Pirates, Interrogation, and Gold Mountain

I was about 12 years old when this picture was taken of me seated next to my grandfather. With both of my parents working, my grandparents were my primary caretakers until dinner time, especially in my years before I began Kindergarten. A veteran in the restaurant industry, my grandfather delivered in the kitchen; I can still taste the special way he fried the rice noodles. Perhaps not surprising, my grandfather never shared stories of his past, especially the hardships that surrounded his immigration, like being kidnapped by pirates on his first return trip to China from the U.S. So this “Qingming” season, I want to share just a fraction of his story as one way to honor his memory. I thought his story would come out best if I told it first person. Admittedly, even though I’ve read a lot about the immigration experience and personally spent seven summers in China ensconced in its language, culture, and people, my imagination of my grandfather’s personal experience is limited. Nevertheless, a first-person telling would allow me to be more descriptive of the few stories that follow. So join me as we rewind the clock almost 100 years to 1926.

The salty sea air, the sardine-like quarters for me and hundreds of Chinese – we were all making the best of our 7000 mile voyage back to China. Like me, many of my ship’s passengers were men who had left their families to find opportunity on “Gold Mountain,” what San Francisco was called by Chinese after the Gold Rush. I left China at the tender age of 17. Now 20, I was taking my first trip back to China with money I had earned the past few years. The trip took 33 days and was filled with inherent dangers. As I thought about it, the vessel was wooden, and powered by coal so the threat of fire was constant. In fact, I heard that one such steamer, the Japan caught on fire and hundreds of Chinese onboard lost their lives that day. Apparently the coal on board was wet when it was loaded, and it spontaneously combusted. But that’s not the only danger. Pirates. They knew the ships going home were filled with Chinese like me carrying wealth to bring back to our families and village. I knew about the pirates, but never thought MY ship would ever fall victim to them.

We had been out in sea for more than a month. I knew the Hong Kong harbor was close and my heart began to flutter as I anticipated returning to my wife and family for the first time since I left. It happened very quickly; pirates invaded our ship, blindfolded us, hid us all in caves, and demanded ransom from our families. Leaving my family was hard enough for a foreign land; now I wondered if I’d see them again. But my will was strong, if not stronger than the first time I left my wife and family for the U.S. It has been four years since I saw them. I was determined to escape. In the middle of the night, I and a few others managed to sneak out wearing only our underwear. The experience was traumatic, even shameful. I was robbed of the money I had earned. All that I had imagined with my earnings was dashed. Instead, I returned to my village as poor as I left, literally not even having the clothes on my back. I was hoping to bring respite to my family’s tough conditions. Instead, my wife had to work in the factory to survive. My heart was heavy; all that work – lost. Yet I and my family was grateful that I was alive, that I had escaped. I carried the trauma and shame of that experience for my whole life; I never told my son, nor my grandson. There’s no reason to open up that episode again. But this is a part of a bigger story. And for that to be told, we have to start at the beginning.

I, Park Tung Hong, was born in 1907 in the war-torn, impoverished Pearl Delta region in Southern China. The conditions were poor and the circumstances were bleak. By my teen years, I had heard more and more about a land of opportunity across the seas, Gold Mountain, as San Francisco was called. Growing up, I witnessed men sent from neighboring villages bringing back wealth from “Gold Mountain” to feed their family, to upgrade their villages, and to afford meat, something I only ate during Chinese New Year! When I was 16 years old, I was selected to be one of the few from my village to be sent to “Gold Mountain.” On one hand, I felt honored. I too would be one of those men someday bringing wealth from Gold Mountain back to my family and village. As time drew near, I would get excited just thinking about the difference money would make. But I also felt dread. I had a fair idea of the many liabilities and hardships before me. Let me briefly explain.

When gold was announced in 1848, Chinese were initially welcomed to the United States. Mayor Geary and Rev Williams even had a public ceremony to welcome and preach the Gospel to the Chinese in the City’s main square, Portsmouth square in 1850. But soon the tide would turn against the Chinese; we were seen as vile threats (see images below). The thousands that used to travel annually to “Gold Mountain” dried up soon after the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882. I did not understand why. Didn’t we build necessary infrastructure in the States, like building the transcontinental railroad over the State’s most difficult terrain over the Sierra Nevada, like building the California deltas that made growing crops possible? Nevertheless, the Chinese were shut out from immigration simply because they were Chinese.

By the time I was 16 however, Chinese began immigrating to the U.S. in spite of the Exclusion Act. How? My relatives explained that there was a great earthquake and fire in San Francisco the year before I was born, in 1906. That burned the citizenship records and opened up a way for Chinese to claim citizenship for their supposedly family members through falsified citizenship papers. For example Chinese already in the States could claim that they are citizens and claim that they have so many wives and children to be brought over. An elder relative made such a claim, that he was born in the U.S., and thus my family and our family association pooled our money and purchased one of these falsified citizen papers for me and several select relatives to be his alleged children. I was given a coaching book, information about the false identity I had to memorize and know like the back of my hand. I was told that the interrogation on the U.S. side was designed to make us fail. So difficult was the interrogation I learned later, that even legitimate relatives seeking to immigrate had to hire coaches to help pass the interrogation. I felt the burden. If i were to fail, I could be deported back to China, bringing shame and financial loss. So I welcomed the mission, for the sake of my family.

