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Airing Old Secrets 

Flags tell the stories of Chinese paper sons and daughters

Wednesday, Feb 2 2000
Bay Area artist Flo Wong was born in Oakland during the 1930s, and grew up with what she calls a "currency of secrecy." Her family, like many Chinese immigrants of the early 1900s, used secrets and lies to circumvent the Chinese Exclusion Act, an 1882 federal law aimed at curbing the numbers of Chinese coming to the U.S.

The Exclusion Act was meant to keep out the relatives of Chinese laborers already here. Many immigrants learned they had to lie about their identities in order to be reunited with their families. The result was an intricate system of "paper sons" and "paper daughters" -- immigrants who used fake identity papers to enter the U.S.

After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed many federal immigration documents, the paper identity system flourished. When immigration officials discovered the paper system in 1910, they began detaining and questioning immigrants at Angel Island. Chinese were held for a few days, or as long as two years, while they were interrogated about the smallest details of their lives in China to see if their answers matched those of a sponsoring relative.

About 175,000 Chinese immigrants were detained at Angel Island from 1910 to 1940. Ultimately, about 90 percent of the immigrants with apparently legitimate paper identities were released. But the process created a generation of Chinese immigrants for whom a sense of illegitimacy has lingered. The shame, anger, and fear of deportation created a code of silence in Bay Area Chinatowns. To this day, many former detainees will not speak openly about their experiences.

Historians say that the experience, which separated families, buried family histories, and left some people with multiple identities, still affects how many Chinese-Americans view American society.

Now, the first wave of Chinese immigrants is dying off. Many go to their graves without speaking about the secrets of Angel Island. Second-generation Chinese-Americans like Wong have been forced to cobble together family histories through reluctantly told oral histories, and impersonal -- and perhaps illegitimate -- INS documents.

In 1997, Wong began mounting discarded rice sacks on American flags and embellishing them with paint and sequins in a visual arts tribute to her mother and mother-in-law, who had each adopted false identities in order to join their husbands in the U.S.

In the process of telling her own family's story, Wong discovered that the experience is a common link among many Chinese-Americans. "It became a universal thread to trace immigration history that is really only a generation away, but that was never talked about," says Wong, 65.

Eventually, Wong was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant to make flags telling the stories of 23 other former detainees. Her work will culminate in a multimedia art exhibit titled "Angel Island Shhh," debuting in San Francisco in June.

Because she personally interviewed a detainee or descendant before creating each flag, Wong's exhibit is a unique combination of oral history and art. The flags will be displayed on Angel Island - only the second time the island will host an art exhibit -- in the same immigration station barracks where some of Wong's family members spent weeks while waiting to be released.

Wong is one of many in a Bay Area movement of second- and third-generation Chinese-Americans who hope to illuminate an experience that has largely been kept secret. Her style of art - collages of sequins, paint, and photographs -- is the raw product of a mostly self-taught art-activist who weaves together oral history, myth, imagination, and confusion. It is this visual representation of history that previously has earned Wong exhibit space at the Smithsonian, the de Young, and the Triton Museum.

By explaining that her parents also passed through Angel Island, Wong has been able to convince many aging, reticent former detainees to tell her their immigration stories. In two cases, the detainees passed away soon after their interviews, and Wong was the last person to hear about their Angel Island experiences. In numerous cases, Wong heard

stories that former detainees had not even told their children.

And certainly Wong's interview requests have been refused more than a few times, by former detainees who quietly shake their heads, or brusquely tell her that Angel Island is none of her business.

Still, Wong has managed to record the stories of 25 former detainees for her exhibit. Here are a few.

Li Keng Wong, 73, hasn't always felt comfortable talking about her time on Angel Island. But now, in her retirement, she speaks with a sense of duty. She has told her story in classrooms, and recently starred in a Disney documentary about American immigration. To many in the Chinese-American community, Li Keng's attitude shift is a model for how a once-shameful experience can be converted into one of cultural pride.

Li Keng, Flo's older sister, was detained at Angel Island when she was only 7. For her, Angel Island was traumatic, an unpleasant end to a 19-day boat ride on the U.S.S. Hoover from Hong Kong.

Li Keng's father, Seow Hong Gee, had been a laborer in the U.S. for more than a decade, when he finally saved enough money to bring his wife, Theo Quee, and three daughters from China. But the Exclusion Act made it impossible for Seow Hong to bring his wife to San Francisco. In order to reunite his family, Seow Hong had to claim his wife was really his sister, and instruct his three young daughters to pretend that their mother was actually their aunt.

During Li Keng's interrogation at Angel Island, a guard pointed to her mother and repeatedly asked, "Is this woman your mother or your aunt?" Li Keng says she had to tell unabashed lies.

"We lied!" Li Keng says emphatically. "My father sent papers home and he said, 'Don't forget. If you call your mama 'mama,' then you'll be deported to the village.' And we didn't want that. It was a matter of survival."

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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