Thursday, April 30, 2020

Alison Turner, "Chinese Immigration & Exclusion"

Alison Turner

Fiction in Documents and Documents in Fiction:
The Neo-Archive of Chinese Immigration During Exclusion


1> The process of “paper sons” during the United States Chinese Exclusion era generated volumes of applications for citizenship under fictional identities, so that archival holdings describing these experiences are particularly complex. In the century since, researchers, descendants, and authors interrogate these archival fictions as part of the Chinese immigration experience during Exclusion. I propose that fiction in which protagonists and narrators are affected by Exclusion era policies contribute to these archival holdings as a form of Erica Johnson’s concept of the “neo-archive.” After providing a condensed background on the practice of paper sons, I explore how texts from this neo-archive by Ruthanne Lum McCunn, Fae Myenne Ng, and Maxine Hong Kingston employ documents generated by the paper son process as objects of authority, reflection, and rhetoric, respectively. Exploring the ways that fictional documents function in re- imagined narratives of the history that created those documents expands understandings of historiography, the role of archival documents in historiography, and how historical documents recording “false” information can enhance, rather than limit, understanding of historically marginalized experiences.

I: A “Chinese Contingent” and the Neo-Archive

2> Many photos document the moment of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869: “The Champagne Photo” is perhaps the best known, capturing how the “champagne flowed and engineers...each broke a bottle upon the other’s locomotive.”1 Politicians, soldiers, and officials have been identified in this photo, along with only a vague “Chinese contingent from the Central Pacific,”2 despite Chinese immigrants contributing 12,000 of the 13,500 laborers on the Central Pacific.3 Further, scholars have not found a single text produced by a Chinese rail worker in Chinese or English4: Julia Lee suggests that in Chinese American literature and history, the train represents both presence, “since the railroad would have never been built without their labor,” and absence, “since little is known about the lives of individual Chinese railroad workers and their contribution to building the railroad was never acknowledged.”5

3> This tension between present and absence might describe archival collections representing the greater Chinese immigration experience during Exclusion era policies, beginning officially with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and relaxed in 1943. This explicitly racist legislation is well documented in newspaper headlines and cartoons warning of “yellow peril” with descriptions of Chinese people as an indistinguishable “one-dimensional mass”6; however, writing from Chinese immigrants themselves is hard to find. In addition to this archival absence, several collections of initially existing material has since been damaged: the photo identity cards that the Geary Act of 1892 required Chinese people living in the United States to wear, and that represent what one historian calls “the largest mass civil disobedience to that date” when most people refused to wear them, were held in National Archives but were, inexplicably, administratively, destroyed.7 Also, the 1906 earthquake and then fire in San Francisco destroyed holdings of “Chinese scrolls, flags, temple records, newspapers, letters, diaries, immigration documents, legal records, and the documents of the Chinese Benevolent Association.”8 When researching experiences of Chinese women immigrants, historian Jean Pfaelzer found that these women’s “own telling seemed to be mostly silenced”; instead of looking in traditional archives, she discovered alternative methods, notably, “hanging out,” that is, engaging with descendants of this experience.9

4> Archivists, historians, artists, and descendants researching the experiences of Chinese American populations encounter challenges similar to those of scholars working with material from any immigrant community from this time period.10 However, archival holdings of Chinese immigrant populations are uniquely complicated by the effects of Exclusionist policies and immigrants’ responses to them. The practice of paper sons, applying under an invented or borrowed identity as a son of someone with existing legal status to work and live in the United States, is one of these responses. While it is impossible to know how many immigrants entered this way, paper sons leave both presence and absence in archival collections, as the documents that are present at the same time make another identity absent.

5> The experiences that were not recorded, that were recorded then destroyed, and that were created through fictitious documents, can be supported by and repurposed through what Erica Johnson calls the neo-archive. Johnson uses this term to describe postcolonial literature about the Middle Passage and the American slave trade, systems whose corresponding archives are also full of present-absences of African and African-American tellings.11 Johnson suggests that “fiction ... creates history in the face of its absence” and can thus contribute to our understanding of experiences that are underrepresented in archives.12 With the remarkable exception of the fiction and other writings of Chinese-British author Sui Sin Far, most literature contemporaneous to Exclusion was infected by the racist “yellow peril” mentioned above13; in this essay, I consider the work of Ruthanne Lum McCunn, Fae Myenne Ng, and Maxine Hong Kingston as contributing to the neo-archive of Chinese immigration during Exclusion that undermines yellow peril depictions. I examine the ways that paper son, and sometimes paper bride, documentation functions in narratives engaging with the history that creates, and is created by, false documents. These texts interrogate not only how to re-imagine experiences from and with historical documents, but also how readers might re-imagine the function of historical documents as contributing to historical narratives.