I studied these “coaching papers” everyday. I internalized the maps of my professed home village, who lived where, who was related to who, and any other kinds of questions that a native to that village would know. My life and the lives of my family depended on me knowing and internalizing all the obscure facts about our household and village. Also at 16, I married a woman from the adjoining Choi village (shown above)…being married that young was not uncommon. It’s ironic to Western readers. Why would I marry only to leave shortly for “Gold Mountain?” The elders in the village knew this was the way to survive. This was the best option. In studying, I wondered if knew my “paper” family better than my own. After internalizing the “coaching book” and having others draw questions for me to answer at random, I was confident and ready.

At the break of dawn, early August of 1922 and 17 years old, I was ready for the journey. I said goodbye to my wife and village and boarded the ferry to take me down the river to Hong Kong where my steamship awaited me. The journey lasted 33 days altogether, covering about 200 miles/day. It’s really a wonder; there were no satellites nor GPS of course. Navigation happened the old fashioned way, the way it’s been for hundreds of years; I’m guessing by triangularizing the sun and stars with the ship’s compasses – fascinating, and a source of pride too since I knew that Chinese invented the compass during the Han Dynasty. I could tell we had accelerated by the end; using up the ship’s coal lightened our load significantly and I could tell by the wind and waves that we were sailing faster towards the end. By the 33rd day, I caught glimpse of land!

And there it was, Gold Mountain! We sailed through the Golden Gate. But instead of seeing the welcoming gaze of the Statue of Liberty, I and the hundreds of mostly Chinese men with me were loaded unto a ferry for a short journey to Angel Island. My excitement turned to dread. I had been warned that Angel Island was known as the “Rock of Tears.” Soon, I would understand why.

Immigration card

On Angel Island, we could see “Gold Mountain” across the Bay. Yet, we were stuck here on this island waiting our turn to be interrogated. I settled into my bunk, one of many stacked 3-high. As the days went by, my bunkmates would be called one by one for interrogation. Each one representing families and villages from our impoverished homeland, each one’s livelihood depending on the interrogation. We never knew when we would be called. Some waited over a year. It was never announced, but I knew some committed suicide, probably from not passing the interrogation. Perhaps those who took their lives were overcome with the shame of failing, and that committing suicide was easier then the shame of being deported home. Oddly, the walls of our crowded barracks brought some solace. Hundreds of poems spoke my heart’s aching for the homeland, the taunting of “Gold Mountain” before me, and the weight of interrogation.

Interrogation and poems of lament on barrack walls

Weeks passed before I was called for interrogation. I had heard that European immigrants passing through in the East took only a few hours to pass through. That’s just not just. I had been here on this island for weeks. Some of my bunk mates have been here months, a few more than a year! But I kept mentally preparing for my interrogation, rehearsing all my answers, ready for the most obscure questions. I had already thrown my coaching papers overboard because I did not want to be caught with them; others held on to them, hiding them. But I was advised that the officers knew all the secret hiding places for coaching notes…in belts, shoes, even in fruit. Things did not turn out well for those found with notes. I was prepared.

The questions started off easy enough, starting with my name. I was now “Frank Chin.” A bit surreal, and a little sad. I could not be myself. Why were Chinese excluded? Why couldn’t I wear my honorable family name? But no matter, I had to put those concerns behind me. My entrance was on the line and the honor of my family lay in my ability to answer all the questions.

Page one of the actual interrogation

All my preparation paid off. I passed and made my way through San Francisco’s Chinatown. There, I hooked up with my family association and my father who was already in the U.S. for years. Bittersweet though, I hardly knew my father. He was like a stranger to me. 30 years later, my son would immigrate over, also as a paper son. We never knew each other because I went back to the U.S. (10 years after being robbed on my way back to China) when he was just a toddler. Then WW2 happened and there was no communication. When my son came, he too had to study coaching papers and pass interrogation. When he joined me, we lived together as father and son, but as strangers. But that’s the way it was; that was the only way to survive.

The GI bill gave my son an opportunity to break out of the restaurant business. After serving in the Navy, he would be the first to attend college. After he married, we pooled our money and he was able to buy a house and move his family out of the tight quarters close to SF’s Chinatown. 1965, the year that immigration changed and quotas were dropped made this all possible. In my days, Chinese had no rights and the Chinese in San Francisco were confined to Chinatown. But in this time, we had opportunity. Soon, my own wife would immigrate over and we all reunited and lived together in the first neighborhood outside of Chinatown that saw a Chinese boom….the Richmond District.

Living in the Richmond district would be quite another story. Suffice it to say, there were so many Chinese living in the Richmond that my wife never had to learn English. New Chinatown and all the local shops spoke Hoisan, our native tongue. As for me, I took the 55 Sacramento bus from 6th and Clement a few times a week to go hang out in Chinatown. After all I’ve been through, now in my retirement, I wanted to be with my fraternal association, with those who knew the hardships we went through. We never spoke about those painful days. But through the mah-jong and the food we shared, our mere presence together screamed the obvious. We made it to Gold Mountain!

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