Beware of the Elixir of NARA

The immigration files on our ancestors at the NARA (National Archive & Record Administration ) offer the Chinese American family historian a treasure trove of data. Especially precious are the large number of well preserved Angel Island documents from the first half of the 20th century.These papers have the authenticity and stamp of approval of the US Government. With transcriptions, translations, and witnesses, these documents provide a unique paper trail at the moment of entry to the USA. This was a critical juncture point for our ancestors, because refusal of US entry would be economically disastrous and socially embarrassing (loss of face). Some applicants committed suicide rather than be forced to return to China.

These circumstances were brought about by the Chinese Exclusion Act and the destruction of immigration records by the 1906 SF Earthquake. This began the paper son industry, when the Chinese living in the US prior to the earthquake could not be challenged to their claim of American citizenship. These early Chinese-Americans were able to sell the title of a citizen’s offspring to non related men desiring to come to America (paper sons). 

For the beginning Chinese family historian, a portion of the NARA information must be looked upon with suspicion. The information should always be considered inaccurate until confirmed by other sources. 

There are many reasons the beginning Chinese family historian quickly embraces the NARA data. The interviews represent the lost opportunity to have recorded our ancestors’ stories . The difficulty of the Chinese language is bypassed by the translators and transcriptionist employed by the government.

For those who have not seen their ancestor’s NARA information from the Exclusionary period, the data is divided into an objective and subjective section. The objective information contains the biometric information commonly recorded before the widespread use of fingerprinting. It would have the height, weight, distinguishing characteristics, and photographs. Observations like the English fluency and literacy were noted.

The second subjective part involves the interrogations and interviews. The interrogation is meant to discover and deport paper sons trying to illegally enter the US. Also in this section will be attempts by the applicant to embellish the number of their offspring for future profit and the potential sale of paper son titles. The interrogators will inquire about the (paper son) applicant’s memory of the layout of their villages to compare with the description with the paper father. This was one of the government’s methods of discovering the paper son.

After the euphoria of receiving ancestor information, it is important to initially withhold sharing your ancestors alleged family tree as described in the transcription (at least until you verify it independently). The reason is that the privilege to take an oral history from your Chinese relatives is fraught by not only language issues, but the clannish, inscrutable, and secretive nature of elderly Chinese living in a hostile foreign country. You have to earn the privilege to interview your relatives. Stating as fact the incorrect number or existence of offspring based on the NARA data is a way to have your family severely limit your oral history-taking opportunities. 

The description of the village details, while exciting, is probably not related to your ancestors actual home. A description of Village Life in China by Arthur H Smith is available via Project Gutenberg  . You only have to get past his Western and religious chauvinism popular during the time it was published in1899.

The Chinese family historian should celebrate the information in the NARA files. However, he/she should look at this data as family stories, but not as genealogy.