II: Historical Context: Paper Sons and the Paper Dialectic

6> The history of Chinese immigration to the United States does not begin with racism, exploitation, and piles of bureaucracy: Xiao-huang Yin writes that Chinese immigrants were “celebrated” until 1852, when emigration “increased dramatically” and “Californians' initial acceptance for the newcomers gave way to animosity.”14 The turn to animosity has been framed as “Yellow Peril paranoia,” a view of Asian migrants pushing back against the Anglo goal of Manifest Destiny and western expansion,15 as well as reversals in social desires for racialized labor supplies.16 The word “paranoia” is apt: Chinese immigrants made up a mere 4.3% of entries into the United States17 yet were the target of the country’s first explicitly racist immigration policy and the contemporaneous saying, “a Chinaman’s chance,” meaning “no chance at all.”18 While many Chinese immigrants responded to Exclusion laws via the United States legal system, flooding the courts with petitions to remain, others pursued what historian Estelle Lau calls the “extralegal means”19 of entry, a category that included the practice of paper sons, falsely claiming relation to a United States citizen in order to gain citizenship under that created identity.

7> Exclusion policies and immigrants’ efforts to work around them generated expanding volumes of paperwork, as immigrants developed sophisticated techniques for avoiding restriction and officers’ interrogations became increasingly suspicious and rigorous. At the height of the Exclusion era, between two and three hundred Chinese migrants were detained for days, weeks, or even years,20 during which time they faced the Bertillon system and its variously- sized calipers for measuring forearms, feet, fingers, ears, and heads,21 and oral interrogations that might require drawing maps of villages from home, listing the names of every person in that village,22 and noting whether or not each woman's feet were bound.23 Immigrants entering under a false identity engaged with a “steady trade” of false documents24 to prepare for these interrogations: available for purchase were coaching books with instructions for how to answer questions on Angel Island (one extant book shows more than 400 questions),25 crib sheets for studying the details of the alleged family member,26 and notes passed between detainees on coined money, within peanut shells, and in orange peels and pork buns.27

8> In addition to the false information that paper sons provided for records, these documents also record errors made by immigration officials. Employees’ lack of knowledge regarding Chinese cultures, languages,28 calendars, and regional customs contribute to ambiguous, contradictory, or deceptive records29: for example, materials show differing, haphazard spellings of migrants’ names on the same document, and many women entered with the recorded name “Shee,” which is actually an indicator of marriage status.30 Chinese immigration files became thicker over time, and the cost of processing some Chinese immigrants rose to sixty times more than the processing of an immigrant who was not Chinese.31

9> The increasing scrutiny on both sides of the process -- applicants’ attempts to convince officers of their created identities and officers’ attempts to catch the deceit -- represent what Lau calls a “dialectic,” written marks created by “strong incentives” on both sides to alter, distort, and change information, leaving in documents “a particularized version of the events in accordance with their goals.”32 This recorded dialectic does not always rest peacefully in archives; in many cases, these documents continue to function in Chinese families as roots that disrupt, distort, and displace a family’s history with its documented version for generations. The information recorded on immigration records “fix” the stories and histories paper kin must continue to replicate for bureaucratic purposes,33 changing first the history of a paper son, then of his daughter, then of his daughter’s cousins, and so on. Some Chinese families did and do not reveal their paper histories to people outside of the family and, in some cases, members within the family.34 This might bring together Chinese immigrant communities in a “web of interdependence and mutual obligation,”35 a form of social contract that paper kin are maintained; or, these paper histories might tear relationships apart, as some family members may disagree about continuing to use paper names.36 The continuing effect of fictitious documents on descendants provokes explorations of uncertain family histories in fictional narratives across many genres of literature.

III. The Multi-Genre, Multi-Generational “Constant Interrogation”: McCunn, Ng, and Kingston

10> In examining three texts whose protagonists encounter fictional documentation of the sort described above, I aim to maintain Lisa Lowe’s standard for criticism of Asian American novels that resists “[misreading]” any “formal deviations” of narrative and aesthetic as “modernist or postmodernist aesthetic modes” rather than a “constant interrogation of the discrepancies between canonical historical narratives” (100).37 Lowe’s concern is particularly important for this essay, because while the three novels I examine re-imagine marginalized histories and experiences, they contribute to separate traditional genre categories. Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s Thousand Pieces of Gold (1981) is semi-biographical historical fiction based on the life of Lalu Nathoy and her forced migration to the United States from China in the latter half of the 19th century; Fae Ng Myenne’s Bone (1993) is contemporary fiction that reflects on the narrator- protagonist’s stepfather’s entry into the United States as a paper son; and Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men (1980) is postmodern historical fiction, anticipating Linda Hutcheon’s definition for texts that are “always a critical reworking, never a nostalgic ‘return,’”38 piecing together family stories of migration during Exclusion into semi-fictional narratives. Exploring these texts in terms of what they share -- re-imagining the experiences of Chinese immigrants in the United States during Exclusion -- allows for compelling comparison of the ways that fictional documents from these histories function within each narrative across genre aesthetics.39

“I Have Papers”: Fictional Documents as Authority Over Biography

11> In McCunn’s Thousand Pieces of Gold, fictional documents function as authoritative objects that propel the narrative forward. Based off of the non-fictional life of Lalu Nathoy, McCunn’s Nathoy has been read as both a “model American” for her climb away from slavery toward a life of relative ease and freedom, and as a heroic figure, for doing the work that a typical frontier woman might have done in addition to confronting slavery and racism.40 The text opens with Lalu in China as a young girl; her father is forced to sell her to bandits, who traffic her to America, where she is purchased by a Chinese saloon keeper in Idaho (who declares that her name is now Polly). Polly lives as his sex slave until Charlie, a white man, “wins” her in a gambling event then reveals his intentions to buy her freedom. Charlie and Polly live together as romantic partners for many years, encountering homesteader adventures (once, Charlie is shot, and Polly digs the bullet from his neck). They eventually marry and move away from town to build a ranch. Charlie dies long before Polly does; she lives her life out homesteading single-handedly, among friends.

