by Judy Yung
On February 5, 1935, fifteen-year-old Lum Ngow and his mother Ow Soak Yong arrived in San Francisco from China on the President Taft. They had come to join his father Lum Bew, a merchant who ran Lung Kee, a Chinese poultry and deli in Oakland Chinatown. Family members of the merchant class were exempt from the Chinese Exclusion Act and they should have been admitted into the country. Instead, mother and son were detained on Angel Island for eighteen months, fighting a legal battle to prove they were in fact the son and wife of Lum Bew.
At issue was a major discrepancy in their testimonies and that of other witnesses regarding the wedding date of Lum Ngow’s parents. As Lum Ngow (also known as Lee Show Nam) explained to me seventy-five years later,Before my aunt (Mo Shee) came to America with my uncle (Lum Yun) in 1921, they knew she would have to answer questions from the immigration bureau, like when did your brother-in-law (Lum Bew) get married? And if he had married, there would be more questions, like where is the wife from, what is her surname, how many were at the wedding, who introduced them, did she ride in a sedan chair, and so on. To avoid all these kinds of questions, she was told to say, “My brother-in-law is not married.” But they did not tell my father that was what she said at the interrogation. So when I arrived, they saw that her interrogation records had said my father was not married when she left China for America. Yet, my father had said he got married in 1920 and was sponsoring his wife and son to come to America. So it was all wrong!
In those days, things were very crooked. Someone told my father he could give a three hundred dollar bribe to get us admitted. My father said, “Three hundred dollars is a lot of money. I could buy a new Ford automobile for that amount.” So he didn’t want to pay that much money. He thought there was nothing to fear since our papers were real. So he took it to court instead. The appeal process took eighteen months, during which time I lived there on Angel Island. In the end, the appeal failed and my mother and I were deported back to China in 1936.
It was not until 1958 that his mother would return and be admitted into the United States and not until 1963 that Lee Show Nam would be able to join his parents in America. By then, he was forty-two years old and had suffered through the hardships of the Sino-Japanese War and Communist takeover of China. Still, he was not bitter, for he had persevered and in the end, attained his goal of reaching Gold Mountain.
I met Lee Show Nam at an AIISF gala in 2009 and knew right away that I should interview him. He looked much younger than his age of eighty-seven and he obviously had a great memory for details about his long stay at Angel Island. He attributed his robust health and jet-black hair to his chi gung exercises as well as his stoic attitude toward life: “I don’t let things get to me.” Lee told me things that I had not heard before about the Self-Governing Organization, the smuggling of coaching notes, the “dark room,” and the role of Donaldina Cameron in helping immigrants get landed. I was also intrigued by his immigration case file, which when combined with his oral history interview, clearly shows how thorough and suspicious the immigration officials were in their investigations and how a real son of a Chinese merchant could still fail the test and be deported to China.
Due to no fault of his own, Lum Ngow was caught in a pact of lies that Chinese immigrants often resorted to in order to circumvent the Chinese Exclusion Act and pass the rigorous cross-examination at Angel Island. What many failed to realize is that the Immigration Service had detailed records of all past Chinese immigration cases at their disposal and that, as happened to Lum Ngow’s family, once a lie or inconsistency in the testimonies had been uncovered, it could not be easily retracted. As far as the immigration inspectors were concerned, it was a question of “how do we know they are telling the truth now when they have lied before?” Particularly in regards to Chinese cases like Lum Ngow, the assumption was almost always that they were not telling the truth, even after missionary worker Donaldina Cameron wrote three letters of support vouching for the family’s credibility.
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I was born in 1923, the second month and fourth day, in Kuchong village, Zhongshan County. I had a younger sister and an older brother who died soon after I was born. The custom then was that when a child died, the next child would be named after an animal. So I was given the nickname, Ngow (cow). Later, my teacher in Shekki changed my name to Show Nam (longevity) so that it would sound better.
Life wasn’t bad in China. My father was a merchant in America and he periodically sent money home to support us. I helped with the farming and attended school in the village. Still, I wanted to go to America for a better life. People returning from America were able to buy land, build new houses, and get married. So everyone wanted to come to America. No one wanted to remain in the village, especially after the world depression set in and money began to lose its value.
In 1935, my father finally sponsored Mother and I to come. We had to go to Hong Kong for inoculations and the physical exam. Then we had to book passage to America. After we took care of everything, we returned to the village until it was time to sail. My father sent us coaching notes to study, even though we were real relatives and did not have to lie. It included a map of the village.
We traveled special third class on the President Taft, a 10,000-ton ship. We had a small room to ourselves with two bunk beds and a small table. It was December and quite stormy. We were seasick and stayed in bed. When we felt better, we went to the dining room for our meals. The food, Chinese food, was good. The voyage took twenty days, with stops in Shanghai, Japan, and Honolulu. We got off the ship in Shanghai to go shopping at the large store owned by Zhongshan people. We refused to step foot in Japan. After all, they had attacked and invaded China! But when we got to Honolulu, we got off the ship to walk around. We had an uncle in Hawaii.
