Daughter of a Paper Son: True Confessions of a Fake Gemini

Reflections on the anniversary of the
Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882


When we were kids, my American-born siblings and I didn’t know the truth behind my father’s citizenship. He kept his immigration history an ironclad secret. We accused him of having a paranoid edge to his personality. Why couldn’t he be more like the jovial tv dads in Leave It to Beaver or My Three Sons or Father Knows Best—those white, middle-class patriarchs we viewed as role models of confidence and fatherhood? Eventually, albeit too late to make amends, I saw that my elders were not to blame. The origins of our immigration secrets and lies lay in the far-reaching consequences of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. 

Because only the relatives of current U.S. citizens were allowed to enter from China, my father entered the United States as the “paper son” of a Chinese American who had “adopted” him, alleging blood ties. A skinny kid from rural China, my father studiously memorized the details of his newly purchased family history while he crossed the ocean. He had been warned about the trick questions posed by immigration officers on Angel Island, a rocky chunk of land in the Pacific, visible from San Francisco. Known as the “Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island served both as gatekeeper and detention center for immigrants entering the U.S. from Asia. Getting off the ship on unsteady legs, my father and his fellow passengers were ordered to trudge up a steep hill to the rough-hewn barracks (separate buildings for men and women) that held cots and double-decker bunk beds lined up in rows. The large room smelled of unwashed clothes and sojourner restlessness; that night, he woke up sporadically, feeling the metal coils under the thin mattress. In the morning he lined up to be interviewed by a government agent and his Chinese translator. They asked him about his “relatives” and the village where he was supposed to have grown up: “How far was it from your house to the market?” and “How many chickens did your mother keep?” and “When did your eldest sister get married?” and “How many steps to your door and were the steps the same color as the bricks?” That last question was a trap; the house of his surrogate family was not made of bricks. When my father’s ploy as a paper son failed, he was sent back to Toisan, where his father welcomed him with a beating and berated him incessantly for wasting their money. 

To atone and to escape the abuse, my father earned more money to buy another fake identity. He was nineteen the second time around; he landed on Angel Island on December 20, 1929, but was not interrogated until January 13, 1930. After weeks of enduring the bleak quarters and alien wilderness of the remote island, he was finally sent to the immigration station hospital; there, suspicious officials took x-rays of his hands, trying to prove that his hands were those of someone older than seventeen (what his papers stated), but the judge threw out the case, saying that x-rays were inconclusive—there is a plus/minus factor of several years for authenticating age through bones. Moreover, my father was immigrating with another false brother from the same village and same school; in their separate interrogations, all their answers matched up. This time, my father left Angel Island and entered the mainland with the paper name Fook Gooy Wong. From there, he went to Chicago to work for real relatives at the Hong Kong Noodle Factory, lugging sacks of flour and making deliveries throughout the region. He lived cheaply and as often as possible obediently sent money home. Fook Gooy got nicknamed “Frank” and gradually learned enough English to read newspapers, become a Methodist, and attain U.S. citizenship. 

When the U.S. entered World War II, my father was drafted, proud to be both an American citizen and an ally of China. His 4F status, however, had him serving not on the battlefield, but in Chicago’s shipyards, building military vessels. It turned out that his short stature and nimble physique were ideal for climbing the tall masts and iron ladders of the war ships. Like the Chinese laborers who carried and lit dynamite sticks to blow up mountains while building the transcontinental railroad in the nineteenth century, my father got tagged for the terrifying daredevil tasks. Once, high up on scaffolding, he slipped, but miraculously broke his fall by landing on a fat man. As kids, my siblings and I laughed raucously each time he said “fat man,” signaling the happy ending of this oft-told family tale. 

After WWII ended and it was safe to cross the Pacific again, my father returned to China to find a wife. Miscegenation laws in the U.S. prohibited marrying a Caucasian woman, and in any case, he wanted to marry a Chinese woman, someone who would speak his dialect and share his cultural background. With the help of a traditional matchmaker or go-between, he met a well-educated schoolteacher who would become my mother; they wed, dazzling the village with the kind of pomp and splendor that only a paper son who had saved up his coins from “Gold Mountain” could afford. They honeymooned throughout Guangdong and soon became parents. In early 1949, with China’s destiny on the brink of revolution, my father returned to the U.S. to start a business in Los Angeles. That September, my mother and I sailed on the SS President Cleveland to join him, immigrating as family members of a bona fide naturalized American citizen. 