12> Unlike the scenario of paper sons described above, when Lalu enters the United States with fictional documents it is not by her design: her captors use false papers to traffic Lalu and several other girls. During her captivity on the boat to America, she and her co-captives are ordered to “rehearse the stories that matched their papers”; they are told that if they pass the customs examination in the United States, they will return to China rich, but if they fail, they will go to “demon jail” and be “tortured.”41 On shore, the girls are divided into two groups, “those with contracts” and those without. An immigration authority takes Lalu’s papers from her and when she resists, Lalu is told, “Those papers were just to get you into the country. They have to be used again.” There is more confusion, as some girls “with contracts” believe they have contracts for marriage until they are informed that really they are destined for prostitution.42 When the girls protest, the authority snaps “read it!” but none of the girls are able to read; they are at the mercy of an official to relate “what the contracts say.” The girls are dispersed according to their respective purchasers and the documents are left with immigration officials, presumably to be “used again.”

13> The false documents’ illegibility limits their function in the narrative to one of authority. Because neither Lalu nor the reader, beholden to the protagonist’s illiteracy, knows what these papers say, their command for her to be taken to a purchaser in Idaho cannot be questioned or examined. Years later, Polly confronts again, though indirectly, this fictional record of her entry. Living happily (and consensually) with the white Charlie Bemis, word reaches the Idaho mountains that Chinese Exclusion practices are at new heights and all Chinese must “register” or be deported. Polly responds to this news logically: “If I register and admit I was smuggled in, I’ll be deported. If I don’t register and I’m found out, I’ll be deported. But if I don’t register and I’m not found out, I’ll live like I’ve lived for the last twenty-one years.”43 This bureaucratic calculus is Polly’s resistance to the immigration authorities and her contribution to Lau’s “dialectic”: her ultimate decision not to register anticipates more rigorous enforcement in the 1950s with the “Chinese Confession Program” and its offer for “administrative adjustment of status” in exchange for information about illegal entry and disclosure of true identities.”44 This act of resistance, however, is quickly displaced by the next authoritative document that determines her identity.

14> Lalu, then Polly, is again pressured to change her identity on paper, recorded adjustments that create endless anxiety over their maintenance. The registration requirement intensifies Charlie’s previous proposals for marriage, a proposal Polly’s friends encourage her to accept: “A five-minute ceremony, a piece of paper, and you're safe from deportation forever.”45 Though circumstances are less dire than those faced at the border, Polly is nevertheless again at the mercy of paper bureaucracy. The impossibility of controlling whether she is “found out,” and the pressure to marry that this impossibility creates, act as an analogue to the illiteracy that made it impossible for Lalu and the other trafficked girls to know their options, never mind fight for them. When Polly does marry Charlie, they are a happy and loving couple, despite the union’s basis on paper coercion, but they are haunted with anxiety over the loss of papers that identify Polly as Charlie’s wife, and thus her right to be present and own property. When the ranch catches fire and Polly tries saving Charlie, he insists that they risk more time in the flames to rescue the certificates; Polly finds them in a drawer but he won’t budge until she waves them in front of him and says “I have papers.”46 Later, as Charlie dies, he deliriously worries about the law and Polly again soothes him by saying “I have papers.”47 Years after Charlie’s death, Polly looks again at these papers: “Brittle with age and too much folding, they crackled as she spread them out. Her wedding certificate. Her certificate of residence. The mining claim for the ranch. The papers for which Charlie had been willing to give up his life. The papers she would gladly surrender to bring him back.”48 These papers record Lalu Nathoy as Polly, wife of Charlie Bemis, American citizen: Lalu’s paper life ensures her ownership of her land after Charlie’s death but it also keeps her in a constant state of fear over its discovery.

“One Hundred and Nine Times”: Fictional Documents as Literary Reflection

15> Ng’s Bone demonstrates ways that fictional documents from Chinese Exclusion might expand, rather than contain, a protagonist’s identity by functioning as objects of reflection. Set contemporaneously with its publication date, the story is told by Leila, the oldest of three sisters. The novel moves back in time, in what one critic calls a “palimpsest”49 and chapters are blended with layers from earlier or later incidents via what another scholar calls “anticipations of episodes.”50 This indirect moving back slowly reveals information about the suicide of the protagonist’s step-sister, Ona, the way the rest of the family has been surviving Ona’s death, and the relationship between Leila’s mother, Mah, and Leila’s stepfather, Leon. Many scholars focus on Ona’s suicide as the novel’s driving force, reading the event as indicative of greater themes that are connected to Chinese-American history.51 Perhaps second only to Ona’s suicide, scholars address the suitcase scene, in which Leila searches a suitcase full of forty years’ worth of Leon’s documents, looking for proof that he is eligible for social security benefits.

