Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation

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IMMIGRANT VOICES

A Life's Adventure of a Paper Daughter: Fong Hong May (Helen Fong)

by Calvin Fong

After the death of Fong Poy’s (aka Fong Wan) second wife, Fannie Ng in 1924, he didn’t trust his own instincts in selecting another wife.  He decided to have a traditionally-arranged marriage through his parents in China, and requested his mother and sisters to select a young woman who would be compatible with his strong (albeit, stubborn) character.  Since his family believed in horoscopes, they most likely consulted the Chinese astrological charts and horoscopes of prospective brides for mutual compatibility. They interviewed several eligible girls from the nearby villages and decided on a young woman from the Lee clan.  Back-and-forth negotiations ensued between the two families, with probing questions from the Lee family concerning Fong Poy’s character, demeanor and ability to care for his new wife.  After an agreement was made, Fong Poy gave a large dowry to the Lee family as per Chinese custom.  The selected maiden was the envy of her friends and other eligible girls because the chosen one would marry a prosperous “wah que” (overseas Chinese) living in America.

After the necessary family arrangements were made, Fong Poy had his younger brother, Kwong Huey, who was visiting his parents and family in China at the time, escort the new bride-to-be back to the U.S.[1] Fong Poy wasn’t able to marry in China or escort his future bride back because of all his legal battles with the state medical board, his efforts to kill the anti-herb bill pending before the state legislature, as well as actively managing his various business ventures.  Even though he had business partners, none was qualified to practice herbal medicine and manage the business if he were to leave for China for several months.  None of his partners could speak English well enough to care for his many "Occidental" patrons.

Being a successful herbalist, Fong probably paid several thousand dollars to purchase false papers in the name of Fong Hong May that claimed she was a daughter of a native.[2] A potential problem was that her paper surname was Fong, and he was a Fong.  It was uncommon for Chinese clans with the same last name to marry even if there was no biological relationship. The immigration agents knew of this customary prohibition as noted in the interrogation of Fong Poy as part of Fong Hong May’s application to visit China in 1935: “Was it not somewhat contrary to custom for Chinese people of the same family name to marry?” Unfazed by the question, he simply answered: “Not according to the new Chinese ways[3] (emphasis mine).  The alleged father of Fong Hong May, Fong Wood (Fong Gin Wat), who claimed residence in Sacramento, was born in Calistoga, Napa County.[4]

Fong Hong May, was allegedly born on August 29, 1903, in Nom Hong village, Sun Ning District.[5] On May 23, 1925, at the age of 22 (American reckoning), she left Hong Kong on the SS President Taft, surreptitiously escorted by Kwong Huey and accompanied by a Fong man, Fong Sui Jock [6], from her alleged village.  They purchased Second Class tickets, which provided private and more comfortable quarters for Fong Hong May and allowed them more freedom to talk privately on the decks.  Nevertheless, Fong Hong May had to be very discreet in meeting with Kwong Huey and Fong Sui Jock because she could not arouse any suspicion that they were related or that she acted improperly onboard (i.e., gave an impression of being a prostitute).  She had to subtly meet with Fong Sui Jock to learn about her alleged father’s relatives and village life in China in order to truly convince the immigration officials that she was the daughter of a native.  Fong Sui Jock prepared a “cheat sheet” for her with all the needed information that that immigration agents would likely ask about.  She would carefully study and memorize all the information.[7]

Fong Hong May, Passenger List, SS President Taft, June 1925

Passenger List, SS President Taft, June 1925

After taking three weeks to cross the Pacific, the SS President Taft finally arrived in San Francisco on June 16, 1925.[8] A 45-minute ferry ride took her and the other Asian immigrants to the Angel Island Immigration Station.  She and the other arrivals were subjected to a thorough medical examination for any “excludable diseases.”  The women lived in separate barracks from the men and apparently had more freedom to walk the grounds (in small groups) than the men.  According to one immigrant woman’s description,[9] they slept on three-tier bunks with metal cots and thin mattresses.  The windows were barred with chicken wire.  Lights were out by 9 pm and the doors locked with guards standing outside.  They also ate separately from the men and the bathrooms were a brief walk from the barracks.

After being confined for three long weeks at Angel Island with very little to do but to study her cheat sheet, she was finally summoned by the Board of Special Inquiry on July 8th and 9th to verify her claimed exemption status.  She was nervous but prepared.  She was questioned about her alleged village, family and father.  Similar questions were asked of her supposed father and brother (Fong Gin Chung), and the answers were compared to her responses for consistency.  She was asked such detailed questions as: how many houses and rows were in the village, the location of her house (house and row); the number of water wells, their structure and locations; names of her teacher and school mates; whether her family bought or grew their own vegetables; whether she slept and ate at school or at home; the names of the nearest villages; her brother’s marriage date and the names of the children; the time of the birth of her nephew; the name of the village her uncle’s wife was born; and so forth.  She was even asked about the expensive-looking pearl necklace she was wearing.  The Board of Inquiry may have wondered how a simple, country farm girl could afford such a necklace.[10] The officials compared her picture with that of Fong Wood and his son to determine resemblance.

