10/8/18

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.

SONG FOR WONG TOY HEUNG 

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… 


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