16> The novel engages constantly with the complexities of Chinese immigration during Exclusion because Leon, Leila’s stepfather, is a paper son. Leon entered the United States from China when he was fifteen: on the journey, he met a friend who was eighteen, “but their false papers gave them each a few extra years. On the long voyage [to the U.S.], they coached each other on their paper histories: Leon was the fourth son of a farmworker in the Sacramento valley, his mother had bound feet, her family was from Hoiping. You Thin was the second son of a shoe cobbler in San Francisco.”52 Leon and You Thin’s “coaching” on the boat references much of the labor immigrants spent on memorizing new families, labor that Leon passes on to the next generation. Leila expresses exasperation at his repetitive telling of his immigration story: she relates, “I knew the story. One hundred and nine times I’ve heard Leon tell it. How buying the name Leong was like buying a black-market passport. How he memorized another man’s history to pass the interrogation on Angel Island.”53 This “one hundred and nine times” of telling imitates the repetition required for the memorization of a second family that Leon and so many other paper sons performed; it also evokes the ways that paper histories impact later generations.

17> The novel’s continuous engagement with Leon’s paper identity and its implications condenses when Leila convinces him to apply for the benefits he has been earning through wage labor for over forty years. However, when they arrive at the social security office, “It was as if all the years of work didn’t count.”54 Leila explains that Leon’s different jobs leave behind a thick weave of paper dates and information, as Leon was always “getting his real and paper birthdates mixed up; he’s never given the same birthdate twice. Oldtimer logic: If you don’t tell the truth, you’ll never get caught in a lie. What Leon didn’t know, he made up. Forty years of making it up had to backfire sometime.”55 Thomas Kim reads the relationship between Leon and the social security office as one of metalepsis, a “maneuver” that emphasizes the novel’s “troubling of identification”; Kim explains that “like social security law itself, identity is produced by its citation; in other words, the papers will actually produce Leon.”56 Leon needs a paper that not only opens access to the benefits he has earned, but also records him as the person he has believed himself to be for more than forty years.

18> After the encounter with the social security office, Leila searches Leon’s suitcase full of documents, looking for something the office will consider proof of a “real” birthdate. The suitcase is a soup of identity documents, rejection letters from the army, jobs, and apartments, and other paper miscellany, a collection that Lowe interprets as an “informal ‘archive’” of Leon’s life that serves as an “analogue” of the “hybrid space” of the novel’s Chinatown.57 Others propose that the suitcase is one of the novel’s encounters with “socially constructed sites of authenticity, legitimacy, and identity” and that the papers in Leon’s suitcase have a “deconstructive task” of de-essentializing identity, while also “[linking]” elements such as “traditional China and contemporary America.”58 Worthy of more attention, is that it is Leila -- not Leon, or his daughters by blood -- who encounters Leon’s informal archive. Because Leila is the protagonist of the novel, when she discovers documents that represent her stepfather’s paper history, they inherently reflect possibilities for her own.

19> Leila is not related to Leon by blood, just as Leon is not related to Grandpa Leong by blood; this is no accident in a novel with the refrain “paper is more precious than blood.” The novel emphasizes that Leon is not forced, but chooses, to continue using his paper identity, a choice that Leila ultimately imitates. When Leon and You Thin arrive in the United States and pass their memorized paper-family tests, “You Thin changed back to his real name as soon as he could, but Leon never did. Leon liked to repeat what he told You Thin: ‘In this country, paper is more precious than blood.’”59 Leon becomes a paper son to access a life in the United States; he remains a paper son because it has become his identity. As Leila searches through the archive of Leon’s fictional documents, she finds an anomalous marriage certificate that does not belong to any of Leon’s histories: the Chinese marriage certificate for her mother and biological father. The illogical and unlikely emergence of this document tests Leila’s loyalties. In this archive of Leon’s fiction, Leila’s relationship to her biological father and her paper father, who is also a paper son, becomes central: she is now more implicated in the story she has heard Leon tell “one hundred and nine times.”

20> The marriage certificate, the only document in the suitcase archive that represents authentic identity, is lost in the reflections of Leon’s many fictional documents. At last, Leila finds a photo of young Leon, an “affidavit of identification” which states his name, the date of birth (11-21-1924), and his port of entry, and is attached to a “Certificate of Identity ... showing his status of a citizen of the United States.” This document will pass the test at the social security office, despite -- or, because – the recorded birth date is not Leon’s biological birth date. After recollecting this “informal archive,”60 Leila thinks, “Leon was right to save everything. For a paper son, paper is blood.”61 The paper that signifies Leila’s biological blood, a supposed authentic document, becomes the least authentic text in the archive: Leila’s recalling of Leon’s phrase that “paper is blood” is reflected onto her own blood. It is not the supposed authentic document that reflects any of Leila’s identity, but the abundance of fictional records revealing the complexity of her paper blood.

