Ben Choy (Choy Buck-tone) was born in China, in a little village called Wing Ho Wan in 1917. His father left for Australia soon after he was born. There he worked as a cook and squandered all his earnings at the gambling table. Ben remembers seeing his father only twice in his life—in 1927, when his father returned to China for a visit, and in 1963, after his father had retired in Macau. The decision to bring Ben to America was made by his father in 1930. “As a thirteen-year-old, I couldn’t refuse,” said Ben. “When they say, you go, then I go!”
Ben Choy’s Certificate of Identity
In order to circumvent the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers to this country, he came as Choy Ging Foon, the “paper son” of a cousin who was a merchant in America. (Merchants and their families were exempt from the Exclusion Act.) This cousin actually had one son and one daughter, but he claimed two sons so that he could help bring Ben to the United States for a better livelihood. Ben remembers hearing that “if you go to America, you will get lots of gold and then come back rich and build a new house! You will be wealthy!” He was given a coaching book with information about his new identity to study in preparation for the interrogation at Angel Island.
Ben remembers his sad departure. “The parting with my mother was heart-breaking. I cried all night and the pillow was completely drenched with tears.” He left his village in China to begin his journey to America accompanied by his cousin, who first took him to Hong Kong and stayed with him there for one night in a hostel. From there he disembarked on the steamship McKinley for America with his paper brother, Choy Ging Joe. The two boys stayed in steerage and slept on tiered bunks. During the voyage to America, they were not allowed into many parts of the boat, and Ben suffered from seasickness. He described the ship’s accommodations as miserable. “The smell of the steam in the back of the ship was really awful and unbearable… I learned that there was a clean, luxurious part in front of the deck for the travelers who had money. But we weren’t permitted to go there.” On the boat Ben knew very little English. His neighbor in China had taught him the English alphabet, which he practiced frequently.
Three weeks later, Ben got to see San Francisco for the first time. “It was early in the morning when I saw big buildings, and bright lights twinkling all over the place. Gee, I was really amazed, you know. I was so impressed.” Ben was not allowed to land right away. Instead, he was led to the Angel Island Immigration Station “like sheep” to be detained and interrogated about his identity and reason for coming to America.
Ben was detained with his paper brother in the Chinese men’s barracks. He remembers that the place was crowded with “men who were eager to set foot on the real Gold Mountain to realize their long coveted dreams.” They were confined in a room with rows and rows of bunk beds, and little to do to pass the time. There was a basketball court, but Ben seldom played or watched others play. Some of the children were practical jokers and they would pick on his brother, but no one played jokes on him because of his serious demeanor. There were many poems on the walls. “A lot of people who were schooled in China wrote poems on the wall, grumbling about the injustice of the whole affair. I didn’t have the education to write or read, but I remember seeing them.”
During mealtimes, Ben remembers sitting at a long table. “There was a large bucket of rice and several dishes of Chinese food.” Although only a kid, he had a good appetite. He ate five bowels of rice each time. “What a glutton I was; it must have looked like I hadn’t eaten for days!”
Then came time for his immigration hearing. Ben recalls that the examiner was very kind and sympathetic to him, asking him simple questions about his house and family. By mistake he described his real family’s home instead of his paper family’s home. During the lunch break he quickly informed his paper brother about what he had told the immigration officials, so that there would not be any inconsistencies in their answers. Ben believes that his being able to talk to his paper brother is why they were allowed in America. “He said exactly what I said. That’s why the examiner believed we were brothers.” They were both landed after spending two weeks on Angel Island. Ben has mixed emotions about having to lie in order to land in America. “It’s pretty tough, coming as a paper son and not telling the truth. Of course when you’re a kid, you’re not intending to lie. You just have to follow what the grown-ups tell you to do.”
Ben was taken to his cousin’s home in Oakland. He then attended Lincoln Elementary School and began leaning English. When his relatives purchased a dry goods store in San Francisco and moved there, Ben transferred to Redding School on Pine Street and was put in the third grade. He was much older than his classmates and “stood out like a sore thumb.” He has fond memories of his fourth grade teacher, Miss. Gardesier. “She treated me awfully nice even though I couldn’t speak a word of English. She even shared her lunch with me knowing that I hadn’t anything to eat. I was flabbergasted during Valentine’s Day that I had received so many pretty cards. I didn’t think I was that popular in class. It was years later that it dawned on me that it was she who had sent me all those lovely cards. She knew a lonely kid when she saw one. I never forgot her generosity and kindness.”
Mindful of the debt he owed his cousin for his passage to America, Ben started working as a houseboy, earning $5.00 a month with room and board. Then he dropped out of high school to work for National Dollar Stores as a window trimmer and sign writer in Portland, Oregon. Around this time, he took a two-year correspondence course with the National Radio Institute to study radio, television, and electronics. When World War II broke out, he got a job in the electrical department of a shipyard in Richmond, building Victory Ships for the Department of Defense. After the war, he went to work for a private company converting troop ships into civilian use, earned his high school diploma, and opened a real estate office in Chinatown. He also began taking night courses in law at Lincoln University. This would later allow him to represent himself in his application for U.S. citizenship in the 1950s. In his spare time, he pursued his passion in writing songs and plays. One of his romantic comedies, “I Caught a Chinese Yankee,” was produced and performed in San Francisco.
Ben married Katherine Hurlow at the age of 30. The couple raised two sons. He died in 2005 in San Jose, California, at the age of 87. His parting words about Angel Island were: “I don’t know how to describe it…just a place of confinement. You just sleep, eat, and play. That’s all, there’s nothing else.”