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Helen Char, also known as Char Chau, was born in 1901 in Honolulu, Hawaii to Chinese immigrants Loykui Char and Ng Shee (“Shee” is often added to a Chinese woman’s maiden surname after she is married.)
Helen was employed as a servant in the household of Lieutenant Joseph L. Topham, an officer stationed in Schofield Barracks, a U.S. Army installation in Honolulu that still exists today. It seems that Helen mostly helped the Lieutenant’s wife, Imogen Topham, in “keeping house.” She was already working for the Tophams by the age of 12 (in 1913) and possibly for several years before. Chinese immigrant children in America were frequently put to work as domestic servants in the late 1800s and into the 1900s.
In 1913, Helen accompanied Mrs. Topham to visit her hometown in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Helen’s arrival in San Francisco caused an incident of significant tension between the Immigration Services (Department of Labor) and the U.S. Army when J.B. Warner, a senior immigration official, found out that Helen was allowed to land without being put through any screening process by Immigration Services. She and Mrs. Topham had come to the mainland on the U.S.A. Transport Thomas, an army-owned ship. Because the ship was only carrying a few cabin passengers, the army officers had let everyone go ashore. However, strict immigration laws at the time mandated all people of Chinese descent, even American citizens, must be vetted by immigration officials upon arrival.
Other white passengers who traveled on the same ship as Helen vouched for her citizenship when questioned by Warner, and were, as Warner states, “of the opinion that an examination was not necessary.”
But due to the immigration system of the time that cracked down on any possibility of illegal Chinese immigration, Warner felt the need to confront army officials for allowing this to happen.
Eventually, after a lengthy correspondence between the Labor and War Departments, Henry Breckinridge, the Assistant Secretary of War at the time, wrote a letter to the Secretary of Labor promising to “prevent a recurrence of a case of this nature.”
From today’s frame of reference, it seems quite extraordinary that a young Chinese American girl traveling with her mistress could cause such a large problem that the President’s Cabinet would eventually get involved. But during the Chinese Exclusion period (1882-1943), Chinese immigrants faced intense discrimination and had to learn to live with high levels of scrutiny from the government.
It appears from census and other records that Helen returned to Hawaii and spent her working life as a teacher in the public school system. She eventually married John (Yuk-Yin) Tseu, also a Chinese American, and had two daughters—Pauline (b. 1925) and Gertrude (b. 1927). She passed away in 1999 at the age of 98, having lived to see the entirety of the transitional 20th century.
If you happen to know more about the life of Helen Char, please contact AIISF and we will update this story.
File source: Case file 12730/001-01, Chau Char, National Archives and Records Administration San Francisco Center, San Bruno, CA
Valerie Chen is a freshman at Yale University, and was part of AIISF’s 2016 spring break externship program with Yale’s Asian American Cultural Center. She is studying Computer Science and Music, and hopes to take more opportunities to learn about Asian American and immigration history. She is a Bay Area native from Foster City.
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