Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation

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James L. Eng’s Odyssey

by James L. Eng

Our ancestral home was in Fook Lim Village in Hoysan, AKA Taishan, county in Quangdong Province, China.  The village is approximately sixty five miles west of Hong Kong.

My grandfather, Ng Ming Sun, left his wife and two young sons to return to Mexico for the second time. During his first visit, he realized that Mexico would not serve his future. His new plan was to work in the United States to help his family and later, retire to China.



Ng Gim Toon, Lee Yit Ho and Ng San Wah portrait.
About the time of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, he sneaked across the border into southern California. He quickly went to Watsonville where some of our relatives had settled. To avoid being an undocumented alien, he bought the identity of a man named Ng Men who came legally to the U.S. as a student in 1900.

In 1916, grandfather sent for his first son, Ng Gim Toon, my father. To meet immigration requirements, my father posed as the fourteen year old son of a Chinese American who was born in Seattle, Washington. My father entered the U.S. as an American citizen. He went directly to San Antonio, Texas where most of the Eng clan members became business owners.

Grandfather next sent for his second son Ng Jack Sam in 1921. Uncle Jack Sam came as the son of a man born in Hawaii. Uncle Jack Sam entered as an American and went to San Antonio to join my father.

Grandfather remained in Watsonville until 1922 when he and father returned to China. A new house was built for grandfather’s future retirement and for my father’s wedding.

In the new home, after my parents' wedding, my grandparents had a third son, named Ng Sit Bong. The two men left for San Antonio, Texas in 1923. At the immigration station, father registered a son named Ng San Wah who was left in China. The intent was to provide an identity for Sit Bong to the U.S. later. I was born two months afterwards and was named Ng Gim Ngew.

Grandfather and his two sons opened a grocery store in the east side of San Antonio in 1926. To the public, the three men were not related, only business partners. Like many of the other Chinese businesses, our store prospered.

Lee Tit Ho's certificate of identity
In 1928, Uncle Jack Sam went to China to marry and start a family. Then, he was to accompany his younger brother Sit Bong, my mother and me to the U.S. My aunt gave birth to a healthy son named Ng Way Soon but she had complications and was ill for almost two years. Not having a healthy new daughter-in-law, grandmother decided to keep Sit Bong home to help her. When young, grandmother’s feet were bound and distorted so she was not very mobile. The registered name of Ng San Wah was then used for me. My mother was given a new name of Lee Yit Ho.

Individual “coaching books” were prepared in advance for each of the travelers. Like a movie scenario, the coach book had fictitious places, relationships and new names for each traveler to memorize. It should provide answers to all anticipated questions asked at the immigration station.

falseUncle Jack Sam, my mother and I arrived at San Francisco on September 24, 1931. My mother and I were taken to the Angel Island Immigration Station in the bay north of the city. My mother foolishly hid nine old family letters in a trunk and asked Uncle Jack Sam to hold for her. The letters were found during the incoming search. They revealed family relationships with real names. Because we were using false names, the authorities had to make assumptions. My mother can’t read so she claimed to be ignorant of the matter. Uncle Jack Sam remained steadfast on his claim that he was an acquaintance of my father.

We were interrogated individually for several days in October, two days in November and two days in December. Each session involved several hours or all day. On December 22, 1931, my mother and I were placed before the Board of Special Inquiry. After hearing a lengthy ruling, we were told that we were frauds and were to be deported. Several days later, our lawyer submitted an appeal of our case to the Secretary of Labor in Washington, D.C. After five and one half months in the detention center, we were permitted to enter the U.S. We went directly to San Antonio.

Father had rented a small two bedroom house in an old section of the city. Not knowing any English, my mother and I were to remain inside the house at all times. Six months later, father enrolled me in school. He gave me the Anglo name of Jimmie Eng at the time.

A year later, Uncle Jack Sam returned to the village to check on his wife and son, and then to bring his younger brother Sit Bong to the U.S. Sit bong was admitted July 18, 1935. Meanwhile my parents had added a son and two daughters to the family. For more living space, father had the landlord of our store add a small bedroom on the roof for Sit Bong and me. I was only twelve at the time.

Because I was the only oriental student during elementary and junior high school, students avoided me. I also didn’t know how to be sociable. Only in high school where there were several Chinese students I started to have social contact.

In 1942, I enrolled in a college not knowing that it was all male and that Army ROTC was compulsory. Too ashamed of my mistake, I stayed for over three years at Texas A&M College. During my junior year, I was surprised to be appointed cadet captain and to command a company of cadets.

A Navy recruiter came on campus to announce that the Navy had started a new service school to teach advance electronics. Rather than going into the Army and OCS for a commission, I registered with the Navy, which I joined in October 1944. The war ended and I completed the electronics school. After my discharge from the Navy, I decided on a major in business in lieu of engineering. Expecting a housing boom, I chose courses pertaining to real estate at U.C. Berkeley where I graduated in 1949.

