Smuggling Chinese Immigrants At Sea

       When thinking about illegal Chinese immigration, the "paper son" method usually comes to mind. The immigrant obtains the identity papers of someone who is eligible to enter the U.S. such as the son of a merchant.  Upon disembarking from the ship from China, he must undergo a rigorous interrogation by an immigration officer and must convince him that he is the person whose documents he falsely holds.
       In contrast, smuggled immigrants, illegal by definition, bypass the immigration authorities and sneak into the country with the help of paid guides, crossing the Mexican or Canadian borders or at remote locations along the western, eastern, or southern coast. Only a handful of immigrants are involved in a given smuggling attempt, as larger numbers would increase risk of detection.
        It is not known how many succeed in being successfully smuggled; some are caught and deported and others die from the many physical dangers involved in their attempts to enter.
        I wonder how those who manage to enter undetected with the aid of smugglers can escape eventual apprehension since they would not possess documents establishing their identity or proof that they passed through immigration.
       In her book, The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America (Harvard University Press, 2018) Professor Beth Lew-Williams describes a unique smuggling at sea on a grand scale venture involving the 1904 maiden voyage from Norfolk, Virginia around Cape Horn, as the Panama Canal was not yet built, to San Francisco before heading to China and Japan.

        Captain Rinder was given a sealed letter by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, owners of the Mongolia, with orders not to open it until after he was 24 hours at sea. He must have been surprised by the instruction to stop offshore near Manzanillo, Mexico to meet a ship arriving from China carrying 189 Chinese who would be allegedly working as crew members on his ship as it continued to San Francisco. Actually, Rinder was instructed to create "employment contracts" that falsely stated these Chinese started employment the day their ship left Hong Kong, an account he would give to U.S. authorities to justify their entry when he reached San Francisco. To the Mexican authorities when he secretly transferred the 189 Chinese to his ship, he stated that the 189 Chinese were "in transit" en route back to China.
        Unlike the "typical" smuggling operation in which smugglers are paid to attempt to help illegal immigrants cross a border, in this instance the steamship company is the "smuggler." One wonders whether this was an isolated case or if there were other similar instances.
        No evidence seems to exist about the fate of this bold and unusual attempt to smuggle 189 Chinese.  Unlike typical smuggling efforts, these Chinese must have had identity, false presumably, papers to present to immigration officers when they docked in San Francisco.  Did they all succeed or did some get deported? What happened to those who gained admittance?


The Tragic 1941 Chinese Immigration Detention Case of Wong Shee

The case file for Hom Wong Shee (aka Wong Toy Heung) who was detained in San Francisco in 1941 at the Silver Ave. Immigration facility abruptly ended with the declaration that she committed suicide in the early morning of Nov. 19, 1941.

I learned first hand about the ordeal, physical and mental, that detainees suffered from my own mother who was detained for several weeks in 1928 and second hand from reading oral histories and other personal statements, and although I heard some committed suicide awaiting the fate of their cases, this was the first detailed case I've run across.

Thanks to the detailed documentation by William Warrior, a State Park volunteer, we learn of the tremendous stress, uncertainty, isolation, language barrier, and fear that Wong Shee experienced during her detention, during which she was physically separated from two young sons.  She was convinced that she and her sons would be deported even though she had lived in New York previously with her husband and other children because she did not file for a return certificate when she had left the U.S. in 1932. Her intent was to remain in China, plans that changed when WWII broke out with Japan. But without a Laborer's certificate, she faced insurmountable obstacles when she tried to reenter the U.S., leading her to a painful suicide.

William Warrior, the volunteer,  described Wong Shee's predicament and the conditions leading her to take her own life in the following account.


