Asian American History is American History

Why I started this blog?

In 2001, I started researching my family's roots in the US and China, trying to uncover the stories of my ancestors. The post below is my first attempt to connect my family's story directly to the broader history of the United States. It focuses on how American laws and institutions have shaped the lives of my forbearers and continue to shape the lives of my family today. It's content was excerpted from the October 21, 2021, panel discussion on "Asian Perspectives on Race & Equity" presented to the public in Tredyffrin and Easttown Townships, Pennsylvania.

This is the history that I wish I had learned growing up, and that my children and all of our children should learn. It is only by learning about all aspects of our history that we can chart a better future together.

You can read the transcript that follows or watch the 13 minute video on YouTube.

[The following transcript has been edited for concision and clarity.]

Introduction

Dr. Qi Wang, Moderator: Our next speaker is Ken Hong. He is a Tredyffrin resident and parent of three teenage boys. He is a 4th generation Chinese American, family historian and genealogist. His parents have roots in the US going back to the late 1800's. Kenneth has traced his family tree back 150 generations to 2,698 BCE. I don't know how you did that but it's admirable. He earned his bachelor's degree in Anthropology, an MA in sociology from Stanford University and an MBA from the Wharton School of Business. Ken lived and worked in China for 5 years and has been a business consultant for companies around the world and the VP of Strategy and Product at a number of tech start-ups.

Kenneth Hong: My topic for tonight is to talk about Asian American History and to provide some context from my family's life story. When people look at me and wonder where I'm from, they might think China, Japan, or Korea. (My wife thought I was from Argentina.)

But they probably don't think of a native Californian who's family has been in the US for at least 133 years. Tonight I am going to give you a peak at that 133 year history seen through the eyes a family that's been traveling back and forth across the Pacific for four generations searching for the American Dream.

That includes me, too. Even though I was born and raised in the US, I also traveled back and forth across the Pacific to live and work. My wife is a first generation Chinese American.  She was born in Shanghai and also has a Wharton education.

It took me decades talking to family members, reading obscure history books, and combing through the National Archives to connect all the dots between my family's story and the wider Chinese American story.


The First Generation: Hong Yin Ming's Story


Hong Yin Ming, c.1899

It is a story that starts with Hong Yin Ming, my great-grandfather, who arrived in the US in 1888. Like many Chinese immigrants he would have been called a sojourner, an outdate term for people who traveled far from home to make money and who had more allegiance to where they came from than to where they lived.

SS Coptic at Anchor

Between 1888 and 1932 (that's 44 years), he made eight journeys across the Pacific taking months at a time on ships like the SS Coptic. During that time, he spent 5 years in China, long enough to marry and start a family.

When he was in the US he lived by himself working as a cook and domestic servant in Palo Alto, California, while his wife stayed in China raising their kids as a single mother.

This sojourner's lifestyle was not by choice.

If fact is was by design and codified in to law. By the late 19th Century, exclusion, prohibitions against interracial marriage and land ownership combined to make the Chinese population in America simply wither away by legislative genocide.

“By the late 19th Century, exclusion, anti-miscegenation, alien land ownership prohibitions,… ensured that the Chinese population would, simply, die out by legislative genocide…

“The women who came to America were either a merchant’s wife, a house servant, or a prostitute.… [only] merchants could freely bring their wives over and establish families.”

                          -- Doug Chan, Chinese Historical Society of America

Legislation that started with the Page Act of 1875 which barred Chinese women from the US by criminalizing them as prostitutes. Men were added to that ban by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 This is the more famous law that is sometimes mentioned in US History classes. There was an exception for diplomats, teachers, students and importantly for merchants.

The women who came to America were mainly merchant's wives, house servants, or prostitutes. Merchant's wives because they could freely immigrate. And house servants and prostitutes who in reaction to the Page Act were often trafficked and smuggled into the US as a direct response to those laws.