21> Bone holds taught the relationship between paper bureaucracy, history, and story: fictional documents function as reflective objects that contribute to the novel’s complex and unanswered questions (as many scholars point out, we are never given an answer to the subtle though constant investigation into why Ona might have died by suicide). Leila’s position as protagonist-narrator who encounters the fictional documents of a paper son insists on a relationship between Leila and the history of Chinese Exclusion: since Leon is a paper son to Grandpa Leong, in a case where paper is stronger than blood, Leila is a paper daughter to her stepfather. Leila’s relationship with Leon’s fictional documents reflects a new generation of paper kin, one that is rooted in Chinese Exclusion histories and can grow into new understandings of paper family.

“Now He Had It in Writing”: Fictional Documents as Postmodern Irony

22> Like Bone, Kingston's China Men (1977) positions fictitious documentation from Chinese Exclusion in the United States as important to future generations; here, documents function rhetorically to provoke unanswerable questions about the histories from which they emerge. The ironies in China Men begin with the title, which repurposes the deprecatory term “Chinamen” used to call out Chinese immigrants during the Exclusion era and beyond62 into explorations of the lives and experiences of those who were affected by the slur. I agree with many scholars that the text is postmodern by Linda Hutcheon’s foundational definition as literature that uses a variety of methods to “[problematize] the entire notion of historical knowledge” in ways that engage history with the present so that history is “[prevented]...from being conclusive and teleological”63: the text’s multiple voices play with time and provide uncertain endings. Sections range in length from several dozen pages to one paragraph, the latter of which one scholar calls “intertexts” that perform “several functions” of doubling, irony, dismantling hierarchies, and confronting complexities.64 The content of the collection moves between themes of Chinese-American transnationalism, immigration, and cross-generational relationships, and many scholars consider the text as a response to Kingston’s “dearth of information” about her family history65 and the “historical absence” of Chinese immigration66; Kingston, after all, writes decades before many of the monographs about Chinese immigration history emerge,67 and she allegedly only learned her parents complete immigration stories after her father’s death.68 I address only one of many examples of fictional documents functioning as rhetorical objects in this collection: the citizenship paper in the story “The Grandfather of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.”

23> This story is told by a nameless narrator who remembers being told as a child that “Your grandfather built the railroad.”69 The narrator then relates how grandfather, Ah Goong, starts work on the American railroad in 1863. During the third day of the great railroad strike, in which Ah Goong participates (which lasts nine days and ultimately disappoints Chinese railroad workers), Ah Goong is approached in the woods by a “demon” (white man) dressed in a white suit:

"a demon dressed in a white suit and tall hat beckoned him. They talked privately in the wilderness. The demon said, ‘I Citizenship Judge invite you to be a U.S. citizen. Only one bag of gold.’ Ah Goong was thrilled. What an honor. He would accept this invitation. Also what advantages, he calculated shrewdly; if he were going to be jailed for this strike, an American would have a trial. The Citizenship Judge unfurled a parchment sealed with gold and ribbon. Ah Goong bought it with one bag of gold. ‘You vote,’ said the Citizenship Judge. ‘You talk in court, buy land, no more chinaman tax.’ Ah Goong hid the paper on his person so that it would protect him from arrest and lynching. He was already a part of this new country, but now he had it in writing."70

24> The tone in this passage, built from short, dry sentences such as “What an honor [period],” evokes satire, as Ah Goong is expected to experience this uncanny event as serendipitous. Scholars have read the citizenship judge as a confidence man, emerging from the irony of an “invitation” to live in a place where Ah Goong is vulnerable to arrest and lynching, and as the author’s nod to the “irregularity” of her family’s history as immigrants in the United States.71 Following the role of the document Ah Goong purchases shows that it engages the narrator and protagonist in rhetorical questioning about not only what happened to Ah Goong, but what happened to so many men from China working on the American railroad.

25> Reading this scene as a critique of the process of citizenship comes easily; as I will show, interpreting the document’s role as rhetorical nuances the critique. The scene suggests that those without power, like Ah Goong, cannot find their own path to citizenship, but must wait for it to come to them; it suggests that citizenship processes are exploitative, considering the price Ah Goong pays as an already-exploited, racialized railroad worker on a failing strike; and ultimately, the scene suggests that citizenship does not provide the protections it advertises. Following the encounter with the Citizenship Judge, Ah Goong shows his paper to no one, and when the railroad is complete and Chinese laborers “disperse” from the “Driving Out,”72 (that is, the railroad owners forcing away their former employees), Ah Goong roams the country in hiding for years: despite trading one of his two bags of gold for a paper he believes will “protect him from arrest and lynching,” he takes backroads and travels at night on his way to San Francisco in hopes of finding a boat back to China, “[eluding] bandits who would hold him up for his railroad pay and shoot him for practice.”73 Ah Goong hides this piece of paper as he hides himself from the violence of the people with whom this costly paper is supposed to make him equal.

26> From the moment of its purchase, the citizenship paper evokes these critiques as it questions authenticity: the reader cannot be sure if the document is legitimate and this seems to be the point. In a withholding that recalls Lalu’s experience on the docks in A Thousand Pieces of Gold, the reader never sees what Ah Goong’s citizenship paper says. Ah Goong is illiterate, as he has asked others to read him letters from home, so that he -- and the narrator, and the reader -- depends on the Citizenship Judge for interpretation of this document. Unlike Lalu’s experience, in this text, the document’s blankness is not left behind but participates in the story’s ongoing interrogation of Exclusion policies.