Imagine for a moment… 

It is November 18, 1941. You are a 46-year-old woman from Guangdong Province, China. You are being held at the United States Immigration Station at Silver Avenue in San Francisco, California, under the rules relating to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924. You have been separated from your two 8 and 9 year-old sons since your arrival in late October. Your requests to visit your children have been ignored by the immigration station staff. You are suffering from complications from a hearing disorder first diagnosed in Hong Kong at your departure, and your distress at not knowing of the status of your admissions’ application and that of your sons is contributing to your high blood pressure. Every time one of your fifteen sister-inmates returns from an interview having been excluded, you become more and more convinced that the delays are just the lo-fans building their case against you and your sons for deportation—just yesterday a matron said they denied your application. You are convinced they will soon place you and your two little boys on a steamship for Guangdong and the Japanese occupation—they deported your sister-in-law in 1927 because she got the answers wrong, and they denied your sister-inmate Mok Tue Sun because they said she was coached… Your days and nights without emotional support at the Immigration Station are wearing you down… You alternate between restlessness and paralysis while waiting for answers and deliverance… In a lucid moment you ask someone to write a letter for you to your husband in New York—it is a polite letter in Chinese asking for money to pay the steamship company and to send money so you may pay your debts incurred while traveling to America. You are so worried about having enough money for expenses that you tried without success to sell a keepsake, a gold piece that is precious to you, something you have kept for good luck -- but no one wants to buy, and you feel as though your luck has run out. The matrons and guards do not understand Cantonese, and you do not understand English. 

It is the twenty-fifth day of your detention at 801 Silver Avenue. The matrons notice something is wrong with you. An interpreter is summoned to ask you if you are in need of anything. You stare at him incredulous and in a blind rage before throwing yourself to the floor of the matron’s office, scratching the ground, punching yourself in the stomach, and telling them all how everything at 801 Silver Avenue is making you crazy… how you just want it all to end… how you just want to die… They call in the Station nurse to examine you while you lay unresponsive on the floor of the matron’s office. You have frightened the interpreter – now he is refusing to translate for you. The station nurse arrives, takes one look at you, and tells the matron that the Chinese sometimes act this way, that it is nothing to worry about, and though you cannot understand them, you can feel through the increasing numbness surrounding your senses that their words are something dismissive, something cavalier, and that nothing you do or say to them will bring them around to what you need: your children, your husband, your status, your home, your life… 

It is one-o’clock in the morning… The echoes and the pain of your “slight hearing defect” are worse than ever, your blood pressure remains too high, and you are crying and coughing and speaking in a language that part of the room cannot hear because they are sleeping, and the other half cannot hear because they are asleep… But it is ok now… It is almost over… There is a way out… A final act of will… You are so numb from all of this that you cannot feel a thing as you sit at your bed sharpening the ends of a broken chopstick with a penknife… Crying all the time because you never imagined it would come to this, and crying with joy because you know your mother and father and baby sister are waiting for you on the other side of this world, and that getting there ahead of your husband and nine children will allow you to intercede for them and prepare a great welcome feast when the time comes for their arrival… You hear the matron’s footsteps approaching the women’s’ dormitory… You quickly climb into bed and quiet down, hiding the penknife and hoping she will not notice the wood shavings on the floor... She goes away almost immediately without checking on you—just like always. Her footsteps soon carry away… Now it is time to deal with the noise coming from your ears… The chopsticks take care of that… Suddenly everything is quiet… Now it is time to walk barefoot to the bathing room across the hall. Everyone is sleeping. Everything is still. There is a profound silence and a sense of escape from terror and a release that you have not felt since leaving Hong Kong… You sit on the inside edge of a bathtub, facing a wall and holding the penknife close to your neck… When you pull across with the knife it is like cutting a cord that has bound you to an inhospitable earth… The numbness fades to a sense of flight, of memories of happier times in Guangdong and Pennsylvania: the village in Kwantung, the houses your husband built for you, the beautiful sons and daughters you made together in China and America… Somehow you know it will all be better now for you, for your husband, for the boys—they cannot send the boys back without their mother… 

It is better this way… 

You are free… 




How to Access Internet Materials Written in Chinese

Researching Chinese American history is difficult for me since I can't read Chinese and many materials of potential value are available only in Chinese. I could copy and paste small segments of a Chinese text into Google Translate, which is helpful, but inefficient.

Imagine my surprise, and joy, to discover that using the Chrome browser on my imac, I get an almost instantaneous translation of a webpage from Chinese into English! [This will not work with Firefox or Safari ..I did not test other browsers]

As a test, I used the google of China, baidu.com, and searched for Chinese Exclusion Act.  The screenshot below is the result, in Chinese.  Within seconds, as the second screenshot below shows, the page was translated automatically into English (more or less accurately).


Chinese Labor Contracts: An 1870 Example for Chinese in Arkansas

When there was a need for a large supply of Chinese laborers, middlemen or labor contractors made arrangements to recruit and deliver the workers to the worksite. The labor contract was a detailed document outlining the work rules and conditions, housing, meals, pay, and other details.

