by Larisa Proulx
On November 16, 1922, Wong Shee, a 33-year-old schoolteacher, mother, and wife, arrived in Hong Kong with her 14-year-old son. Leaving their village in China was the first leg of their journey to be with her husband and his father in America. After about ten days in Hong Kong, the mother and son boarded a ship bound for San Francisco. Her husband, a businessman who operated a meat market in Chinatown, had an attorney prepare their paperwork and awaited their arrival in America. Ahead of them was a journey that required hopeful determination. This is their immigration story.
Mrs. Wong and her son’s voyage to America was long and uncomfortable. They shared a cabin with another woman with the same surname Wong and her 8-year-old son. Their room consisted of two sets of bunks; the women slept in the bottom bunks and the boys in the top bunks. She recalled feeling seasick and finding it difficult to eat. For breakfast she would have two eggs. She didn’t usually eat lunch. For dinner, she had a little vegetables with rice. The other woman was seasick the whole time, said Mrs. Wong. “She couldn’t eat; she couldn’t leave her bed. Later on, I climbed on deck and walked around a bit. Her, she never got out at all, never even left the room.”
After a month or so of travel, they arrived in San Francisco and were immediately taken to the Angel Island Immigration Station for further examination. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese laborers, all Chinese persons entering the United States had to prove that they were members of the “non-excluded” classes-- students, merchants, diplomats, tourists, U.S citizens, and their family. Many had to undergo lengthy interrogations about their identity and status in order for the U.S. government to determine their eligibility to be admitted. It was common that for extended periods of time, while this process took place, they were confined away from their loved ones with little information about their cases.
While being detained on Angel Island, immigrants were segregated by race and gender. However, due to the age of Mrs. Wong’s son, they were both detained in the Chinese women’s dormitory so that she could take care of him. They shared this room with about twenty women, all hoping to land in America. Mrs. Wong recalled that their dormitory room did not have any furnishings besides bunk beds: “All we had were rows of bunk beds, a narrow path between the beds, just enough to walk through, and not even a chair.”
Mrs. Wong remembered seeing a lot of Japanese women who were allowed to leave within 24 hours while they were confined for a much longer time. “I kept thinking in my heart,” she said. “What a worthless trip coming here! Confined all the time—it’s just like being in jail!”
She also recalled seeing Chinese prostitutes who all stayed at one end of the dormitory. “They could see that my son who was fourteen was a pretty big boy. ‘Come over here, come on over and I’ll give you a li see (money).’ After that, I followed my son everywhere! I went with him to the bathroom, wherever he went I followed. I didn’t dare let him go anywhere alone.” She also told them off. “Where do you get the nerve to behave in such a way! Huh, how dare you be so brazen! I scolded them so they didn’t have so much nerve anymore.’” She heard that Donaldina Cameron was allowed to take some of these women to her mission home, where they were educated and converted to Christianity.
Meals were provided in segregated dining halls. When it was time to eat, everyone went down together under guard. The food was plentiful but unappetizing. According to Mrs. Wong, “The vegetables were all chopped and thrown together like pig slop. The pork was in big, big chunks. Everything was thrown into a big bowl that resembled a washtub, left there for you to eat or not. They just steamed the food until it was a soupy stew. After looking at it, you’d lose your appetite!” On occasion, some immigrants would receive a roast duck or chicken from relatives in San Francisco. But there was no place for them to store the food or to heat it up. Some of the women resorted to using the radiator in their room to warm up the food.
There was not much to do to pass the time. Once a week Mrs. Wong and her son were allowed to go for a short walk up the hill from their dormitory and back, if escorted by a matron. Some of the women knitted or sewed clothes. Mrs. Wong and her son read books that they had brought with them. She remarked, “I was so disgusted and bored of just sitting around. Day in and day out, the same kind of thing.” Without something to occupy their minds and time, everyone worried about whether they would be admitted or deported. “Everyone had to be patient and tell themselves, ‘I’m just being delayed; it doesn’t matter,’” said Mrs. Wong.
During the two weeks she was detained Mrs. Wong said she never even took a bath. “I kept thinking each day that I would be called to leave and as each day went by, I just waited. I didn’t eat much, nor move around much, so I never perspired.” She had no need to wash her clothes. “Even if I did, I couldn’t do it. There was no place to hang your laundry out to dry.”
Mrs. Wong was interrogated after her husband and son. She recalled that the interrogators (an inspector, interpreter, and typist) were very kind to her. “The typist gave me some candy and by the time I finished eating my candy, the interrogation was over. It didn’t take more than ten minutes.” (Most other Chinese immigrants were grilled for hours and days.) When asked what kind of questions were asked of her, she replied, “Nothing much, just what is your father’s name? What village are you from? How old are you? And so forth.”
Two days later, Mrs. Wong and her son were landed. They gathered their few belongings and took the ferry to San Francisco, where her husband and relatives were waiting to welcome them to America. Once settled in her new home in San Francisco Chinatown, Mrs. Wong at various times worked as a flower maker, Chinese schoolteacher, and seamstress while raising two sons. And she faithfully attended the Congregational Church in Chinatown.
Source: Interview #3 by Genny Lim and Judy Yung, August 15, 1976, San Francisco, CA, Angel Island Oral History Project, Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. (The interviewers only knew their subject as Mrs. Wong. They were unable to find her immigration file at the National Archives.)
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