27> The narrator explains this part of Ah Goong’s life as “decades unaccounted for” and we could use the same description for his citizenship paper: after its purchase, it is not mentioned again until the story’s finale. At this point, Ah Goong has been back to China after his railroad work, but then decides to return to the United States despite Exclusion policies. The narrator explains his successful re-entry simply: “He had a Certificate of Return and his Citizenship Paper.”74 Ah Goong’s access to the United States suggests that the citizenship paper is authentic: that however Ah Goong acquired it, whether from a man in the woods or a process allegorized as such, his bag of gold did purchase a legally-valid document. Yet authenticity is questioned again in the story’s final scene, when the paper goes up in flames – maybe.

28> The story ends with the San Francisco fire of 1906, an historical event rich in irony even when not in the hands of an author like Kingston. This event is estimated by some to have killed thousands of people; it also destroyed “virtually all of the birth records in the city,”75 which pressured immigration services to rely on witness testimony when before they would have insisted on paper documents.76 Many Chinese immigrants could thus claim that they were American citizens, allowing them to bring family members from China into the United States. Kingston’s story emphasizes the archival consequences of the fire in the penultimate paragraph, where she writes, “The Hall of Records burned completely. Citizenship Papers burned, Certificates of Return, Birth Certificates, Residency Certificates, passenger lists, Marriage Certificates -- every paper a China Man wanted for citizenship and legality burned in that fire.... Every China Man was reborn out of that fire a citizen.”77 Ironically, this fire does not destroy Ah Goong’s citizenship paper, but rather makes obsolete his need for one. Recalling that when Ah Goong purchases his paper, the narrator explains, “He was already a part of this new country, but now he had it in writing,” this fire makes Ah Goong a citizen again, making ironic the concept of citizenship. The text suggests layers of citizenship based on residence and labor, paper, and then fire: these layers both undermine and reify its authenticity.

29> Kingston follows the seemingly-triumphant phrase “Every China Man was reborn out of that fire a citizen” with a final paragraph that emphasizes the postmodern resistance to conclusion.78 Ah Goong has declined into a wretched outcast the family calls “Fleaman,” whose second stay in the United States is a composite of rumors, all of them negative: “Some say,” for example, he became a “homeless wanderer” who needed his family members to scrounge together money to bring him back to China. The narrator speculates, “Maybe he hadn’t died in San Francisco, it was just his papers that burned; it was just that his existence was outlawed by Chinese Exclusion Acts ...He'd gotten the legal or illegal papers burned in the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire; he appeared in America in time to be a citizen and to father citizens.”79 This final paragraph leaves ambiguous where Ah Goong died, whether he was an American citizen, and whether that initial Citizenship Paper was legal or illegal. The moving pieces of Citizenship Judge, Citizenship Paper, San Francisco fire, Ah Goong, and their endless combinations, create a multitude of stories: any possibility is one more on a list that is neither hierarchical nor chronological, piling up like the ever-thickening immigration files in the offices of Angel Island.

IV. Fiction in Archives, Fiction as Neo-Archive

30> This sample of the neo-archive about Chinese Exclusion era policies and its ongoing effects “creates history in the face of its absence” and can thus contribute to our understanding of the experiences of people who are underrepresented in more traditional archival holdings.80 Each example employs fictional documents in narratives to interrogate experiences of Chinese Exclusion in relation to the narrative’s protagonist, a function that is to some degree bounded by genre. The certificate carried by Lalu Nathoy’s trafficker and her marriage certificate fix Nathoy into the identity they record; because McCunn’s text is historical biography, these documents also fix the narrative into what is known about Nathoy’s life. The “informal archive” of Leila’s stepfather, a suitcase of false documents, makes irrelevant to Lelia its single authentic document, just as literary fiction to some degree makes irrelevant what “really happened’ in any story. And when Ah Goong trades half of his wealth for a paper whose authenticity is as operational as it is suspicious, his descendants also have information that is part operational, part suspicious, a postmodern relationship to archival documents that nurtures postmodern, non-teleological interrogations.

31> This neo-archive of Chinese immigration Exclusion might help make visible the challenges that archivists and researchers face when looking for, interpreting, and cataloguing fictitious documents of paper sons as well as other communities. These fictional documents complicate what Randall Jimerson, the former president of the Society of American Archivists, states as an “essential” purpose for archives: to “prevent collective amnesia, to ensure an accurate record of events that will serve as a corrective to false memories or oblivion.”81 In the case of paper sons, false memories are the archive and it is the neo-archive that helps prevent their interpretation as collective amnesia.

32> The documents encountered in these narratives are as fictional as the texts’ characters and their experiences; just as characters in novels and fictionalized versions of biography and memoir refer to non-fictional experiences to the extent that this is possible, the fictional documents in these texts represent the volume of pages that were created by and contributed to Chinese Exclusion policies. A portion of these non-diegetic documents survive in archives that did not burn, in family scrapbooks, suitcases and other sites of “informal archives” similar to Leon’s fictional suitcase.82 Perhaps a greater portion of this bureaucratic corpus has burned, been lost, hidden, and disappeared, existing now in imaginations that compose stories in blank spaces. Just as fictional characters enhance the ways we understand the people inhabiting our daily lives, the function of fictional documents in fictional narratives can enhance and expand our understandings of the value of historical documents and the archives that do – and do not – contain them.