The Arkansas Valley Immigration Company, established in June 1869, wanted to import 2,000 workers from China to the port of New Orleans to provide labor for Arkansas plantations. The labor authorization for the Arkansas Valley Immigration Company on June 3, 1870, in New Orleans, Louisiana, is detailed.

Below is an 1870 labor contract for the first Chinese laborers brought to work on cotton plantations in Arkansas. The contract is signed in both Chinese and English. 

           Yasuo Lock Riverside Jobs Office (Note: Arkansas Valley Immigration Company) is listed in the same
Today, China (Ye San) workers are willing to go to the "Asian Lock Province" (Note: that is the Chinese 'name' for Arkansas)  

(1) After the workers arrive at the riverside of the Asian-Island Lock, they must do what they have to do.
(2) Workers who are locked in the inter-Asian zone shall be willing to accept the workers, and shall be counted from the beginning of the day of the blasphemy, and shall expire in three years.
(3) Anyone who does not work as a worker on Sundays, except for the health and well-being in the morning and evening, is not allowed to be banned. On the day of the incident, each day worked for the ICBC 50 sergeants (note: cents).
(4) There is no need to work during the first three days of the Chinese New Year, from the first day to the third day.
(5) Workers at the Ark Lock Riverside Job Office start daily from sunrise to sunset until sunset; only one hour of daily work stoppage. Until the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth months, the work is stopped at two o'clock.
(6) The workers recruited by the Yajian Lock River will listen to the orders of the public office in the three-year period.
(7) All the locks on the riverside of the A-Chas Lock River should be provided to the workers on the road for clothing and one (?) fee, which is handled by the office. After the expiration of three years , the worker wants to return to China, and all the tolls are paid by the office. If there is a reluctance to return to the country, it will also pay 50 yuan per person for the toll .
(8) The workers invited by the Asian Inter-Lock are allowed to receive the silver for 10 yuan in advance, and the silver waiter will be deducted after the servant.
(9) The Asian Inter-Lock Riverside Workplace is required to work for eight yuan a month, but the first six silver dollars are given to the company. The rest of the remaining monthly will be returned to the party when the three-year period expires.
(10) The Asian-Island Lock River asks the Workers’ Office to give workers every year: the first day of the first month of the first month of the public.
(11) The Asian Interlocking Riverside is requested to work for the beautiful houses and workers to live and give firewood; or to be admitted to the hospital in case of illness, all Xiebu foods are given to the workers. It is not counted as ICBC since the date of the onset of illness.
(12) The Asian Interlocking Riverside Consultation Office will provide workers with daily meals for their food and good food. If the worker does not like food, he can inform the owner of the office and change to a monthly discount of four yuan.
(13) Each worker of the Asian Interlocking Riverside Recruitment Office will temporarily enjoy an acre of land in the ocean, and the Tang Dynasty has a population of six acres, allowing him to plant without renting silver.
(14) If the worker is not satisfied, there is no reason why he or she will not want to think of another business or a private escape.
(15) The owner of the Asian Interlocking Riverside Requisitioning Work Center is intended to open up wasteland and plant people who are all in the family. Today, the terms of the contract are clarified, and the desire of the workers to go to work is not to change people. The office will never move workers away from others in this office. This contract can not be handed over to others. It is beneficial to have the same protection for each other.
(16) The Asian-in-law Lock Riverside Consultation Office is now a case of the province: the workers have something to protect the East, and some people are bullied and murdered. The public office must be properly clarified and will not suffer losses.
(Xvii) m-lock riverside please Workers Hall agreed: the workers were dying all the silver, the works according to friends and relatives after the death of his exhortations urge back to China, others do not have to argue.
(18) The Asian Interlocking Riverside Consultation Office agreed: In addition to farming the fields and private affairs of the workers' homes, the public office of the public office can't make other work.

A worker, name: Ye San (signature,  - brush thick circle, on the left side of the contract)  
Sealed by the public: (Chinese and English engraved, round chapter, contract right corner)
Arkansas River Valley Immigration Company , Yasuo Lock Riverside Recruitment Office
The first day of the first month of the year
Qing Tongzhi has been in November 30, eight years
Remarks: 1. The original contract is not punctuated; 2. The original contract is Chinese traditional (one Chinese contract); 3, the contract is listed, from top to bottom, right to left (above); 4, written punctuation Symbol insertion or error; 5, the literature is ambiguous, individual words (?) are not recognized .