Even Chinese American citizens were not protected from Exclusion era laws. My great-grandfather was a US Citizen, but he was denied the right to vote and he couldn't own property or businesses. He had to file and affidavit like this one for his first trip back to China in 1899, affirming his right to return US before traveling abroad otherwise he'd risk being denied entry when he came back.

Hong Yin Ming, Affidavit 1899

Every Chinese in the US, citizen or not, also had to carry one of these, a certificate of identity. For those who were citizens, it was the alien registration. It's what people think of when they talk about a Muslim registration. He had to be able to produce this on demand or risk being deported.

Hong Yin Ming, Certificate of Identity

The INS, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, was created to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act. They ran the Immigration Station on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay where most Chinese entered the US and where many of them endured lengthy interrogations and detentions.

Chinese women and children under 12 were held together at the immigration station.
(Courtesy of the California Historical Society, CHS2009.091)

Angel Island Immigration Station Dormitory
(Public Domain)

It was no Ellis Island of the West Coast. At Ellis Island 1-3% of arrivals were rejected compared to 18% at Angel Island.


Second Generation: Hong Hock How's Story

Both of my Grandfathers had intimate knowledge of the INS and Angel Island

A 15 year old Hong Hock How, my grandfather, arrived at Angel Island in 1915.

He was interviewed. You can see part of the transcript here:

How large is your house?
How large is your village?
Where is your house?
How many rows are there in your village?
Is there a school? What is its name?
Is it on the left or right side of the village? 
Do you count that as one row?

Hong Hock How November 8, 1915, INS Interview Transcript, page 2 of 4

It goes on and on. Unfortunately after cross examinations of other people from the village, his request to land was rejected.

He was detained for 4 months while his father and lawyers petitioned for his release.

Fortunately, he was released. Once he was in the US, he was the embodiment of the American Dream. He worked hard, taught himself English, and worked his way through school as a house boy.

By 1932, he had earned two Stanford degrees in Engineering. John How, as he was now known,  with those sterling credentials and perfect English, could not find work. He ended up returning to China to teach engineering at Sun Yai-Sen National University in Guangzhou.

John Hock How, Diploma for Engineer Degree from Stanford University, 1932

It was really America's loss. Because what we do learn in US History was that during the depression there were a lot of projects involving electrification of the country from the Tennessee Valley Authority to the Hoover Dam. They certainly could have a Stanford trained electrical engineer.

Hoover Dam Power Transmission Lines

So, it was in 1932, that my grandfather and great-grandfather found themselves crossing back over the Pacific one more time.

Yin Ming was reunited with my great-grandmother, after being separated for 27 of the last 32 years. Hock How was also reunited with his wife and eldest son who he hadn't see for 4 years.

Hong Yin Ming and Chin Shee

Neither of them would ever reside in US again.

Hock How stayed in Asia. After the Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, he was able to flip the script. He stayed in Asia to work and sent his wife and family to the US to escape the ravages of the Chinese Civil War.


Third Generation: My Parent's Story

On to my parents...They were an all-American couple. Here's my dad with his two brothers.

Hong Brother's in San Francisco, c. 1951

He lived in SF Chinatown. He was a varsity letterman at Commerce High, and he proudly served in the US Army on the Korean Peninsula.

Dad serving in the US Army near the DMZ in 1956

Like his father before him: He was born in China; He came over when he was 15 years old; and he interrogated by the INS where they asked him these questions.

Jack Hong, September 20, 1949 partial INS Interview Transcript

Now my mother was a different case. She didn't have this problem, because her father was categorized as a Merchant. He was able to bring his wife over to the US and my mom and all of her siblings were born and raised in Oakland Chinatown.

After they were married, my parents wanted to move out of the city before starting a family. They ended up in a suburban neighborhood not too far from San Francisco. About the same distance as TE is from Philly.

In the backyard of our Eichler Home in 1965

It was a neighborhood full of mid-century modern Eichler homes which are really popular and very expensive right now.