1 The photo’s actual title is ““East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of Last Rail.” “Andrew J. Russell,” Golden Spike: National Historical Park Utah, U.S. Department of the Interior, 22 Dec. 2019, https://www.nps.gov/gosp/learn/historyculture/a-moment-in-time.htm]

2 Ibid.

3 Julia Lee, "The Railroad as Message in Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men and Frank Chin’s ‘Riding the Rails with Chickencoop Slim,’" Journal of Asian American Studies, vol. 18 no. 3 (2015), 270.

4 This remarkable absence is despite hundreds of thousands of letters being shipped between China, Japan, and the US during the building of the railroad. Gordan Chang attributes this absence to “Arson, pillaging, and the willful destruction of Chinese belongings by hostile nineteenth-century mobs in America” and “losses [due to] immigrants’ many forced moves, ruin from earthquakes and fires,” and “the cruel devastation wrought by the many wars, civil upheavals, and revolutions in their land of ancestry.” His study over the previous six years “conducted the most thorough study to date,” which include scholars from many disciplines attempting “to locate as much relevant material as possible” including oral histories. Gordon H Chang, Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019): 8-9.

5 Julia Lee, “The Railroad as Message,” 266.

6 Xiao-huang Yin, Chinese American Literature since the 1850s (U of Illinois P, 2000): 100.

7 Pfaelzer writes that the vast majority of the 110,000 Chinese people living in the United States at this time “refused to register, be photographed, or wear the ‘dog tags.’” Pfaelzer worked with an archivist, just as dismayed as she was by the destruction of these identity cards; they ultimately recovered five cards from uncatalogued boxes. Pfaelzer, Jean. “Hanging Out: A Research Methodology,” Legacy, vol. 27, no. 1 (2010),155.

8 Pfaelzer, “Hanging Out,” 144.

9 Pfaelzer, “Hanging Out,” 140-1.

10 In the 1960s and 1970s, many archivists felt a “sense of urgency” to recover scattered collections of early 20th century immigration populations, which might be in the possession of some of last surviving members. Dominique Daniel, “Documenting the Immigrant and Ethnic Experience in American Archives,” The American Archivist, 73, no. 1 (2010), 86. Robert M. Warner and Francis X. Blouin explore how material from immigrant communities is affected by varying literacy rates, “short lived” newspapers that are rarely preserved, and may be “buried in collections” catalogued under other topics such as church records. Robert M. Warner and Francis X. Blouin, “Documenting the Great Migrations and a Century of Ethnicity in America,” The American Archivist 39, no. 3 (1976): 319-21.

11 See Katherine McKittrick’s essay “Mathematics Black Life” that proposes interpreting the “historically present anti-black violence” in archival holdings “not as a measure of what happened, but as indicators of what else happened.” Katherine McKittrick, “Mathematics Black Life,” The Black Scholar, vol. 44, no. 2 (2014), 18; 22.

12 Johnson uses this term when exploring how Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return uses three forms of archival material about the Middle Passage and the slave trade: historical archives, contemporary newspapers and journals; and postcolonial literature (i.e. “the neo- archive”). Though Johnson looks at postcolonial literature and I consider fiction exploring the Chinese immigrant experience during Exclusion, the concept of using fiction as material that helps us understand a time in history -- particularly experiences that are underrepresented in archives -- is shared by both situations. Erica L. Johnson, “Building the Neo-Archive: Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return,” Meridians (12.1): 149. Pfaelzer also reads texts from Sui Sin Far and Ruth McCann to help with her research, arguing that “Fiction...is also a women’s archive.” Pfaelzer, “Hanging Out,” 154.

13 Yin, Chinese American Literature since the 1850s,100.

14 Ibid. 16.

15 Noreen Groover Lape, “Bartered Brides and Compulsory Bachelors on the Chinese American Frontier: The Short Stories of Sui Sin Far,” in West of the Border: the Multicultural Literature of the Western American Frontiers, (Ohio University Press, 2000), 85.

16 David R. Roediger and Elizabeth D. Esch, The Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History (Oxford University Press, 2012), 82.

17 Estelle T. Lau, Paper Families: Identity, Immigration Administration, and Chinese Exclusion (Duke University Press, 2006), 22.

18 Yin, Chinese American Literature, 34.

19 Lau, Paper Families, 31-33.

20 Yin, Chinese American Literature, 36.

21 Lau, Paper Families, 97.

22 Erika Lee, At America's Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943 (U of North Carolina P, 2003), 211.

23 Lau, Paper Families, 52.

24 Lee, At America’s Gates, 193.

25 Ibid. 196-7.

26 Lau, Paper Families, 7.

27 Lee, At America’s Gates, 215.

28 Ibid. 106.

29 Ibid, 43.

30 Ibid, 108-9.

31 Lau, Paper Families, 9-10; Lee, At America’s Gates, 87.

32 Lau, Paper Families, 8.

33 Ibid. 60.

34 Ibid. 132.

35 Ibid. 140.

36 Lee, At American’s Gates, 240. Lau adds that Chinese American families faced more direct pressure starting in 1955 with the “Chinese Confession Program” that offered “administrative adjustment of status” for information about illegal entry and disclosure of true identities.” This caused “fear and apprehension” among many Chinese communities: “real and paper families were forced to reconcile, since one confession necessarily required that all family members confess”; when families could not “reconcile,” some families had members using paper names and others using names used before immigration. Lau, Paper Families, 116-18.