Immigration officials were also extremely suspicious of single, Chinese women entering the U.S., presumably for purposes of prostitution.  They probably inspected her baggage to ensure her clothing was not of the type worn by prostitutes.  They carefully listened to her verbal communications during the interview to determine her education.  They also noted her Second Class ticket, an indicator of respectability and merchant status.  Women brought over for prostitution were generally relegated to the lowest class on the ship (third or steerage class).

Application and Receipt for Certificate of Identity, Fong Hong May

Application and Receipt for Certificate of Identity,

Fong Hong May

Fong Hong May must have been well coached because she convinced the Board she was the daughter of Fong Wood and was admitted shortly after the second-day hearing on July 9, 1925.  There was no doubt she was thoroughly prepped by Fong Sui Jock during the three-week voyage across the Pacific.  At the Board of Inquiry, she was represented by the highly respected law firm of Stidger and Root.[11]

The great stress and anxiety of leaving her beloved family for America to marry a stranger, carrying false immigration papers, being confined to Angel Island for three weeks, facing an arduous interrogation process, and the constant fear of being discovered and deported were finally over.  She was greatly relieved and now departed the dreaded Angel Island Immigration Station for Sacramento, probably on a river boat with her alleged father and brother.  The trip was about a day’s journey from San Francisco.  Since Fong Wood and his son worked and lived on a river boat,[12] he arranged for her to stay with the Chan (Chin?) Jock family.  They lived near Sacramento Chinatown and close to the Mee Chung restaurant at 306 L Street.[13] Fong Wood previously owned the Mee Chung restaurant but still used it as a meeting place when he came to town.  Besides his eldest son, Fong Wood had a younger son, supposedly named Fong Gong.  Coincidentally, one of Fong Poy’s aliases was Fong Gong (or Kong), so he could have pretended to be Fong Wood’s younger son so he could visit and become acquainted with Fong Hong May before their marriage without raising suspicion of the U.S. Immigration Service.  Fong Hong May lived in Sacramento for 2 ½ months.

On September 25, 1925, another hearing by the U.S. Immigration Service was held with Fong Hong May concerning her alleged father and brother, and her possible relationship with Fong Poy.[14] What precipitated this hearing was a July 1925 anonymous letter of complaint to the Immigration Service questioning Fong Poy’s character and using his brother to bring over from China a woman he “bought” for marriage.[15] No doubt Fong Hong May was feeling more than anxious about this second, unprecedented hearing, having gone through a rigorous, two-day Board of Special Inquiry only two months earlier on Angel Island.  She was told to show up at the Mee Chung restaurant and someone would take her to the hearing at the Immigration Service office in Sacramento.  She probably did not know why she was being interrogated for a second time.   Did the government agents find out she was not telling the truth about her identity, or did she answer some critical questions incorrectly?  Was she being summoned to be deported?  Did they find out about her pending marriage to Fong Poy?  Fortunately, she still had her cheat sheet to review before the hearing.  The Immigration Service wanted to determine if there was any truth to the complaint, which could have led to Fong Hong May’s deportation.  They asked probing questions about her alleged father and brother, what she was doing in Sacramento, whether she ever went out, and whether she had visitors other than her father and brother.  They also asked her about Fong Poy and his brother, Kwong Huey; both of whom she denied any knowledge of.  The Immigration Service was attempting to determine if Fong Hong May knew or had any contact with Fong Poy.  Once again, she did well under pressure, and her answers concerning visitors and her stay in Sacramento were corroborated by Low Shee (wife of Chan Jock).  The Immigration Service could not find any evidence to support the allegations of the anonymous letter of complaint, and could not establish any connection between her and Fong Poy.[16]

On September 27, 1925, two days after the hearing, Fong Poy and Fong Hong May were married in a simple, civil ceremony in Sacramento.[17] Fong Poy was now 42 years old and Fong Hong May was about 22.[18] She moved into a recently-built, custom home-office that was over 10,000 square-feet, just outside of Oakland Chinatown.  The 576-578 10th Street house was a beautiful, one-of-a-kind, Chinese-pagoda-style home that was completed in the spring of 1924.