I always wondered how they ended up there. They ended up there for a reason.

The former mayor of my hometown provided the answer in something she wrote just last year. She said that in 1957 when she first arrived in the city almost all of the city neighborhoods were redlined, except for North Central where all the people of color were clustered.... And the neighborhoods built by Joseph Eichler who offered his homes to anyone of any religion or race.

(Mayor or City Council Member from 1993-2005)

If you don't know what redlining is, in this context, it was placement of provisions in property deeds that prohibited the sale of those properties to people of color. It was until 1968 when there first started to be laws that tried to fight those practices. Well after my parents had moved in to their home.

Scholars from UC Berkeley have found that many of the exclusionary housing policies that became common across the US originated in the Bay Area and were target at its Chinese population.

In fact, San Francisco was among the first to use zoning to criminalize its Chinese population.

Across the country from the 1890's on, a lot of cities declared themselves "sundown towns", which provided the explicit threat of violence to people of color if they were found within city limits after sundown. In the 1940's, some of realtors proposed to designate the entire San Mateo peninsula, just south of San Francisco, as a sundown area, stating that the peninsula was not a proper place for Negros, Chinese, and other racial minorities.

Looking at more recent research shows that 81% of major US metropolitan areas are more segregated today than they were in 1990.


Fourth Generation: My Story


I came of age in the California of the 1980's. We had valley girls and surfer dudes. We had Long Duk Dong. We had Southern Pride on prominently display in my California school graduation photo. I was called Chink and Hong Kong Phooey.

Stereotypes and Slurs
Southern Pride in Northern California

There were stereotypes that I internalized. I was the guy who was only good at math and science for the longest time. It took me years to unravel, and give myself the freedom to pursue other interests.

Then there was Vincent Chin who was bludgeoned to death after he was mistaken by two out-of-work autoworkers for being Japanese. And after his white assailants confessed they were fined $3000, given 3 years probation, and no time in jail.

Vincent Chin

Conclusion

To conclude, how can we connect the dots between this history to our present moment?

We can connect the Angel Island Immigration Station to the detention centers in on the Southern Border, run by the agencies that are the descendants of the INS that ran Angel Island.

We can also connect the exclusionary housing policies that pioneered against Chinese and other Asian-Americans to the existing segregation that we find in our communities today.

Finally, anti-Asian violence and a justice system that does not protect us has a long and ongoing history in this country. From Vincent Chin, whose judge said of assailants that they weren't the kind of men you sent to jail, which is echoed by the Sheriff who said of the Atlanta shooter that he was fed up and having a really bad day.

We have had numerous attacks against our communities and elders. This last one really hit home. Asian Women attacked in Oakland Chinatown on two consecutive days, just two block from my mother's childhood home.

This is the history that I wish I learned growing up. That I wish my children will learn. And that I hope we can all learn, everyone in the community. So we can learn about the past and chart a better future together.

Sources:

Chan, Doug. “When Chinese Women Ventured out into San Francisco’s Outside Lands.” Through a Chinese American Lens: Aug. 2021, https://demospectator.tumblr.com/post/658646393703006208/78-chinese-women-in-sutro-heights-san.

Lempert, Sue. “The Reckoning: San Mateo Then and Now.” San Mateo Daily Journal, 24 Aug. 2020, https://www.smdailyjournal.com/opinion/columnists/the-reckoning-san-mateo-then-and-now/article_4586d452-e5b3-11ea-bdcd-83d3f5be2fb1.html. Accessed 13 Nov. 2021.

* Moore, Eli, Nicole Montojo, and Nicole Mauri. "Roots, Race, and Place: A History of Racially Exclusionary Housing in the San Francisco Bay Area." Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, University of California, Berkeley. 02 Oct. 2019. haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/rootsraceplace

† UC Berkeley: Roots of Structural Racism Project https://belonging.berkeley.edu/roots-structural-racism

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