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Yoke Lon “May” Phang, born on May 1, 1894 in Kingston, Jamaica, visited the United States temporarily in transit to Kingston, Jamaica in 1934. She spoke English proficiently, having lived in Tientsin (Tianjin), China for the majority of her life. During the formative years of May’s life, Tientsin was occupied by the Eight-Nation Alliance (Russia, Britain, Japan, Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and the United States), which established a provisional government in the city.
May worked as a secretary at the Tientsin branch of the National City Bank of New York. To prepare for her journey, she applied for a visa through the American Consulate. In order to do so, she needed several references from those who knew her, confirming her legitimacy and accountability. May obtained references from three people in Tientsin: Warwick Winston from the Chi Yu Building, C.E. Seymour of the Robert Dollar Co. General Agents, and Fred W. Bender, her manager at the Tienstin branch of the National City Bank. All three references described May as “highly respectable and responsible,” and her manager described her as a “very efficient employee.”
The American Consulate granted May a visa on May 24, 1934, and profiled her as “British of Chinese race,” with “no physical peculiarities.” She anticipated she would stay in the US (specifically, New York City) for three to four months, to sightsee and visit her brother-in-law, George Sokolsky. Afterwards, May planned to travel to Kingston, Jamaica, where her parents (Mr./Mrs. Charles Phang) lived. The American Consulate found her to be a “bonafide nonimmigrant,” and determined that she had sufficient funds, including a roundtrip ticket and $1000 in cash. The consulate also verified that May was “a responsible resident of Tientsin.”
And so, on June 11, 1934, May departed from Kobe, Japan, for San Francisco, via the S.S. President Wilson. When she arrived on June 28, she showed her British passport, and was admitted into the country on the same day as a “temporary visitor” under Section 3 (2) of the Immigration Act of 1924. This portion of the act stated that, as a temporary visitor, May would be allowed to stay in the U.S. for up to six months, and that she needed to file an application to the Commission of Immigration if she planned to stay longer; if she failed to do this, then she would be subject to arrest and deportation.
Records of May’s activity after arriving in the U.S. are sparse. However, on May 2, 1935, Commissioner Edward Haff in San Francisco wrote a letter to George Sokolsky (May’s brother-in-law). The letter stated that May’s file had not yet been closed, since her name had not appeared on any outbound passenger lists, and that the immigration service was interested in her departure plans. Sokolsky informed Haff that May had in fact returned to Tientsin, and forwarded the letter to May herself. A month later, May replied that she was in Tientsin (the letterhead was that of the bank where she was employed.) She also suggested that the immigration service check with “the Chinese officer of [the] department who actually saw [her] in [her] cabin on President Coolidge on the day of [her] departure.” Her case file shows us how careful the Immigration Service was about keeping track of immigrants and ensuring that temporary visitors not overstay their visits in the United States.
Source: Immigration case file 34156/006-02, National Archives, San Francisco.
Bianca Li is a freshman at Yale University and a prospective cognitive science major who served as an extern at the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation during the spring of 2016.
Special thanks to Judy Yung for editing assistance.
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