day of her lonely and dreary existence on Angel Island she longed to see her husband who would travel as often as he could on a boat from San Francisco to the Island to bring her roast duck and other familiar and more palatable Chinese foods than the food she and her fellow detainees would be fed by the gwei los (white devils) on the Island.  More than that, however, she longed for the companionship of her husband and to escape from this wretched artificial existence of the life of over 140,000 detainees who were sentenced to Angel Island from 1910 through 1940.  Thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act that targeted Chinese from entering the United States, they were not detained on the Island for any crimes they committed or wrong doings but simply detained for being of Chinese ancestry.


Photo of May C. Leong from CID application in 1928

My parents bore two generations of children.   And for over 50 years there was a topic they never discussed with their children.  “It” was never talked about. The fear that was instilled in us to not talk about “it” was my parents’ fear of being deported.

It wasn’t until after reading Island written by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim and Judy Yung did I ask my mom about whether she was detained on Angel Island.  To my pleasant surprise she not only acknowledged that she was but was forthcoming about it, albeit reluctantly at first.  It wasn’t until I’d asked Judy Yung (who also attended Galileo High School when I was there) if she would be interested in interviewing my mother for a second book on Angel Island she and Ginny Lim had been working on did my mom really open up about her detention on the Island.

Another high school classmate of mine, Jeanie Chooey Low, who had been encouraging all of her classmates for over 20 years now to visit the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to look up their ancestors’ immigration documents, accompanied my wife and me to NARA in San Bruno to look up my mother’s immigration and her detention records on Angel Island.

Prior to this visit my wife found two items in a box with some of my parents’ documents.  The first was a “Certificate of Identity Under Rules Relating Chinese Identity” and my father’s “Steamship Line” boarding pass that he had kept after traveling from China to the United States.  Both of them were partially burned.  I scanned and emailed these items to Jeannie who emailed them to a NARA representative, Marisa Louie.  She used them to find both my mother’s and to my pleasant surprise my father’s immigration files.   I had also conducted a search on for both my father’s and mother’s arrival to the U.S.

It never occurred to me or my siblings that my father was also detained on the Island.  But as the ship’s manifest shows, he arrived in America in 1914 during the Angel Island detention period of 1910 and 1940.

My father, Tony C. Leong, always signed his name “C. Tony Leong.” The “it” that was never talked about for two generations was whether we were siblings of “paper” parents. There was a tacit “don’t ask don’t tell” understanding in our family to never bring it up much less discuss it. My brother had always contended that the “C.” which preceded my father’s name was his “paper son” surname because my father always signed his name this way. My brother surmised that he signed his signature this way because in the event that he was ever asked about his surname he could legally say that it was “Chun.” But my brother apparently never asked my father if this were true.  And, of course, my father never told him or any of us.  So what was our family surname?


Tony Leong during 1925 travel to China

My father arrived to the United States on the S.S. Korea in 1914 at the age of 17 listing his “Occupation” as a “student” under the name “Chew Tang Chun”.  He is listed #6. on the passenger manifest as being 18 years of age.  He and my mother were from Heung San which was later renamed Jung San (“Chungsan” or “Zhongshan”) and from the town of Naam Long (Nanlang).

As I mentioned in the above, my father’s detention on Angel Island came as a big surprise to my siblings and me.  Therefore, I know nothing of his stay on the Island.  Except for the “paper son” information about him that I extrapolated from the questions asked by his interrogators (found in his immigration files) in order to gain passage into San Francisco, his experience on the Island died with him.
My father, like many of the immigrant men of his generation, worked at any job they could find.  One of his first jobs was working on the railroad first as a general laborer and later as a cook’s assistant.   He later did housework for families.  His place of residence was at 38 Waverly Place in San Francisco.

