Father's Story

Coming to Gold Mountain

  My father, Kwok Fui, was born in 1901 on May 13 in the southeastern part of China near Canton, now Guangchou. This region was suffering extreme economic hardship, famine, as well as attacks from bandits. Growing up, he undoubtedly knew of the economic opportunities in America. Earlier emigrants who visited or came back to retire in their villages told of the greater financial opportunities in the U. S.

   As was the situation for many other young men, he decided to go to America to seek work and to earn income which he could send back to help his family in China. As the oldest of three sons, it was Kwok Fui's lot to emigrate to Gum Saan in 1921 to seek a living and send money back to the family. My father, like other paper sons, was coached carefully with answers for the kinds of questions that would likely be asked. He had claimed to be the son of Jung Lim, a merchant in San Francisco but in reality was using false papers as no such son existed. That is of course why he had to abandon his family name, Lo, and use the surname, Jung, of his paper father.

Chinese Exclusion & 'Paper Son' Illegal Entry  

 In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed to severely restrict Chinese immigration to the U. S. Entry of merchants, and their families, was still tolerated to allow U.S. to benefit from economic trade with China. To counter this discriminatory legislation, the Chinese created ways of illegal entry using false identities. Older Chinese who had worked in the U. S. and held merchant status but had no sons in China would nonetheless claim the existence of sons. They would then sell the immigration papers of their nonexistent sons to unrelated young men who wanted to come to America to seek their fortune on Gold Mountain.   These "paper sons" would attempt to enter using their fake papers (gai chee). Inasmuch as the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906 had destroyed immigration records, it was thus possible for many Chinese to claim such sons had been reported earlier.

 In an effort to detect these paper sons and deny entry, immigration Officers asked detailed questions about the physical and social structure of the villages from which the immigrants allegedly came. Equally detailed questioning was also directed toward the family and relatives supposedly shared by the paper sons and their alleged fathers. Separate interrogations would be made of the paper sons seeking entry and of the fathers attempting to bring them into the country and inconsistencies between them would often be the basis for deportation.

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   During his immigration entry in 1921, he was asked dozens of questions. He was asked about the physical layout of the village, which direction the main street faced, features of the house in which he lived such as how many windows were on each side of the building, how many doors there were, and how many stairs led up to the front door. Questions were asked about relatives living in the home and where they slept. This was a difficult test especially because he did not actually know these relatives and had not lived in their house. He had to memorize answers to questions that were likely to be asked.

  Answers to these questions had to match those given by his paper father as well as those of a paper brother. In fact, several times the Inspector challenged his answers. For example, the examiner would allege that the paper father or bother had answered differently and asked him why their answers conflicted.  

   Once he successfully entered the country he was confronted with the challenge of surviving in a land where knew little of  the language and none of the customs and also faced an often hostile reception from White Americans. As was true for immigrants from many other countries, father's survival depended on the help of earlier immigrants from his own village.

     Since his contacts with other immigrants from his village were all in the southern region of the country rather than on the West coast, his fate brought him to the Deep South. Working as an apprentice to a Chinese laundry man in Chattanooga, he earned wages some of which he sent back to his family in China. Eventually, while he learned how to operate a laundry, he was able to save enough to buy a laundry in Macon, Georgia from a Chinese who was retiring to return to China.

     In his late 20s, having established himself by saving enough money to buy his own laundry to provide a source of income, Kwok Fui decided it was time for him to return to China to get married. In 1927 he went back to visit his village to find a wife to take back with him.  Following the age old tradition honored in that period, arranged marriages were set up with the aid of matchmatchers. Kwok Fui was sent by the matchmaker, his father, to the village to get a glimpse of his potential bride, Wai Toi, as she shopped in the Chuck Tom market without her knowledge of the impending match. After he agreed to the match, it was then finalized with the families. In this manner, Wai Toi, who was 20 years old, and having no say on the matter was betrothed to a man almost 10 years her senior who she had never laid eyes on before. In a matter of days, or at most a few weeks, the wedding was held in the village in March of 1928, and a few months later, they were headed across the Pacific to live in Georgia. They did not know it then but they would not be able to return for a visit to China for almost 40 years.


 


Father's Legacy


   Life was much more difficult for Chinese in Georgia than it was for those in California in many ways simply due to the cultural isolation. Father adapted to the Southern way of life, earned a living, and raised a family in addition to continuing to provide financial aid to his family of origin in China. As an uneducated immigrant, he had to learn to survive in a foreign land where he did not understand the language and customs. He suffered through the ordeal of the Great Depression of the mid 1930s, and the difficult years of the World War II knowing his family in China was in danger. He realized that the future of us children depended on opening the door through education to a more secure life.

   Without father's commitment to the same goals for us children, as displayed by his sacrifice in staying alone in Macon to operate the laundry for several years after the rest of his family left for California, our big move would not have been possible. If he was ever hesitant or unsure about this decision, I never noticed it. He accepted the necessity of staying behind without complaint. It was more difficult to understand father's inner feelings, as he was not prone to talk much about his these concerns. He knew that we would be better off in California,and that was sufficient for him to justify the decision.

   Reflecting about my father's life, I wonder about what his life would have been if he had never come to the U. S.  As difficult as coming to America proved to be, if he had not come but instead had spent his life in his rural village in Toishan, his life would have also proved to be most difficult, as economic conditions there were quite harsh when he was young. Assuming he could have survived those hardships, however, he would probably have had to flee eventually to Hong Kong when the hostilities with the Japanese escalated into World War II. Next, with the rise of Mao Tse Tung at the end of the 1940s and the ensuing extreme economic conditions during his regime, father would possibly have been tormented and physically harmed by the Red Guards as grandfather would have been viewed as a landlord. So, in hindsight, father's life in America may not have been so bad after all. After overcoming the hardships of life in Georgia, he did enjoy the fruits of his labor with his family after moving to San Francisco where he spent the rest of his life.