Seattle's National Archives contain about 50,000 case files related to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which for decades barred most Chinese immigration. Volunteers working to index the files say they hold precious personal information and poignant broader lessons.
Anger at immigrants. Racial prejudice. Border separations and detentions. Phrases now making headlines also characterized the Chinese Exclusion Act, which ended 75 years ago Monday.
That strikes Rhonda Farrar at least once a week, when she visits the National Archives in northeast Seattle to help index about 50,000 case files related to the law that for decades barred most Chinese immigration and prevented Chinese immigrants already here from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens.
The 67-year-old began volunteering with the project when seeking information about her father, the son of a Chinese immigrant. Though Edwin Law was born in Alaska and grew up in California, his heritage meant he had to register with the authorities to travel abroad.
“I just hope more people realize that we did this over 100 years ago, and here we are doing it again,” Farrar said. “Disrespect for human life has always existed, unfortunately. We’ve got to learn from that.”
The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience will host a community event Sunday to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act’s repeal.
Wing Luke became the first person of color elected to the Seattle City Council in 1962. In his early childhood, the act prevented him from immigrating to Seattle, where his father had settled, said Bettie Luke, his sister. “The Chinese really endured a lot,” Bettie Luke said.
Passed by Congress and signed by President Chester Arthur in 1882, the exclusion act was America’s first immigration law to prohibit people from a specific country and ethnicity from coming to the United States.
In 1869, a treaty with China had opened the door to more immigration, allowing tens of thousands of people to cross the Pacific Ocean for mining and railroad jobs and to escape problems back home.
But an economic downturn stoked animosity against Chinese laborers, as nativist politicians claimed the immigrants were driving down wages and taking jobs from white workers.
That rhetoric, along with xenophobia and racism, resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was adopted for 10 years, renewed in 1892 and made permanent in 1902. It also led to a riot in Seattle in 1886, when a mob of white residents aided by police expelled hundreds of Chinese residents from the city.
From the start, the act banned immigration by Chinese laborers. More restrictions were added over the decades, said Trish Hackett Nicola, who works on the exclusion-act files with Farrar and three other volunteers every Thursday afternoon. They’ve been toiling for years.
Chinese residents were required to carry special certificates, and those without such documents could be deported, Hackett Nicola said. Some people trying to immigrate to the U.S. or return to their homes here were detained under harsh conditions.
“They had to pay for the food that they ate when they were being held,” Hackett Nicola said. “Sometimes they would be there for months.”
Countless lives affected
As the authorities transcribed interrogations and collected photos, and as some people took their cases to court, the exclusion-act files grew thicker. In 1898, a lawsuit brought by a man named Wong Kim Ark cemented citizenship as a guarantee for people born in the U.S. to non-American parents.
After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed countless birth records, some would-be immigrants without U.S. ties sought to skirt the draconian act by claiming they had been born here or had been born in China to Chinese-American men.
U.S. authorities trying to keep out the so-called “paper sons” would carry out physical examinations and long interviews with Chinese residents who sought to travel abroad. They and their relatives would need to answer the same way when trying to enter or re-enter the country.
The interrogations were racist and invasive. But because they were so personal and detailed, the archived files now contain details about people and lives that otherwise might have been lost to history.
“The open court is paved with stone,” a man named Quan Foo told authorities, describing his house in China. “A rice pounder is located in the sitting room near the west wall.”
A huge number of files were created in Seattle, a port where many Chinese people entered and exited the country. The archives on Sand Point Way Northeast also include cases from smaller cities such as Port Townsend and Portland, and each file tells a unique story.
Tucked inside plain folders are 100-year-old black-and-white photos, typed transcripts, yellowed letters with creases and handwritten notes. Wearing cloth gloves to handle the delicate documents, the volunteers log names, birth dates and birthplaces into a database. They also log the names of the ships that people arrived on.
Hackett Nicola, who began working on the project way back in 2001, keeps a blog where she writes and posts photos about the most interesting cases.
There are files for relatives of Gary Locke, the former Washington governor; of Ed Lee, the late San Francisco mayor; and of Ruby Chow, the Seattle restaurateur.
A man named Quan You Hing signed up in the U.S. Navy after joining his father in Chicago and was killed in action during World War II. A woman named Hazel Ying Lee became the first Chinese-American woman to fly for the U.S. military. A woman named Charlotte Chang lost her U.S. citizenship when she married a Chinese man.
Snapshots of a man named Ng Lee Fung from 1907 to 1938 show him age. Chinese basketball teams registered under the act when touring the U.S.
In Seattle, authorities considered deporting a 3-year-old because they doubted he had been born to the people who claimed to be his parents.
Not until 1943, when the U.S. and China were allies, was the exclusion act repealed under a law named for Warren Magnuson, a Seattle congressman. Even then, Chinese immigration was limited to 105 people per year.
Precious family histories
Besides raising awareness about historical discrimination, the volunteers aim to help Chinese Americans learn about their roots. Hackett Nicola estimates they have about 10,000 files still to process.
Lily Eng, another volunteer, tracked down a file for her late father, who traveled alone as a 12-year-old from China and was interrogated when he arrived.
“It’s quite amazing what some of these children had to go through,” said Eng, who didn’t hear much from her father about the ordeal. “He didn’t really talk about it and we were so unaware.”
Farrar yearned to know more about her father, Edwin Law, who died when she was 14 and whose heritage was part Chinese.
“When I retired in 2013, I thought, ‘Well, I need to start looking,’ ” said the lifelong Seattle resident, who initially visited the Sand Point Way archives to comb through Native American boarding-school records.
Those records held no clues, but Farrar enjoyed the quiet work at the archives, so the exclusion-act volunteers asked her to join their team.
The thunderbolt came just before Father’s Day in 2015, when she happened upon a file labeled “Low Yow Edwin.”
“I was supposed to only read the file name … and input it in the computer but I thought, ‘This is so close. I’ve got to peek,’ ” she said.
When she did, Farrar saw her father staring back at her. Law was 23 at the time, World War II was beginning and he was on his way to China, where he worked as a fighter-pilot mechanic for the Chinese military’s Flying Tigers.
Also in the file were interviews that mentioned Law’s “Eskimo” mother, and a file in California contained his birth certificate, allowing Farrar and her daughter to enroll in the Tlingit tribe.
Farrar has unlocked her own family history, but she continues to volunteer. She wants to help other Chinese Americans find their relatives and believes the files contain lessons for everyone as the U.S. detains and separates immigrant families from Mexico and Central America.
“It’s remarkable how little attitudes have changed towards people coming here from other countries,” Farrar said. “That all went on 100 years or more ago with other races … It angers me.”