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As a paper son, Jeong Bak-Ho had certain rules to follow. First, he needed to memorize the contents of the coaching papers his paper father had sent to him; he could use this information to prepare for his interrogations on Angel Island. Then, before the ship docked in America, he had to throw the coaching papers into the sea. This way, he would carry no evidence that he was immigrating under a false identity.
Instead, Bak-Ho – who has since gone by the name Dick – arrived at Angel Island on June 4, 1939, neither having studied nor discarded his papers. At just 17 years old and not even yet graduated from high school, he viewed his uprooting from his home in Qiansan village, Zhongsan, Guangdong, China, as an adventure.
Voyage to Angel Island
After the Japanese took over Qiansan, Dick’s father – working in America as a cook’s helper at the time – arranged for Dick to emigrate. From Qiansan, Dick went to Hong Kong, where he boarded the U.S.S. President Coolidge for America. It was at this point that he adopted his paper identity, taking the name Jeong Duck 鄭德 and claiming to be the son of a man unrelated to him named Jeong Chun Yay (鄭春二).
Though he admitted in a later interview with Anna Cheng that most immigrants were “nervous because they don’t know what the future holds for them,” Dick noted that for the most part his younger self simply followed his father’s plans, not thinking too much about the process or the potential challenges that lay ahead of him. Indeed, he endured his journey to America with good spirits.
Life at the Immigration Station
Dick made many observations of daily life during his two-month stay on Angel Island. He recalled the crowded hall where he slept on the top tier of a three-level bunk bed; the small basketball court that was open to detainees, but rarely used; and the Chinese poetry he saw carved into the walls. He noted that Japanese immigrants were fewer in number than the Chinese, received “better treatment,” and were housed in separate, less-crowded quarters. He remembered learning about detainees who had committed suicide, feeling hopelessly stuck in confinement and unable to truly land in America.
Yet because Dick neither saw this mournful style of poetry actually being written nor witnessed any suicide attempts, he suspected that conditions at that immigration station had improved with time. Nevertheless, he continued to recognize that while he, as a young man, was less concerned about the immigration process, some of the older immigrants “suffered a little bit more.”
Once on the island, Dick passed his interrogation quickly. He remembers the session only lasting 15-20 minutes, saying in his later interview that “maybe [the interrogator] was impressed with me or he already got bribed, I don’t know. But… I was one of the lucky [ones] that got off pretty easily.” He left the immigration station on July 31, 1939.
America At Last
After authorities cleared Dick to land in America, his paper father met him and sent him to Oakland, where his real father worked. There, he took classes with students several years younger than him as he built his English skills. It was in American grade school that a teacher named Mrs. Sheraton decided to modify one letter in Dick’s name from the Romanized Chinese “Duck” to the more conventionally American “Dick” – a change that stuck for the rest of Dick’s life.
Dick graduated to high school before joining the war effort during World War II. He first worked for a shipyard in San Francisco before being drafted at age 19 to fight overseas in China, Burma, and India; notably, about half of the soldiers in his unit were Chinese American. Once in Asia, Dick worked in the field hospital.
In the years that followed, Dick married and had three children, as well as seven grandchildren. “I consider myself really fortunate,” he said with regards to his family. Indeed, he had much to be proud of – not only in coming from Qiansan to the Bay Area, but also in rising from a young 4th-class traveler with one small suitcase and less than $40 in his pocket to a successful and well-loved husband, father, grandfather, and friend.
Jeong, Dick. “AIOH-16, Dick Jeong.” Interview by Anna Cheng. Angel Island Oral History Project, 28 May 2005.
Kelsey Owyang wrote this when she was an intern at the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. She is a great-granddaughter of Angel Island immigrants.
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