Ironically, although Fong Hong May was a U.S. citizen (since she was classified as a daughter of a native), she would lose her citizenship because she married an “alien ineligible for citizenship.”  The Expatriation Act of 1907 stated that if a U.S. citizen marries an alien who was not eligible for citizenship, the U.S. citizen would lose his/her citizenship.  By definition, all alien Chinese were ineligible for citizenship.

In the Year of the Tiger, on July 11, 1926, Stanley was born.  Stanley (See Don) would be the first of nine children born to them over the next 20 years.  The other children were: Clara (Ming Yut, 1928, Year of the Dragon, who died of the flu at one year old), Sidney (See Wing, 1930, Year of the Horse), Luther (Yee Hong, 1932, Year of the Monkey), Willard (Yee Lim, 1934, Year of the Dog), Juanita (Wah Yoong, 1936, Year of the Rat), Allan (Yee Goon, 1942, Year of the Horse), Calvin (Yee Hing, 1944, Year of the Monkey), and Victor (Yee Wall, 1946, Year of the Rooster).[19] All her children were born in even years!

Fong Hong May lived the life of a prominent Chinese merchant’s wife with few expected responsibilities.  She had servants to cook and clean the house, and nannies to help care for the many children.  She did not have to worry about washing the family’s clothes and linen.  They were professionally laundered, pressed and starched.  Laundry was picked up and delivered once-a-week by the Roosevelt Laundry located on 30th St. and San Pablo Avenue in Oakland.  It just so happened that the Roosevelt Laundry was owned by Fong Poy and his partner, Henry Gee.[20] Fong Hong May even had a private tutor, Betty Chan to teach her English and help her assimilate to the American way of life.  She later attended missionary school in the 1930s with her relatives and friends to continue her English lessons.

Betty Chan and Fong Hong May, ca 1925 or 1926

Betty Chan and Fong Hong May, ca 1925 or 1926

During the 1940’s, Fong Hong May worked part-time as a hostess at her husband’s New Shanghai Cafe and Terrace Bowl restaurant/nightclub in Oakland.  Sometime after 1950, she would regain her citizenship.

After 29 years of marriage, Fong Hong May (Helen Fong) would file for divorce on February 23, 1954, on the grounds of extreme cruelty.  She requested custody of her four minor children (Juanita, Allan, Calvin and Victor), support and maintenance for herself and the children, and an equitable award of community property.  Fong Wan was now 70 years old, and Fong Hong May was 50.  The bitter court battle (including an appeal) would drag on for about five years because the community properties were challenged by Fong Wan and his two oldest sons (Richard and Edward).  On November 26, 1956, the district court gave Fong Hong May the divorce, custody of her minor children, and an award of most of the properties.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision, and Fong Hong May retained all the awarded properties.

For a few months in 1953 during the divorce, Fong Hong May and her young children (Allan, Calvin, Victor and Juanita) lived on a chicken ranch in Walnut Creek owned by a friend.  Fong Hong May and her family then moved to Berkeley where she rented a house (summer of 1953 to summer of 1961).  With no servants around, she was forced to learn to cook, which she became very good at.  She even learned how to drive a car.  Her older children were now working but still living at the 10th Street house with their father.  They would come over for dinner on Sundays.

In 1961, she bought a new house in the Oakland hills near Piedmont and was glad to be closer to her friends.  As was typical of many Chinese, she thoroughly enjoyed playing mahjong with her Chinatown friends and gambling in Reno.  For a period of time, she would take the weekly Harrah’s express bus from Oakland Chinatown to Reno.  She lived happily in her Oakland home for 24 years when she quietly passed away from a stroke on June 15, 1985, at the age of 81.  She was never alone and always had one or two sons around the house to watch over her.

Since Fong Hong May came over as a paper daughter, virtually nothing is known about her real life in China.  She never spoke about her past.  Nothing is known about her real parents and siblings, or what village she was actually from.  Like so many who immigrated under “paper names” and under false pretenses, she spoke very little about her past in fear that the Immigration Service would find out and deport her.[21] She once mentioned that most of her brothers and sisters were killed by Japanese soldiers when Japan invaded China in the mid-1930s.

Fong Hong May and Fong Wan with his 11 grandchildren.  Picture taken in the office reception area of the 10th St. home, May 1950

Fong Hong May and Fong Poy (aka Fong Wan) and family

Picture taken in the office reception area of the 10th Street home, May 1950

 


[1] Kwong Huey was a partner in Fong Poy’s store, the Fong Wan Herb Company, in Oakland, CA.

[2] Paper son and daughter documents were selling for $1,000 to $3,000 in the 1920s.  Most Chinese immigrants could not afford such a large sum, and had to borrow it from relatives and friends.  This expense was in addition to legal fees, travel expenses, and a dowry if the immigrant was a bride.  It would often take several years to pay off the large debt.

