Guide to Survival English for Chinese Immigrants

New Chinese immigrants who knew little or no English were at a great disadvantage in everyday business and social interactions. One approach to helping them was to publish common phrases or expressions in Chinese along with the English equivalents.  One example is "An ANglo-Chinese General Conversation and Classified Phrases" book by Yee Shu-Nam published in San Francisco by the Service Supply Company.  It bears no data of publication but probably it was published in the early 20th century.  This well-intentioned phrasebook was of dubious value as any user of the guide would probably have difficulty searching through it for the appropriate expression quickly and it could only cover a very limited number of situations.

Take for example, the scenario below which presents a hypothetical dialogue between a non Chinese speaking customer in a Chinese restaurant and the Chinese manager when the patron received pork chops when he had ordered chop suey!


"Poster Boy" for Chinese Detained At Angel Island Immigration Station

Chinese immigrants entering the U. S. on the west coast between 1910 and 1940 were detained for quarantine at the Angel Island Immigration Station where they also underwent intensive interrogations to determine if they were eligible for admission. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was in effect from 1882 to 1943, laborers were inadmissible whereas merchants and their family members were allowed to enter if they could provide documents and answer questions about their family and living conditions in their home villages in China.  Consequently, Chinese devised the "paper son" (or paper daughter) method by which a laborer might purchase the identity papers of someone, in many cases a fictitious person, who was eligible to enter. 

The above photograph of a young Chinese, probably no more than 12 years old and wearing slippers and an ill-fitting suit is the only photograph I have ever seen of an actual interrogation. It is used in many articles about Angel Island Chinese immigration. 

The anxiety that this "poster boy" must have felt during this ordeal must have been overwhelming because one false answer and he might be denied entry and deported.  Since my parents both underwent these detailed and lengthy interrogations, I cringe seeing this photograph as I can imagine that they must have been in the same type of situation have to face the Immigration officer, a guard, and a transcriber. This young boy must have been able to speak English because there was no translator in the room.

But who was this boy, and was he a "paper son" pretending to be someone else or was he the real son of a merchant?  Did he gain admission or was he deported?  If he was admitted, where did he live, work, and die?

The December 2017 Angel Island Newsletter included an announcement of a forthcoming documentary, Chinese Exclusion Act, by Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu that describes the paper son method in vivid detail.  The announcement is illustrated with a  copy of the Identity Certificate of Jeong Hop, a 10-year old who arrived at Angel Island claiming to be the "son of a  son of a native."

At first glance, due to his youthfulness, I wondered if he might possibly the same boy in the 1923 interrogation photo. However, the certificate showed that Jeong Hop did not come until September, 27, 1940 and was detained for 2 months until Nov. 25, 1940.  

As an interesting aside, he may have been one of the last Chinese to leave Angel Island because the facility was closed on November 5, 1940 and subsequent immigrants were processed at a location in San Francisco.  Hop Jeong was admitted to the U.S. but not until Nov. 25, 1940. 

So, we still do not know the name and fate of the 1923 "poster boy." As a consolation, I decided to see what I could find about the fate of Jeong Hop after he entered the U.S. in 1940.  I struck gold when I found an interview in 2006 that focused on his memory of his experiences at Angel Island.

The following excerpt of his interview when Jeong Hop was 76 years old shows how complicated family relationships were for some Chinese immigrants who had to use fake names, those on their false documents.

How did knowing he was using a false name affect Jeong Hop in how they felt about the deception?

Jeong Hop remembers very little about his life in the Angel Island Immigration Station.  Being only 10 years old, he was adaptable and didn't realize that he was being mistreated.  He had no strong expectations aside from knowing that he had to memorize all the family members and their relationship to him and to destroy his 'cheat notes' before he arrived in San Francisco on the President Coolidge in 1940.

In the mid 1950s when the U. S. offered a Confession Program, aimed to stop the use of the paper son entry method, that allowed Chinese to reclaim their real family surnames without penalty.  Jeong Hop gave a detailed account of how this affected his relatives.

