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The Wing Family Ancestors: An Immigration Story

Hello again, history buffs. So many folks enjoyed learning about Kathleen and Thomas Wing, so this week we’d like to share their parents’ immigration stories. Through them we can learn much about the history of Asian Americans, California, and immigration to the U.S. in general. Kathleen Kong’s parents immigrated to California from China in the late 19th and early 20th century, as did Thomas Wing’s. They came to America shortly after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 forbade further immigration of Chinese laborers, and anti-Chinese sentiment was high. Their families faced prejudice and discrimination. They continued to work tirelessly, however, and gave their children and families social mobility.

First, a bit of background. Chinese immigrants began to arrive in earnest during the Gold Rush years after 1849. Americans displayed hostility towards them from the beginning, although Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans were a crucial part of the Central Pacific Railroad’s workforce and later helped establish citriculture in California. In 1875, the Page Act effectively prohibited the immigration of Chinese women into the United States. In 1882 the United States government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers, although a limited number of male merchants, scholars, and doctors would still be permitted to enter. It also barred Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens. This didn’t change immigrants’ desire to improve their lives and their families’ lives, however, so they found ways to skirt the racist law.

Many Chinese immigrants who arrived after the Exclusion Act of 1882 were “Paper Sons.” Foreign-born children of American citizens are eligible for American citizenship. All a hopeful immigrant needed was for a Chinese-American sponsor to testify that the immigrant was their child. Some Chinese-Americans were willing to do this, for a fee. This was especially popular after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; records were destroyed in the resulting fire, and many immigrants applied for “duplicate” birth certificates listing America as their birthplace. They could then sponsor incoming immigrants. Paper Sons were essentially forced to take on a new identity; they were subject to intense scrutiny and could be deported at any time, even decades after the fact.

Take a look below at the actual text of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. You can click on the images to expand them. From OurDocuments.Gov.

Thomas Wing’s father, Sue Narm Shun, moved to the United States in search of a better life in the late 19th century. Facing famine at home, family had heard stories of gold in California, but later learned of bitter disappointment in the mines, claim jumping, and the Foreign Miners tax, in which any foreigner could be charged up to $20 a month for the “privilege” of mining for gold. (At the time, wages were often just $1 a day.) His brothers left for the dangerous mines in Malaysia and Singapore, and one lost his life. Sue Narm Shun studied Chinese medicine so that he could go to America. (By then, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had been passed.) He had to leave his wife behind in China because of the Page Act, but he made the trip to the United States. Mr. Sue became a skilled calligrapher and worked in America as a sign maker before establishing a long and successful career in Chinese medicine. Mr. Sue, like his son, was a bit of a renaissance man.

Dr. Wing’s mother was also an immigrant from China, but less is known about her background. Her name has been difficult to locate, we know that her family name was Chun. Facing famine, her family had contracted with a wealthy American woman to take her to America as a child, where she would be a domestic worker and then enter an arranged marriage upon adulthood. Before she left for America, her parents told her that she would be the only one of them who would survive. As an adult, she married a Mr. Chow, who owned a general store. and she bore six children.

The story gets complicated here. Although the exact circumstances are unknown, Dr. Wing’s parents met and fell in love. Dr. Wing’s mother was still legally single; she had only married Mr. Chow in a Chinese ceremony and had never filed any government paperwork. This was not uncommon; would you file paperwork with a government you knew to be hostile toward your very presence? Dr. Wing’s father, on the other hand, was still technically married, a fact of which the United States government was well aware. His wife was living prosperously in China and apparently had no intention of traveling to the United States. To avoid charges of polygamy, the family created a new arrangement. Dr. Wing’s mother and Mr. Chow obtained a divorce according to Chinese custom. Dr. Wing’s father, by then doing well financially, paid for Mr. Chow and his family to move with his family to a larger general store and new home. Dr. Wing’s mother would remain in the home with Mr. Chow, as would her children. The children she bore with Mr. Sue (Dr. Wing’s father) would carry the Chow name in childhood; they could change their name in adulthood if they so desired. Dr. Wing’s mother and her children were free to visit Mr. Sue when they could, and they were living with him by 1930. In his memoir, Dr. Wing notes that he was never treated as illegitimate; he was accepted in the Chinese community as Mr. Sue’s son, regardless of name and paperwork. Of course, the Chinese community understood that family names could be complicated.

Census records can be an invaluable tool for historic research. Below you can see where Tom, his mother, and his brother were living in 1920 (with Mr. Chow) versus 1930 (with Mr. Sue).

We know less about Kathleen Kong’s family, although we will continue our research. Kathleen Kong’s father (she called him Pop, but we do know that the family name was Gong) entered America not long after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, so he was forced to purchase documents for a false identity. He was a “Paper Son," taking on the Kong name. Her mother, Ch’iou Chu, arrived in America with their son Lai in 1917. Kathleen’s parents ran a laundry for decades, relying on equipment so old that similar models were actually on display in a nearby museum! One last thing we do know about Ch’iou Chu: she was a distiller, making rice wine of her own right there at the house. We all need to keep a piece of home, after all.

Kathleen and Thomas Wing's daughter, Carolyn, worked hard to ensure that her parents' stories were written down. They were ultimately published; her mother's memoir, "Inside the Oy Quong Laundry," is the source of the Kong family photos you see below. You can see a letter from Pop's "Paper Uncle," confirming his assumed identity, several photos of the family members (including a beautiful photo of Kathleen Kong in traditional dress as New Year's Princess in 1933), and a shot of the antique equipment on display at the Butte Museum near their home. It was a history museum, but the Kong family was still working hard using that same equipment at their laundry.

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1 Comment

ion puschila
ion puschila
Apr 28, 2021

This absolutely fantastic! What a story! Well done! Thanks.

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