37 Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts (Duke University Press, 1996), 100.

38 Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (Routledge, 1988), 4.

39 Here, the word “fictional” has two layers: first, these documents are fictional because they are invented as part of a literary narrative; secondly, within each narrative they were intentionally created to perform a borrowed or invented identity.

40 Walter Hesford, "Thousand Pieces of Gold: Competing Fictions in the Representation of Chinese-American Experience," Western American Literature, 31.1, (1996): 49-62, p.50; and Patricia Terry, “A Chinese Woman in the West: Thousand Pieces of Gold and the Revision of the Heroic Frontier,” Literature/Film Quarterly, 22, no. 4 (1994), 223.

41 Ruthanne Lum McCunn, Thousand Pieces of Gold: A Biographical Novel, (Design Enterprises of San Francisco, 1981), 92-3.

42 Ibid, 97-8.

43 Ibid, 208.

44 Lau, Paper Families, 116.

45 McCunn, Thousand Pieces, 209.

46 Ibid, 261.

47 Ibid, 266.

48 Ibid, 285.

49 Juliana Chang, “Melancholic Remains: Domestic and National Secrets in Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone,” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies, 51, no. 1, (2005), 110–33, p 111.

50 Donatella Izzo, “‘A New Rule for the Imagination’: rewriting Modernism in Bone” in Literary Gestures: The Aesthetic in Asian American Writing, eds. Rocio G. Davis and Sue-Im Lee, (Temple University Press, 2006), 139.

51 See especially Izzo “A New Rule”; Chang “Melancholic Remains”; and Thomas W. Kim “‘For a Paper Son, Paper Is Blood’: Subjectivation and Authenticity in Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone,MELUS, 24, no. 4 (1999), 41–56.

52 Fae Myenne Ng, Bone (Hyperion, 1993), 9.

53 Ibid, 57.

54 Ibid, 55.

55 Ibid, 55. In addition to this bureaucratic “backfire,” Leon pays for his paper life in other ways, including five thousand dollars and life-long guilt when he couldn’t keep a promise to send his paper father’s bones back to China after his death. Ng, Bone, 50.

56 Kim, “For A Paper Son,” 44.

57 Lowe, Immigrant Acts, 124-5.

58 Kim, “For A Paper Son,” 42; and Izzo, “A New Rule,” 148.

59 Ng, Bone, 9.

60 Lowe, Immigrant Acts, 124-5.

61 Ng, Bone, 60-1.

62 E.D. Huntley, Maxine Hong Kingston: A Critical Companion, (Greenwood Press, 2001), 115.

63 Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism, 89; 110. Scholars also propose more specific genre categories, including “postmodern mixed” for the “collage, pastiche, and open-endedness” for the first term and the “Multiplicity and eclecticism” for the second; as well as “historiographic metafiction” because it simultaneously “[admits]that the past cannot be ignored or forgotten” and “refuses to grant it the status of truth and instead explore plural truths.” Huntley, Maxine Hong Kingston, 65; and Joanna Ziarkowska, Retold Stories, Untold Histories: Maxine Hong Kingston and Leslie Marmon Silko on the Politics of Imagining the Past, (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), 192.

64 Huntley, Maxine Hong Kingston, 123-4.

65 Ibid, 123.

66 Ziarkowska, Retold Stories, Untold Histories, 61.

67 Such as the Lee and Lau monographs that I rely on for this paper, as well as Chang’s Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019).

68 Huntley, Maxine Hong Kingston, 3.

69 Many scholars, including Ziarkowska, call the narrator “Maxine,” acknowledging the autobiographical nature of the text. I am not convinced that the narrator is necessarily Kingston; in this story, the narrator is neither gendered nor named.

70 Kingston, China Men, 142.

71 Ziarkowska, Retold Stories, 111; and Huntley, Maxine Hong Kingston, 143.

72 Kingston, China Men, 145.

73 Ibid, 146.

74 Ibid, 150.

75 Richard Gonzales, “Rebuilding Chinatown After the 1906 Quake,” NPR, 12 Apr. 2006, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5337215.

76 Lau, Paper Families, 106.

77 Kingston, China Men, 150.

78 Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism, 110.

79 Ibid, 150-1.

80 Johnson, “Building the Neo-Archive,” 149.

81 Randall C. Jimerson, Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice, (Society of American Archivists, 2009): 131.

82 Lowe, Immigrant Acts, 124-5.

Alison Turner, a PhD candidate in Literary Studies at the University of Denver, is interested in community literacy, historical fiction of the American Old West, community-engaged scholarship, and archives.

Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture

Volume Six (2020)
Artifacts & Works / Communities & Fields


No comments: