I found this fascinating!
From an article in the NY Times
National Archives An apparent study aid or coaching document found among an immigrant’s papers.
In the 1990 movie “Green Card,” Gerard Depardieu’s character is deported because he cannot recall, under questioning by immigration agents, the type of skin cream his American-born wife likes. In real life, dread of such encounters has prodded many aspiring immigrants to prep for their interviews with elaborate “study aids,” particularly if they were adopting new identities.
Annotated pages from a notebook found among the papers of Fook Wing Chung.
Read Notebook »
Few of these crib sheets survived. “You were supposed to throw the cheat sheet overboard,” noted Nancy Shader of the National Archives and Records Administration in New York.
Which is why there is excitement in archivists’ circles about a small brown notebook with handwritten Chinese characters, long overlooked in her archives, that once belonged to a Chinese immigrant.
The notebook appears to contain “coaching” materials that might have been used by an immigrant known as Chung Fook Wing when he entered the United States in 1923. Seventeen years later, he was arrested on a drug possession charge by New York City police and the notebook — 50 pages of coarse sheets bound by string — turned up in a search of his papers at a New Jersey opium den. Taking up eight of the pages were handwritten answers to 53 questions that a newcomer could have anticipated being asked upon entry or re-entry, leading authorities to suspect they were written to “coach” the book’s owner through the process.
How many siblings and children did he have? The names of his teachers? In-laws? Great-grandmother? Where was his mother from, not to mention other minutiae about his listed hometown, the village of Gow Low How in the Hoi-Ping district in southern China?
It is hard to say whether Mr. Chung used the sheet to prepare spotlessly for an important examination or whether he was someone else, impersonating someone the authorities were likely to let stay.
“We may never know,’’ said Mary Ting Yi Lui, a Yale historian who wrote a 2005 social history of Chinatown and is familiar with Mr. Chung’s family tree. “Given the way the system worked, it’s possible that the people who were actually children would have studied these coaching books as well as people posing’’ as them.
The New York Times
At the time of Mr. Chung’s entry, Chinese immigration to the United States was sharply restricted and governed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and its extensions. Merchants, tourists and students could qualify for admission to the country but unskilled laborers were less welcome, so many Chinese positioned themselves as children of people already here legally.
These immigrants were sometimes called “paper sons,” people who adopted a lineage on paper so as to gain entry to the country.
“The paper son system was devised after the exclusion law passed in 1882,’’ said Cynthia Lee, chief curator for the Museum of Chinese in America downtown. “To be a paper son was something you didn’t advertise. A lot of times your own children might not have known the story. There are folks half a generation older than me who tell me that ‘Yeah, I’m a Chin but I’m actually a Wong,’ and they know this once their fathers reveal that was the family history.”
According to a translation of the questions and answers obtained by The New York Times, Mr. Chung claimed to be the eldest son of George Sing, a man who authorities believed was born in Yonkers, making any foreign-born children of his eligible for entry to the United States.
Handwritten Chinese characters in the notebook’s jacket signify it was created in Year 12 of the Republic of China, which designated 1912 as its first full year. Two characters below the date spell “New York” phonetically, since there is no standard way to write English names. The last characters in the column refer to “Customs,’’ the agency that for many years helped enforce the exclusion laws because immigrants tended to arrive by ship.
Along with details about the family tree, the notebook contains information like the fact that the Chung home in China faced east.
Answers to Questions 8 and 9 noted that Mr. Chung and a younger brother who traveled to the United States around the same time last saw their father when they were toddlers. A passage of time could help the brothers explain a failure to recognize current photos of their father, a common way immigration agents put newcomers to the test.
Joseph Sanchez, an archivist who works with records chronicling Chinese immigration in the National Archives’ San Francisco office, said that immigrants at that time would have been expected to draw maps of their birthplace indicating the location of the cemetery and the market, and to know which neighbors’ wives had bound feet, he said. “Oftentimes, these coaching documents got quite voluminous,’’ he said.
Among Chung Fook Wing’s papers, found in the opium den in Lyndhurst, N.J., was a map or crib sheet of the Chungs’ ancestral village that lists landmarks and names of neighbors in each dwelling.
It is unclear what happened to Mr. Chung after his arrest. The notebook was turned over to immigration authorities.
One of his relatives, at least on paper, is Barbara Lane, a great-niece of George Sing, who was half-Chinese and half-Caucasian. She said she had lost touch over the years with that branch of the family, in part because her grandfather decided to keep his own Chinese ancestry under wraps to protect his descendants from the discrimination he had faced growing up.
Readers are invited to review the notebook’s contents and, in the comments box below, furnish any additional information about the people and places named in them or the circumstances that gave rise to them.
Once the United States and China became allies in World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to bring that era to a close by signing a 1943 law repealing the exclusion acts. Historians say some obstacles to immigration lingered for another two decades.
Matthew Bloch contributed reporting.
Federal Immigration Records Photos from the immigration file of a twenty-something Fook Wing Chung and an American-born man named George Sing, who he claimed was his father when he entered this country in 1923.