Our ship docked at Pier 35 in San Francisco. A large station wagon drove us to another pier to catch the ferry to Angel Island. They just took the two of us, since the rest of the people were going elsewhere--to Panama, Peru, New York, and so on. After we arrived at the island, some lo fan (foreigners) took us to the dormitories. There was a men’s dormitory and a women’s dormitory. The Chinese had their own dormitory, and Indians, Japanese, and Mexicans lived in another dormitory. Since it was past dinnertime, they took us to the dining hall where we ate alone. The food--corn beef, cabbage and rice, tasted awful!
From then on, this was the daily routine. In the morning, a loud speaker blasting the radio woke us up at 5 a.m. Then at 6 a.m. they opened the door and we went down the covered stairway to the dining room for breakfast. Those too lazy to go have breakfast could keep sleeping. Lunch was at 10:00 a.m.—usually bread and jam, coffee and tea. Dinner was at 3:00 p.m. At 12:00 noon, a white guard by the name of Pete would open the door and yell in Chinese, “Jing sung law hall.” In other words, bring your dishes of food to the dining room to cook or warm up. That would be the food that relatives sent from the city, like salted fish, bean cake, and barbequed chicken that could be added to the meal. Otherwise, it was one main dish and one small dish like corn beef and cha gwa (cucumbers), laam gwok (pickled olives), bean curd, and things like that. The food was poor and we seldom had chicken. If you had money, you could buy milk or a piece of pie for five cents from Henry, an Italian who ran the concession. He also sold us stationery paper and envelopes, pencils, toothpaste, and notebooks.
We had a Self-Governing Organization run by sixteen officers elected to these positions: a chairman, vice-chairman, secretary, treasurer, two negotiators who spoke English, two administrative assistants, four monitors, and four law enforcers. They usually asked kids like me to be monitors. Whenever we saw anyone throwing cigarette butts or spitting on the floor, we were to tell the officers and the offender would be confined to the “dark room” for half an hour. It was a closet where they stored old newspapers and brooms. I was confined there once for not shutting off the water faucet in the bathroom. One kid caught stealing fifty cents was confined there for a whole week.
There were basketball and volleyball games, ping-pong, dominoes, and mah jongg, also Chinese chess, newspapers to read, and musical instruments like the butterfly harp and erh hu. There were two radios and a phono-record player. The Self-Governing Organization put out the money to buy these things with the membership dues they collected from the new arrivals. The officers read outgoing letters to be sure there was no coaching information in it, and they were also responsible for receiving coaching notes from the Chinese kitchen help. How did they do this? The cooks would pick up coaching notes in the city on their days off and wrap them in the foil paper that came in a pack of cigarettes. (This was before the days of plastic bags.) All the big shots (officers) sat at the first table near the kitchen and were served special dishes like green beans, chicken, steamed eggs, and so on. The cook would indicate there was a coaching note hidden in the food by putting a drop of soy sauce on top of the dish of food, two drops for two notes. All the time I was there, I never saw anyone get caught passing coaching notes.
There were many kids my age [15 years old]. We played ping-pong, read the newspapers, listened to records, and played dominoes. We were never bored. Someone taught me how to play the erh hu and another guy who was a pilot taught me the English alphabet and simple words like “Good morning,” “how are you,” “table,” and “chair.” One time when we were outside in the recreation yard, a boy by the name of Low Wai Hung shot a bird with a slingshot. Then he threw the ball over the fence and shouted to the guard, “Outside ball!” So the guard opened the door to let him go outside to retrieve the ball. Wai Hung got the bird, plucked it, and had the cook make us gai jook (rice gruel with chicken). That was the only time I ever saw a bird like that. It looked like a fat pigeon, but it was gray color and could not fly [most likely a dark-eyed junco].
Once a week I would be allowed to go visit my mother in the Administration Building. Sometimes I would run into Miss Maurer [Methodist Deaconess Katharine Maurer] on the way. She had a room full of playthings and she would give me things like a ruler, pencil, eraser, or puzzle. She really liked Chinese people and would help them write letters and purchase things from the city. She was very nice to me and did not want me to leave. I remember she hugged me and kissed my cheek. She was a very nice woman. There was also a Miss [Donaldina] Cameron at the Presbyterian Church [in San Francisco Chinatown] who was very helpful to the Chinese. My father got her to write a letter on our behalf. Her letters usually helped people get landed, but not us.
When asked how he felt about being deported, Lee Show Nam said matter-of-factly, “My mother felt bad about being deported, but I was okay. The way I looked at it, if I had been admitted, I probably would have served in the military in World War II and maybe been killed. If I had been admitted, I won’t have had a Chinese school education and my Chinese won’t have been as good. So there’s good and bad in being landed or not.”
When asked about his feelings toward Angel Island after all he had been through, Lee did not hesitate to say, “The Chinese Exclusion Laws discriminated against the Chinese and made it hard on them by imprisoning them. Now it’s better and people are allowed to come. Before, they looked down at the Chinese. Now we even have a Chinese mayor [Jean Quan] and a Chinese governor [Gary Locke]. There were no opportunities like that before.”
2. Affidavit of Lum Piu [Bew], a resident and merchant of the United States, that he is the blood father of Lum Ngow. (National Archives, Pacific Regional Branch)
Place of Origin
Place of Settlement