By Kenneth Hong
July 16, 2023
Over the last 4th of July week, I spent a day and a half at the U.S. National Archives in San Bruno, CA, where many of the Chinese Exclusion Era immigration files from the Angel Island Immigration Station are kept. The archivist had located the files for my maternal grandfather (Chin Pak Yick), his father (Chin Gay Bin), his wives (Lee Moon Yee and Tso Mee Shew), and his famous first cousin (Chin Lain).
Lee Moon Yee, 1918
An "entirely respectable Chinese woman"
Chin Pak Yick, 1918
"Well-dressed in American Clothes"
I had previously written about all five of these relatives. All but my grandmother Tse Mee Shew had died long before I was born, and in the case of my great-grandfather, Lee Moon Yee, and Chin Lain, before my mother was born. When I asked her or other relatives, "What do you know about your grandfather, father, or his first wife?" I would get only vague recollections about their father, and nothing about the other two.
In their immigration files, I was able to find previously unseen file photos and interview transcripts. Finally, I could piece together more of their story in China and in America. Based on this information, I have made extensive updates to my posts about them.
- Maternal Great-Grandparents: Chin Gay Bin 陳基彬 (1864-1916) and Fung Shee 馮氏 (b.1869)
- Maternal Grandfather & His First Wife: Chin Pak Yick (1893-1958) & Lee Moon Yee (1893-1933)
- Maternal Grandmother: Tso Mee Shew (1917-2006)
- First cousin twice removed: Chin Bok Lain (1869-1938) - Unofficial Mayor SF Chinatown
After making new copies of my paternal great-grandfather's file, I made a few light edits to his post and updated the photos:
- Great-grandfather: Hong Chew Yook (1870-1941) and Chin Shee (1880-1963)
As I was going through the Chin family immigration records, I also noticed repeated references to Chin Gay Bin's children, a daughter who died as a baby and six sons. The spelling of their Chinese names varied and I initially did not recognize them. Our village genealogy only listed four sons, while an online version mentioned a fifth son. I could only match three names to the paper record and four to the online version. The other two sons may have been inserted as a paper sons.
Our family has remained in contact with the descendants of Pak Yick's eldest brother, Chin Don Born. In fact, I lived with Don Born's great-grandchildren in their Hong Kong flat in the 1990's. We lead me to a new mystery. The immigration records directly contradict what we know about Chin Don Born. He was identified in transcripts from 1912 to 1937 as Pak Bong, Pak Bon, Bok Fon, and Oon Bon. This last name matches Don Born's gravestone and our family records. The transcripts also identify his daughter Jung Ngan born around 1908, who I've meet. So I have the right person. We also have this from Pak Yick's June 1937 INS interview:
Q How many blood brothers and sisters have you? A 5 brothers, no sisters. Eldest Chin Bok Fon - died over 10 years ago...
Q Have any of your brothers been to the United States? A No.
But we know from Chin Don Born's gravestone that 1.) Don Born died four months before Pak Yick's INS interview not 10 years before, 2.) in the United States, and 3.) is buried in South San Francisco, CA.
Chin Don Born's Gravestone on July 6, 2023
Hoy Sun Ning Yung Cemetery
South San Francisco, CA
So, now we have a new mystery. What was Chin Don Born's story? When and how did he come to the United States? Why did Pak Yick say he had never come to US? We may never know.
NOTA BENE: The information from immigration files need to be taken with a with a grain of salt. We know that the immigration system, especially the one under the Chinese Exclusion Act, forced many honest people to perpetuate falsehoods and half truths in order to come to and stay in America. There may also have been simple be lapses in memory and innocent misstatements. I've tried to note in my posts when statements come from immigration records and where they may differ from family records and lore.
If you are interest in what it's like to visit the US National Archives, read my very personal take in The Heavy Weight of Visiting the National Archives.