For three years, the San Antonio housing industry would not grant me an interview. Significant events occurred in 1953. First, the U.S. Air Force hired me as an electronic engineer in March. Second, my future wife Lan Chinn and I met that summer. Third, I applied for a clarification of my civic status and the Justice Department issued me a certificate of citizenship. Apparently the courses at Texas A&M and the Navy’s electronic school qualified me for communication engineering with the Air Force. Because my wife had a Chinese father and an Anglo mother, my parents never approved of her as a suitable daughter-in-law. We overlooked their prejudices and are happily married since 1955. Our first son, Tyman, was born in 1956, followed by our daughter, Jami, in 1958.

I was assigned with the Ground Electronics Engineering Installation Agency (GEEIA) at San Antonio’s Kelly Air Force Base to perform telephone cable engineering. Beginning as a trainee, I had four upgrades in five years to become a fully qualified engineer. A year later, I was designated chief of the section.

In 1959, the Air Force reorganized its engineering agencies worldwide and our office was to move to Oklahoma City. As an alternative, I took my family to the agency located north of Tokyo in 1960. Jason, our second son was born the next year at Tachikawa Air Base and his birth was registered with the American Embassy in Tokyo. The first tour taught us the several advantages of working overseas. First, we were able to afford a domestic to do housekeeping and baby-sitting; second, our utilities and housing were rent-free. Also, we were able to travel in or out-country economically.

In 1964, the agency moved to Honolulu. Hawaii’s atmosphere affected my first son’s asthma and I resigned my job. In Oakland, California, I bought a travel trailer for a cross-country vacation from the west coast to east coast. Heading south from New England, I stopped at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to inquire about a job. A personnel officer told me to go home and wait three weeks. Three weeks later, an order came for me to return. It had been a two month work-break during our vacation.

The prior work in Japan and Hawaii was for the Air Force to prepare communication systems at Vietnamese airbase to support the war. At Kennedy Space Center, I was assigned the project office for the Operational Intercom System (OIS). The OIS was state-of-the-art equipment specially made for the Space Center for testing and assembling of the Saturn V space craft to go to the moon. My responsibilities were routine meetings that were uneventful.

In 1968, bored with the job, I applied for an assignment with the 27th Signal Group, an Army unit in Thailand, as a quality control officer. I signed a contract for a second tour in 1971. Soon I discovered that a plan to move all US personnel to the mainland had me on the early list. I felt deceived. I refused to leave, knowing that I was entitled to a ten month severance pay. Separated from my job we remained in Bangkok for seven more months for the children to finish school.

Leaving Bangkok, we went to Europe for the first time. A car was bought in Germany to tour Western Europe. Six weeks later we left Europe. The car was shipped to Texas.

A week later in San Antonio, the Army’s Communication Command in Sierra Vista, Arizona offered me a job. We moved to Arizona in August 1972. My assignment was to monitor the installation of a radio network for an antiballistic surveillance system under the SAFEGUARD program, in North Dakota. The system was to detect possible Russian missiles coming over the North Pole. A year later the SAFEGUARD program was cancelled.

Not much later, an old boss in San Antonio called to offer me a job in a newly created engineering office. It was a field office of the Army’s Communications Engineering Headquarters in Fort Ritchie, Maryland. I was happy to engineer telephones cables for the west coast states. Two years later, the San Antonio Field Office was moved to Maryland without me. I was accepted by the Air Force Security Service at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Despite various early clearances with the Air Force, NASA and Army, the Security Service had to perform a special clearance which took ten months to a year. After waiting eight months, a co-worker informed me that after working for the security Service, I would be prohibited from going to mainland China for ten years. I immediately left and was accepted to be in the staff for the Commanding General of the Fifth Army at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. The U.S. Fifth Army encompasses thirteen of the central U.S. States. The majority of my duties were to monitor training activities of signal corps units within the thirteen states. My duties were very routine. Two years later, in 1980, with our children in college, my wife and I left for South Korea. I had accepted a position as a communication engineer with the U.S. Army in Seoul. Working with other engineers, our responsibility was to keep existing communications systems operable, or be improved.

After three years, Lan and I returned to San Antonio for my retirement, ending thirty two years of federal service at age sixty-one. Feeling too young to be inactive, I became an engineering consultant for telephone cable projects. In 1986 on an Air Force contract, I completed projects for a base in California, two in Italy, and one in Turkey. A year later on an Army contract, I teamed with a computer scientist staying six months in Germany to analyze U.S. Army computer systems on installations around the city of Stuttgart. Then military budgets cuts stopped my consultant effort. My final federal employment was being a crew leader of twelve census takers for the 1990 census.

The next four years were spent working on an acceptable design for our retirement home. In 1995, we built a sturdy adobe type house on five acres in the “Texas Hill Country” just north of San Antonio.

Place of Origin
Taishan, China

Place of Settlement
San Antonio, Tx

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