According to the written transcripts of the interview which Judy Yung conducted with my mother on August 16, 1980, my father set out on a ship to China as a U.S. citizen in March of 1925 in order to bring my mother back to America:

Q (Judy Yung): Was your reason for coming to America to get married?  Or was it because of economic hardship at home?
A (my mother): My husband came home to marry me.  After three months, the immigration laws changed saying that U.S. Citizens could not bring their families to America; only merchants could.  So he returned first without me.
Q: So you were married in China?  And he returned to America first and later purchased papers for you that said you were a daughter of a U.S. citizen?
A: Yes.
Q:  So you were a daughter of a U.S. citizen.  You must have been married at a young age?
A: I married at 18.  I am older than my papers by two years.  I was 20 when I came but my papers said I was 18.  It was really difficult for us then
Q:  Was your husband working here then?
A:  Yes, housework.

“On May 25, 1925, the day before the enactment of the 1924 Immigration Act,
The Supreme Court upheld the exclusion of Chinese alien wives of U.S. citizens in Chang Chan et al. vs. John D. Nagle decision.  That same day, however, the court also determined that the alien Chinese wives and minor children of domiciled alien merchants could enter the United States for permanent residence (but not citizenship)…” from Madeline Y. Hsu. Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home: Transnationalism and Migration between the United States and China, 1882-1943.

If only my father had gone to and returned from China to the U.S. with my mom three months earlier before the May 25, 1925 enactment of this law: they would have been reunited as husband and wife.  Bad timing!  Instead, my father sailed back from China to the United States alone and according to his immigration transcript file.   He ended up purchasing papers for my mother in order to come to the United States three years later as a “paper daughter.”

My mother traveled on the S.S. Tenyo Maru from China and arrived to the U.S. in 1928 according to her passenger manifest.

My mother traveled with her aunt who posed as her paper “sister.”

Q: (Judy Yung): When did you come to America??
A: (my mother): I came in 1928.
Q: Did you come by yourself?
A: I came when I was 18 with my aunt.  We came as sisters.  She was a year older than me, so she was supposed to be my older sister.  Two of us came together and we made a mistake at the interrogation so we couldn’t land.  We were on Angel Island for over three months.

Q:  What was the mistake made?
A:  About the bedrooms.  She (her aunt) said we slept in one room; and I in another room.
Q:  Did you have to hire an attorney to appeal the case?
A: We spent about $500 or $600.

My mom and her aunt stayed longer on the Island than the average detainee because they had made a mistake in answering a question asked by an interrogator. They paid for their mistake by being detained longer than the average detainee by being on the Island for “over three months” and paying for an attorney to represent them.

According to her immigration documents, she was interrogated on December 12, 1928.  She was finally released from Angel Island on or about February or March 1929.

My parents married (again) in San Francisco.  But their U.S. marriage license did not use my father’s paper surname of “Chun”.   Instead he took my mother’s paper surname of “Leong.”

Their new address was 2219 Pacific Avenue in San Francisco.  My father had found a job in what I refer to as “driving Miss Daisy” working for Mr. Frank G. Willis, a Crocker Bank Vice President.

Mr. Willis owned the Pacific Heights home where my parents lived and where my father worked.  Mr. Willis and his family owned another home in Menlo Park (Atherton) where my parents and older sister and brother resided and where he worked.

My father was hired as a “Driving Miss Daisy” driver for Mr. Willis and he drove him to and from work and to and from his homes in San Francisco and Menlo Park.  He also helped the family’s French cook and French maid with chores whenever the family had parties.   He assisted with the care of Mr. and Mrs. Willis’ daughter whenever their nanny was not around.  And he assisted their gardener in maintaining the family garden.  My brother was born in San Francisco at the Chinese Hospital in 1929 and my older sister was born in Palo Alto at Stanford Hospital four years later.

Before Mr. Willis terminated my father from his employ, he helped my father find a job working in the “lunchroom” of Crocker Bank.  After this job, my father continued to work at various jobs such as picking fruit, but he mostly worked for non-Chinese owned restaurants as a helper, pantry man (cutting up meat) and sometimes a cook.  He even owned “Leong’s Café” for a brief period of time.  My mother worked sporadically helping her husband in the lunchroom and later in the Café.  But she was mainly a “housewife” raising her two generations of children.  After my father died, she worked briefly as a housekeeper making beds for a hotel to help ends meet.

