What if you discovered the last name you've lived with since birth is fake?
That's what happened in many Chinese-American families who first came to the U.S. before World War II, when the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese laborers from legally entering the country.
The law, formally repealed by Congress 70 years ago on Tuesday, ended up prompting tens of thousands of Chinese to use forged papers to enter the U.S. illegally.
Today, their descendants are still trying to uncover the truth.
Paper Sons And Daughters
William Wong says even as a child, he knew "Wong" was his last name on paper only. His real family name is "Gee."
"We knew when we were growing up in Oakland's Chinatown that we were a Gee family," says Wong, 72, a retired journalist now based in Piedmont, Calif.
Wong's families was one of thousands made up of "paper sons and daughters," Chinese immigrants who were the supposed "children" of Chinese-American citizens according to fraudulent documents with false names. Blood relatives of American-born Chinese, along with Chinese merchants, officials, teachers and students, were among the exceptions to the immigration restrictions, which targeted Chinese laborers.
After arriving in America in 1937, Felicia Lowe's mother lived under the assumed name of Kam Sau Quon, impersonating an American-born Chinese girl who, unbeknownst to immigration officials, was already dead.
Lowe's father lied, too. He was a paper son who legally reclaimed his real family name "Lowe" when Felicia was six.
"It was absolutely confusing! My father explained [changing our family name] was for business reasons, but how could any six-year-old know what that means?" says Lowe, now 68 and a documentary filmmaker in San Francisco.
Playing The 'Game'
Growing up in Oklahoma, Byron Yee didn't know much about his father, who died when Yee was just 11 years old. Yee, now 52, began researching his father's family history almost two decades ago. It helped inspire his one-man stage show called Paper Son.
After piecing together documents from his father's old immigration file at the National Archives, he discovered that his father arrived as a teenager in Boston, where he claimed his eldest brother as his "paper father."
"Coming to America was a game. And the Chinese knew they were playing a game, and the Americans knew they were playing a game," says Yee, a filmmaker now based in Los Angeles.
Yee admits that his father probably would not want him to know his true immigration story.
"Some of [the information in old immigration files] were based on truth and some of these were lies," he says, "And I think that's part of why the Chinese never really talked about it, because they don't want to talk about the lies."
'A Total Change Of Heart'
For many Chinese immigrants, those lies were the key to opening America's golden door, held shut for more than half a century by the Chinese Exclusion Act. It was the country's first, and so far only, federal law to shut out an immigrant group based on nationality.
The anti-Chinese immigration law came at a time when low-waged Chinese workers were seen as unfair competition and unwanted neighbors.
"The Chinese were seen as the dregs of society. They were seen as vice-ridden. They were seen as disease-ridden. They were seen as unassimilable," says Judy Yung, professor emerita of American studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The law's repeal in 1943 was largely a goodwill gesture in the midst of U.S.-China solidarity during World War II. While it allowed Chinese nationals in the U.S. to become American citizens, only 105 Chinese immigrants were allowed to enter the U.S. annually — tight restrictions that were finally lifted more than two decades later.
"A total change of heart [on the Chinese Exclusion Act] doesn't come until 1965, when Chinese immigration is put on an equal par with other nations in the world," Yung explains.
Setting The Record Straight
Decades after the Chinese Exclusion Act has settled into history books, many of the descendants of paper sons and daughters are still driven to know the truth.
"I know for me it's become extraordinarily meaningful just so that I can set the record straight within my own family," says Lowe, who's been working on a documentary about her mother's immigration story.
Wong thought he had the record straight — until he recently spotted conflicting names in old documents, which led to more questions. "Are we sure Pop was legal? Or was he truly a 'paper son'?" he asked his sisters.
The family story, and the story told to immigration officials, was that Wong's father was the real son of a Chinese-American citizen and that his grandfather was born in San Francisco.
Now, even that is suspect.
Still, Wong says he's proud of being a "Gee" — so proud that seven years ago, he had the Chinese character tattooed in red on his left bicep.
Now at age 72, he's planning to change his name legally to William Gee Wong.
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