        According to the contract, such as the name listed in labor , accepted by the Arkansas River Valley immigrant members of the company Nelson • McCarty. He will agree to accept the responsibilities and terms stated in the contract.
        President: TC Floroy (signed)
        I, Nelson McCarty, and the workers listed above, I agree to fulfill all contractual obligations.
        New Orleans, June 3, 1870
        (Signed) Nelson McAtty
        Remarks: Each listed laborer has issued ten Mexican silver dollars, and the receipt is reserved by the company. In the future, the salary will be deducted in small amounts.

Reference resources:
Arkansas Multiculture Heritage Collection — Arkansas State Archives

     January 1, 1870 (Qing Tongzhi  , "Arkansas Valley Immigration Company" and the Chinese labor contract, Arkansas River Valley Immigration Co. Labor Contract.


Chinese in the South. 2: Contract Workers or Coolies?

The Charleston Daily News in South Carolina published an editorial on July 13, 1869, that argued in favor of bringing over 1,000 Chinese, shortly after the golden spike was laid for the completion of the transcontinental railroad in Utah, and which left thousands of Chinese railroad workers without work

 On July 28, 1869, The Charleston Daily News in South Carolina reported that a Memphis newspaper announced that the Arkansas River Immigration Company was bringing 1,000 Chinese "with their rat-traps and pigtails,"  from China to work in cotton fields.  "They will be the best and most reliable laboring class, and will add greatly to the development of our resources, and the restoration of our lands, which, since the war, have been relapsing into their original wild state."

A Baltimore newspaper refuted the claim that coolies were being recruited,  pointing out that the Chinese were actually contract workers, and not indentured workers or coolies, because indentured servants were essentially slaves, which America, in the light of the recent end of black slavery, found unacceptable.


How Chinese in the 1870s Came to Be in Places Like Topeka, Peoria, and Chattanooga


When gold was discovered in 1848 in northern California, there were not many Chinese in the U.S. especially beyond the western states. Such was still true in 1870, but Chinese were beginning to live in all regions, even in places that had never seen a Chinese previously. Given that the typical Chinese immigrant during this period lacked English fluency, financial resources, and marketable work skills, why and how did this secondary migration of Chinese occur?
                                   Most Chinese in 1870 were still in western states.
Perhaps no definitive answers may be found in historical documents but it is worthwhile to speculate on the probable mechanisms. A good place to start is to look at the role of labor contractors who recruited Chinese laborers to work on railroad and other construction projects starting in the 1860s, as strikebreakers in a laundry, a shoe factory, and a cutlery factory in the 1870s in the northeast, and as a supply of cheap labor to replace blacks on cotton and rice plantations in the South.

What Happened to Chinese Contract Laborers?

One important unanswered question is what happened to the thousands of Chinese recruited to work for the Central Pacific Railroad in the mid to late 1860s after the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869? The completion was a cause for great celebration for the nation but for the Chinese it meant that overnight thousands of railroad laborers were out of work.
 What happened to these Chinese after this work ended? Some undoubtedly returned to the west coast as well as to China, but it is likely that some unknown number remained and settled within a short distance of Promontory Summit, Utah, the site where the transcontinental railroad was completed. The 1880 Census listed some Chinese working for the railroad but how many were from the original workers and how many were new laborers cannot be determined. In the 1880 U.S. Census, Chinese in Box Elder County, site of Promontory, were not limited to work on railroad maintenance. Some worked in laundries, restaurants, grocery stores, and others worked as tailors, prostitutes, doctors, and engineers.
Others returned to California where they dug channels and ditches of a vast irrigation system in northern California that created a vast agricultural business.
Other railroad workers found other work such as farming and mining along the route of the railroad as census records of the late 1800s show Chinese in many small towns such as Elko, Nevada, Ogden, Utah, Laramie, Wyoming, and Omaha, Nebraska located along the transcontinental railroad route between Sacramento, California and Chicago.
Fate of Other Contract Workers
         What happened to the smaller groups of about 50 to 100 Chinese workers that labor contractors, white as well as Chinese, recruited from the west coast and China in the 1870s to work in factories, laundries, farms, and plantations? 
  Some of the Chinese contracted to work in Hervey’s laundry in Belleville later opened hand laundries in nearby Newark, New Jersey. A history of Newark’s Chinatown found there were 2 Chinese hand laundries as early as 1880, 23 by 1885, and 47 by 1887 along with a steam laundry. In 1872, one Chinese from the Belleville laundry, Ong Yung, is believed to have opened the first Chinese laundry in New York City, and it is likely that others followed his example.
Nothing is known about what happened to the Chinese after they left the shoe factory in North Adams, MA. or the cutlery factory in Beaver Falls, PA. but it is likely that some of the shoe factory workers remained in New England around Boston and some of the cutlery factory workers settled in nearby areas such as Pittsburgh and later attracting relatives to join them.
What happened to the Chinese contract laborers in the South such as those who worked on the Augusta canal, rice plantations in South Carolina, or on the Alabama and Chattanooga railroad? There is no documentation but perhaps some remained to open laundries and grocery stores. Some Chinese in the Plaquemines, Louisiana, sugar fields apparently stayed in the region because a decade later, the U. S. Census listed 144 Chinese laborers living there.