[3] U.S. Immigration Service interrogation of Fong Poy as part of Fong Hong May’s application to visit China, Mar. 12, 1935, p 2, file no.12017/49379.

[4] U.S. Immigration Service Special Board of Inquiry on Angel Island in the matter of Fong Hong May, July 8, 1925, p 2, file no. 24272/4-19 (in Fong Hong May’s alien file, A- 6978161).

[5] Fong Hong May stated her birthdate, birthplace and age (23, Chinese reckoning) during her interrogation at the Board of Special Inquiry, p 7 (same citation as footnote 4).

[6] Fong Sui Jock, an unrelated clansman who lived in Nom Hong village, escorted Fong Hong May to Hong Kong and then to the U.S. (Board of Special Inquiry, p 11, same citation as in footnote 4).  Although Fong Sui Jock was on the same steamer to San Francisco as Fong Hong May, she and her alleged father specifically stated that she was traveling alone.  The immigration agents were suspicious of their statement because they know single, Chinese girls did not normally travel alone or unescorted.

[7] Cheat sheets were commonly used to help prepare paper sons and daughters for their interrogations by the immigration agents.

[8] Two of Kwong Huey’s sons, also using “paper son” names (Louie Mun Sen and Chin Tew) were on the same steamer.

[9] Li Keng Wong, Good Fortune: My Journey to Gold Mountain, Peachtree Publishers, 2006.

[10] Fong Hong May stated she bought the necklace in Shanghai, but that would still beg the question of how she was able to afford it.  She likely received the pearl necklace as part of her dowry from Fong Poy but, of course, she would not be able to make such a statement.

[11] Stidger and Root was a prominent law firm in San Francisco specializing in representing Chinese immigrants before the Immigration Service.  It may have represented 85% of the Chinese immigration business on Angel Island.  Oliver Stidger III was a vocal critic of the discriminatory immigration laws against the Chinese (see: Lee, Erika and Judy Yung, 2010, Angel Island: Immigration Gateway to America, Oxford Univ. Press, NY).

[12] River boats were an important transportation link for travelers and commerce between Sacramento and San Francisco and all points in-between from the 1850s through the 1930s.  Many Chinese labored and lived on the steamer boats.

[13] Information about Fong Hong May’s stay in Sacramento is contained in the U.S. Immigration Service hearing transcript in the matter of Fong Hong May, September 25, 1925, in Sacramento, CA., 4pp; File No. 24272/4-19 (in Fong Poy’s alien file, A-4261502, and in Fong Hong May’s alien file,  A- 6978161).  Note:  In the transcripts of Fong Hong May v Fong Wan (1 Civil No. 17,929, CA Court of Appeal, Appellant's Opening Brief, 1956(?)), she lived in San Francisco and then moved to Oakland before they married.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Anonymous letter written in Chinese to the U.S. Immigration Service, 7th month, 1925, and translated by Yong Kay, immigration service interpreter, on August 19, 1925.  See also U.S. Immigration Service internal memo dated September 15, 1925, 2pp, File No. 20312/2-18, concerning the same issue.  Both documents are in Fong Poy’s alien file (A-4261502).

[16] U.S. Immigration Service memo, re: Fong Hong May, Daughter of a Native, October 7, 1925. 2 pages, file no. 20313/2-18 (in Fong Poy’s alien file, A-4261502).

[17] This wedding was quite a contrast to his marriage to Fannie Ng, which was a grand and festive affair in the heart of San Francisco Chinatown with hundreds of guests.  The 2nd hearing caught Fong Poy by surprise, and he probably thought it would be best to marry quickly without any fanfare and celebration.

[18] The actual age of Fong Hong May is unknown since her birth year is not known.  Her driver’s license stated December 1908, and her alien registration card said July 1903.  In her statement before the Immigration Service in September 1925, she mentioned her age as 23, which meant she was born in 1902.  In her statement before the Immigration Service in March 1935 as part of her application to depart to China, she mentioned she was born in August 1903.  What month and year was she really born?  Take your pick.

[19] Pronunciation of the Chinese names is in the Toisan dialect.

[20] The Roosevelt Laundry on 30th St. was one of 5 laundries Fong Poy and Henry Gee owned in the 1930s through the 1950s.  Fong Poy owned several parcels of property on San Pablo Ave. and 30th St., including the Roosevelt Hotel.

[21] Keeping the past a secret, even from immediate family members, was a typical phobia of many Chinese immigrants who were admitted as paper sons or daughters.  They feared the U.S. government would find out and be deported, even after decades of being in the country and establishing strong family roots here.

Place of Origin

Place of Settlement
Oakland, CA

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