Jeong Hop pointed out to the interviewer that he actually was already a citizen before he came over because he was the son of a son of a citizen!

He did have strong feelings about the need for his children and grandchildren to know the history of Chinese in America, especially the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which forced Chinese men to live in a "bachelor society" for decades.

Yes, yes, but the relationship is true, so ah... the name is again as I said the same. My
grandfather--. Out of the nine children that he has, every member...of...one of them, and
oneHIRTIES.” And my father, through--my
grandfather, through his attorney, got another doctor, who said this guy is in his twenties.
But the immigration won out and so after a stay in Angel Island for about a year, he was
rejected. So again –again my real father, and since he was rejected, I could not come as a
son because he’s ah...he’s not a citizen. So I took them ah... as son of one of the other
nine children. And at that time in 1940, as we were coming, my grandfather went back to
China about in 1938 to bring my brother and I –my brother’s a year younger than I—over
here. And ...since we are so similar, we look alike, that ah... he could not bring us
together as cousins because he’s --my brother took the relationship as son of another one
of those nine children. So we became cousins instead of brothers—so because we looked
so much alike he know that we couldn’t get through immigration that way as cousins.
Because my grandfather and my younger brother –again, he was a year younger—they
came together I guess a couple of months earlier than I, and then I had to come by
: When did your father attempt to come over here?
In, in....About 1920’s.
: Did you know anything about Angel Island before you came?
I knew nothing about America, Angel Island as a child coming over here. All I learned
about was like, I guess my parents or my grandfather coming back from San Francisco,
telling us about this land of opportunity, of gold, of Kham San Golden Mountain, and
telling us about education there is free. They give you balls and equipment to play with,
whereas, again, back in China, there was no such thing. That’s about the extent of my
knowledge of this country as a child.
: What was your father’s name?
Yee. Y-E-E.
: And your grandfather’s name?
Sun. S-U-N.
: So your brother went over with your grandfather and then you followed alone?
: Do you remember the cost of the trip?
I have no idea.
: It was paid for you.
Right, I remember little of the trip. Like ah.. from Hong Kong going to..I guess,
Tokyo..leaves from Japan, and then stopping in Honolulu. I do remember, like seeing that
water tower in Honolulu that looked, xxxx like a pineapple (laughter), that’s about the
extent of it then, arriving here in San Francisco.
:Do you remember any of the specific things you brought w

Yes, yes, but the relationship is true, so ah... the name is again as I said the same. My
grandfather--. Out of the nine children that he has, every member...of...one of them, and
one of the nine is my true uncle, he came over here to San Francisco. And another one is
my father, he tried coming over. And he did. He was on Angel Island and he passed oral
interrogation, but the paper says when he came over was that he’s supposed to be about
in his twenties, but he was actually in his THIRTIES. So the immigration look at him and
they think he’s much older than he looks, so they got doctors to examine his physical
body and said, “this person is in his THIRTIES.” And my father, through--my
grandfather, through his attorney, got another doctor, who said this guy is in his twenties.
But the immigration won out and so after a stay in Angel Island for about a year, he was
rejected. So again –again my real father, and since he was rejected, I could not come as a
son because he’s ah...he’s not a citizen. So I took them ah... as son of one of the other
nine children. And at that time in 1940, as we were coming, my grandfather went back to
China about in 1938 to bring my brother and I –my brother’s a year younger than I—over
c things you brought wit


Chinese American History Mural by James Leong

James Leong, (1929-2011) an internationally known Chinese American artist, was commissioned in 1952 to paint a mural depicting 100 years of the history of Chinese in America to be placed on a wall in the new federally-funded Ping Yuen housing project for low-income Chinese in the heart of San Francisco Chinatown. Starting on the left side of the 5 x 17.5 foot mural, he depicted Chinese immigrant farmers against the background of the Great Wall as they departed to California, leaving their wives and children, to mine for gold and work on building railroads,  followed by sections with iconic Chinese concepts,  such as a Lion dance during Chinese New Year, image of Chinese women who later came to the U.S.,  a WW II Chinese American soldier in front of a display of awarded combat  ribbons standing atop crumbled papers to symbolize the option to drop "paper names," an  image of a Chinese couple and child assimilated to American clothing and lifestyle, with the new Ping Yuen housing facility in Chinatown on the far right. Some traditional Chinese images such as a dragon, pagodas, and a woman wearing a cheongsam are mixed in American attire such as a business suit and tie for a man.

