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For twenty-year-old Tom Wah, a future in America hinged on his father’s career as a merchant in San Francisco’s Chinatown. As the son of a merchant, Tom would be exempt from the Chinese Exclusion Act and be admitted into the country from the Angel Island Immigration Station, once his father and his status were verified.
The verification process was an arduous one, however. In the days before and after Tom’s arrival on the S.S. Mongolia on February 4, 1913, Angel Island immigration inspectors questioned and interrogated Tom’s father, Tom Choi; Choi’s co-workers and fellow merchants; and two white supporting witnesses. At the heart of Tom’s immigration process was not Tom himself, but rather his father.
During his interrogations, Inspector Phillips Jones discovered gaps in Tom Choi’s claims about his status as a merchant, as well as inconsistencies between everyone’s professional and biographical details. While Jones was skeptical that Tom Choi was actually Tom Wah’s father, he ultimately denied admission to Tom Wah because his father could not reliably prove that he was indeed a merchant.
Whether Tom Choi and Tom Wah were real or paper relatives, or whether Tom Choi was actually a merchant, we may never know. However, Tom Choi’s story—or at least the one he gave the immigration officers—is a compelling glimpse into the tumultuous rise and fall of immigrant lives. Entering as a wealthy merchant was no guarantee you could remain as one, and Tom Choi’s checkered work history is a grim reminder that an immigration status predicated on economic and professional status was a tenuous one indeed.
Tom Choi was born in Sai Lung Share village, part of Sun Ning District or modern-day Taishan in Guangdong Province. According to Tom Choi, he and his wife Low Shee had three sons and one daughter before Tom Choi immigrated to America in 1889. All of his brothers were farmers in their home village, while his son was a salesman at the On Chung Company in the Ai Gong Market, studying business under the company leaders. Although relatively well off in China (Tom Choi claimed he owned his house and seven Chinese acres of rice fields), Tom Choi struggled to build a stable life for himself in America. For four years, he was a merchant for the Man Tom Lee Company in Vorden, California, but after that job ended, he “traveled around to different…towns to prospect business opportunities and so forth.” Despite emphatically stating that he was never a laborer, which would violate his status as a Section Six merchant, Tom Choi also said, “if I found anything I could do I would always take it.” During the lean periods, Tom Choi worked as a farmhand; his longest stint was six months on the Quong Sang Potato Farm that was a “fifty-five cents car fare” away from Stockton. To justify his periods of manual labor, Choi said, “After I started into business I lost all my money. If I did not go to work I would starve so I went to work and earned money so I could become a merchant again.”
This is when Tom Choi’s story runs into disbelief from the perspective of the immigration officials. According to Tom, he saved up enough money to become an active partner of the Yow Fong Lung Kee or Yow Fong Liquor Store in San Francisco with a one-time payment of five hundred dollars. However, over the course of three interviews with Inspector Jones, Tom Choi gave three different answers to inquiries about Yow Fong’s address, cross streets, and neighboring stores. He also failed to correctly identify all of the active and silent members of the store; he would describe one man as a bookkeeper and then claim the same person was a manager a day later.
After the first two interrogations, Inspector Jones ruled that Tom Choi had “failed to establish his mercantile status” and denied Tom’s admission to America. Tom and his lawyers appealed the decision, citing issues of misinterpretation and misunderstanding to justify his inconsistent and inaccurate answers. For example, the neighboring stores were owned and frequented by white Americans and therefore unfamiliar to the Chinese, or the Chinese names for streets were mistranslated into English. However, Inspector Jones remained unconvinced: “It is incredible that anyone could be located at one address for nearly two years without knowing the name of the adjoining streets and, at least, the nature of the business enterprises located on the same block.” His skepticism was evident: “The absurdity of the alleged father’s statement will be readily observed by a glance at the map of Chinatown.”
In addition to his unproven mercantile status, Tom Choi offered contradictory biographical information for himself and his family. Although he said he never returned to China after 1889, his four children, Tom Wah included, were all said to be 20 years old or younger in 1913—leaving a four-year gap between his departure in 1889 and the presumed birth of Tom Wah in 1893. Tom Wah himself changed his answers throughout his interrogation: he originally said he was already in school when his father left for America, but he recanted that statement when investigators pointed out the chronological inconsistencies in that claim.
On May 16, 1913, the Commissioner of Immigration rendered his final judgment on Tom Wah’s appeal. Tom Choi had not proven he was a merchant with any reliability, and Tom Wah was deported back to China. If only Tom Choi and Tom Wah had been better at memorizing and reciting their constructed biographical details and merchant status, Tom Wah would have had a very different ending to his American journey.
File source: Case number 12505/004-04, Tom Wah, National Archives and Records Administration San Francisco Center, San Bruno, CA
Jennifer Lu is a senior at Yale University studying literature and photography. She wrote this story as part of an externship at AIISF in the spring of 2016.
Special thanks to Judy Yung for editing assistance.
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