How Did Chinese Migrate Without Help?

As noted earlier, many Chinese were motivated to flee the west coast and Rocky Mountains to escape anti-Chinese violence. However that reason cannot begin to explain how Chinese succeeded in relocating and settling in distant interior regions of the country.  In the late 19th century Chinese would not have had the ability and resources to migrate from the west coast into the middle sections of the country on their own, lacking English language skills or contacts with other Chinese in remote areas of the country to help them get settled. For Chinese to migrate without assistance into regions in the 1870s where there were no or few Chinese would have been a daunting undertaking.

A Possible Resolution to Both Questions

There are two important questions about early Chinese immigrants that have largely been left unanswered.  One is what happened to the Chinese railroad workers and other contract laborers during the 1870s such as those in the Belleville, New Jersey laundry, the North Adams, Massachusetts shoe factory, Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania cutlery factory, the Augusta, Georgia canal workers, and laborers on farms and plantations in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas?
The second unexamined question is how individual Chinese managed to migrate to regions far from the west coast? How they managed to migrate from the west coast to settle hundreds, and for some, thousands, of miles from the west coast to areas where they were often the first, and perhaps, only Chinese residents is an unanswered question.      
 The “answer” to one question may be part of the “answer” to the other question.  In other words, some of the Chinese introduced to inner America by labor contractors to work on railroad and canal construction, in shoe factories, laundries and on plantations, may have stayed in these regions or nearby after their contracts ended especially since most laborers could not afford return transportation to their point of origin.
Stranded in the midsections of the country, despite being isolated and facing racism in many communities, they were still safer than if they returned to the west where anti-Chinese sentiments was rampart during the late 19th century. They were resourceful and earned their living by first starting laundries, grocery stores, and even a few restaurants between 1870 and 1880 in towns that had never seen Chinese before.
These Chinese pioneers then became the “anchors” or “contacts” for bringing other Chinese to these parts of the country.  They eventually encouraged and assisted some of their male relatives, brothers, sons, cousins, fathers, and uncles to join them in working in their laundries, grocery stores, and restaurants. Thus, the answer to the question of how individual Chinese managed to move to remote areas is that they did not have to do it by their own means.  They had the essential help of other Chinese already in these areas brought there earlier by their labor contractors. After their labor contracts expired, these Chinese remained in these areas to start new lives.

 My father can serve as a speculative illustration of this argument. He did not know how to speak or read English when he immigrated in 1921 from China at age 20 as the paper son of a San Francisco merchant. After passing his interrogation at Angel Island to gain entry, he went directly to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he apprenticed for 2-3 years in the laundry of a grand uncle before moving to Augusta, Georgia, where he worked for another grand uncle in his laundry for another 2-3 years. Had these relatives not been in the Deep South, it would have been very unlikely that he would have chosen to settle in those places.

A similar process may have operated when these two grand uncles came to the U.S. probably just before or after 1900. They probably headed to the South as my father did because they had relatives or friends who earlier, perhaps between 1870 and 1900, came to work in Chattanooga and Augusta. There is no proof but could it be that one had come to the area to work on the Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad and the other on the Augusta Canal?


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