Unfortunately, his vibrant colored  mural was a controversial work, rejected because some Chinese felt it was "Uncle Tom-ish" or disliked the image of a Chinese wearing a pigtail or queue. Furthermore, the 1950s were a time of tense relations between Communist China and the U.S. and the American government thought the mural might have symbolism with political undertones.

Leong was disappointed, and went to Europe to continue as an artist for decades in Norway as well as in Italy, before returning to the U.S. and living in Seattle where he felt more accepted than in San Francisco where he was born. One Hundred Years of History remained at the Ping Yuen housing, not hanging on a wall in honor, but neglected and placed unceremoniously in a recreation room where children inadvertently spilled soda and food on it or hit it with misdirected ping pong balls.  Finally, in the late 1990s it was salvaged by the Chinese Historical Society of America and painstakingly restored by Leong in 2000, as he describes in the video below, and proudly hung on the wall in the Museum Learning Center since 2001.


The Ships That Brought Early Chinese to Gold Mountain

By 1867, the Pacific Mail Company was given authority by the U. S. government to operate steamships that transported the early generations of Chinese immigrants from Guangdong from Hong Kong to Pacific ports like San Francisco. These were large vessels, some with luxurious accommodations and  amenities for cabin passengers.

 Chinese could not occupy the upper cabin levels but travelled in the cheaper steerage class below the cabin levels next to the cargo hold, which was crowded, uncomfortable, and unsanitary, especially since the voyage could take several weeks for the earliest immigrants in the late 19th century.

 The Pacific Mail Company had financial difficulties by 1900 and the government transferred the route to the Dollar Steamship Lines.

From the early 1900s to early 1930s, the Dollar Steamship Line, named for the owner, Robert Dollar, operated the President line of ships, President Harrison, President Cleveland, President Wilson, and eight other ships named after Presidents.  The success of the company ended with the Great Depression when the high costs of new ships, the President Coolidge and President Hoover, proved its undoing, and the U. S. government transferred its ownership and operation to the American President Lines. 

Unlike the austere quarters for steerage passengers like our Chinese ancestors, the upper deck cabins of these ships were refined, if not luxurious, as the following images show. 

To see other photos and description of life on the ship for tourists, this link goes to an archive on the Dollar Steamship Line.

And while it is not stated what Chinese, and other passengers, in the crowded steerage section were provided by way of food, it was probably of poor quality, quantity, and taste.  

In contrast, the tourists in the cabin class had dining room service with elegant menu offerings as shown in the menu below on the President Hoover in 1932 with the artistic cover. 

Among the luncheon offerings were filet of rock cod, fricassee of lamb with dumplings, braised sirloin tips a la Jardiniere... and assorted pastries and cheeses for dessert.

At the top of the menu page is a picture of  two Chinese, one giving a fortune reading to the other man, an activity quite unrelated to the meal, but probably included to introduce the white diners to an unfamiliar exotic aspect of Orientals.

It is interesting also to see some of the 1940s advertising used by the American President Lines. So, while the cabin class tourists are wining, dining, and having fun, down below them are the Chinese immigrants stuffed in the steerage class on their way to Angel Island Immigration Station or to other immigration detention centers, hoping to enter Gold Mountain.



Chinese Business Directory excerpts 1882

Well Fargo Bank published a directory of Chinese businesses in the west as early as 1882. Excerpts of some of the listings are shown here from San Francisco, Oakland, Stockton, Sacramento, Marysville, Virginia City in northern California and Los Angeles in southern California.  Also included are businesses in Portland, Oregon and Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Even from this small sample, it is clear that laundries were the primary business for the Chinese followed by restaurants.  Merchants, cigar makers, and shoe makers, were also common.

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