According to my older sister, Mr. Willis was a “very nice” and humble man and both he and his family treated my family with respect and kindness.

The question still remained for me:  why did my parents use my mother’s paper surname “Leong” instead of my father’s paper surname of “Chun” when they got married in San Francisco?   And what was my father’s real surname?

I asked several sources about whether the practice of a husband taking his wife’s surname in marriage was common back then.  None of my sources knew the answer to this question.  One suggested that I try and locate a surviving relative on my father’s side to find out.

I did and contacted my first cousin, Robert Chang.  His mother was my father’s sister.

He told me in no uncertain terms that my father’s and his mother’s real surname was Leong.  His mother never left China and he verified that her maiden surname was Leong before she married a Chang.  Robert Chang was born and raised in Shanghai.  His mother had relocated with her husband from Zhongshan to Shanghai before Robert was born.

So the mystery of our family’s real surname was now solved:  my father bought a paper surname of “Leong” for my mother before she came to America in 1928 with the apparent and eventual purpose of using it as their married surname.  He never used the “paper son” surname he bought to enter the U.S.  Why?  Because his real surname was Leong and he wanted to retain it.

Not surprisingly, this “it” of what our real last name was was never talked about among any of our family members.  The arbitrary laws created to prevent Chinese from legally immigrating to America with no strings attached forced many to them to explore creative ways to immigrate to America.   Apparently and obviously we were not the only family who never revealed that we are siblings of paper parents. Lest we forget Angel Island and its over 140,000 inhabitants who, but for their race and ethnicity, were detained on this godforsaken yet paradoxically beautiful island.

Like salmon swimming upstream back to their place of birth, I always had this strong desire to help limited English speaking immigrants and refugees (Asians, Latinos, from the Middle East, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Russians, Cubans, etc.) despite working in different social service fields including teaching.  I started working with limited English speaking youths in San Francisco Chinatown and Oakland Chinatown and later worked with non-English and limited English speaking immigrant and refugee adults in both San Francisco and the East Bay by helping them with English language, job training skills and job placement in programs where I worked.  I remember responding to a couple of newspaper reporters years ago when they interviewed me about why I was in this line of work.  I told them that I was avenging my parents who did not have such opportunities when they came to America.  And, I told them, every time an immigrant or a refugee came through the door of my work place I saw my parents.

From two partially scorched documents that my wife discovered in a box containing some of my parents documents I not only discovered that my father was also detained on the Island but that both our paper and real surname is “Leong” although it was not the paper surname my father used to enter the country as a paper son.

One of my regrets is that I could not share this information with my brother who passed away in 2011.  My brother, James C. Leong, was an artist of note and was recently featured and honored together with Dong Kingman by the Chinese Historical Society in a March 10, 2012 exhibit entitled “Artist Double Feature:  Dong Kingman & James Leong”

Another regret, of course, is that I never had the opportunity to ask my father about his experience on Angel Island.  Of course, had I asked, he would have demurred on this subject.  But such was the burden of their generation and their strong belief and resolve to protect their children from what happened to them.

My parents, like the Nisei generation of Japanese Americans who were detained in “American’s Concentration Camps,” were closed-mouthed about their respective experiences on the Island.  Until such Chinese American historians like Him Mark Lai, Judy Yung and Philip Choy made the community and the world aware of the plight of Chinese in America and summoned their children’s curiosity to ask about Angel Island did my mom and others who were detained on the Island finally speak about it.  I remember how tentative and suspicious my mother was at first in answering Judy Yung’s questions about her experience on the Island.  But as she became more relaxed about answering them she was surprisingly forthcoming with her answers.  It was like the burden of being on the Island and the secrets both she and my father kept from us all those years had finally been lifted off her shoulders.  I take solace and cherish the moment in witnessing the palpable relief my mom felt in finally telling her story.

As the philosopher, George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.



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