Family portrait taken in Hong Kong in 1948 of Siu Fong Yu Wong and Moon Tung Wong (then known as Fook Gooy Wong), with Suzi on her mother’s lap.

In the U.S. our dad lived warily, knowing that in Chinatown if one paper son misspoke, other false relatives could be implicated and deported. My father never forgot that he was walking around with a target on his back. At wedding banquets and holiday gatherings in the Toisan community, raids by immigration officers looking for illegal residents and rumors of slip-ups and loose lips sinking ships were frequent topics of conversation.

Hey, did you hear that Lee Jung Wah got caught? 

Yeah, they say Lee’s “cousin” ratted on him. But, hah! The immigration police turned on him, too, and now they’re both going back to China . . . their families, too.

What bad luck! You mean, that idiot was on the same paper as Lee?

Real bad luck! You just can’t trust the fools you’re related to these days.

The adults cursed, laughed, and furtively looked over their shoulders in the crowded restaurants. We kids took advantage of our parents’ distraction to pour ourselves 7-Up and spin the lazy Susan to grab more peanuts from the table. Why should we care about poor, exiled Mr. Lee? Why, we were the Wongs! As second-generation Chinese Americans, we were confident and naïve, shielded from our immigrant parents’ hardships and fears. We never imagined that our family tree, with its branches of invented aunts and uncles, also stood on precariously shallow roots. 

We never knew that like the unlucky Mr. Lee, our father, too, had resorted to subterfuge to sidestep racist U.S. immigration policies. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first immigration law to discriminate against a specific race and nationality, made it nearly impossible for Chinese to enter the United States. The Exclusion Act was enforced so punitively that even legitimate immigrants and American-born citizens of Chinese descent hesitated to leave the U.S. for fear of being barred upon their return. For nearly a century, the law tragically separated families and caused anguish on both sides of the ocean. Some of the sojourning men in the U.S. started second, sometimes secret families; others lived and died in the loneliness of bachelor hotels or boarding rooms. The Exclusion Act, the culmination of decades of xenophobia and anti-Chinese violence, remained in full force until 1943, when the U.S. and China became WWII allies. Only then, due to wartime exigencies, did Congress repeal all exclusion acts against the Chinese. In a further accommodation, a new policy was established to allow a trickle of 105 Chinese to immigrate each year. 

But where there’s a will, there’s a way; from 1882 forward, thousands of Chinese immigrants, determined to escape poverty and corruption in China, found ways to “legally” enter the U.S. These strategies came at a price: in addition to the financial cost of bribes and fees for false names, false families, and fake IDs, the Chinese immigrants paid dearly in loneliness and loss of identity. After passing the gauntlet in Angel Island, my father continued to live in the shadow of the memorized “alternative facts” about his bogus brothers and aunts and uncles. He could never let down his guard and be “himself.” He could never completely trust fellow Chinese or tell his children his true name. On the large storefront window of our parents’ laundry on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, my siblings and I saw the elegant red and silver letters proudly spelling out frank wong chinese hand laundry. We figured the laundry was named after Dad, but never suspected that “Frank Wong”—the nineteen-year-old Fook Gooy Wong who had fooled the Angel Island agents—existed only on paper. 

Our family lived with that invented name for decades. Then, the Immigration and Nationality Acts of 1952 and 1965 modified the nationality-based quotas that had so severely restricted immigration from China. Around that time, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) instituted a program that offered amnesty for “aliens” and fictitious citizens like my dad. If they voluntarily “confessed” to their fraud, they were promised the right to stay in the U.S. and after five years of “legal” residency, the right to apply for citizenship; of course, in exchange, they were obliged to divulge details of their false papers and thus point the finger at other paper sons and false relatives. This controversial deal further damaged trust in the Chinese American community and ruined friendships across the country. 

My father was among those tangled in the web of connected confessions; the false brother from my father’s second Angel Island entry chose to confess, and ultimately, Dad followed suit. He owned up to his deception, surrendered his citizenship, received a green card, and reclaimed his true name, Moon Tung Wong. Then, the domino effect of that policy hit the rest of the family. My mother and I lost our U.S. citizenship, which had been based on his false citizenship. I was in high school when I suddenly became a “resident” and had to carry a green card. Eventually, I passed my citizenship test and became a naturalized citizen. Ironically, years later, I gained another citizenship; living and working in Canada in the 1990s, my husband, daughters, and I became dual citizens of the two North American countries. 

Sometime during the Canada years, in my late forties, I flew from Toronto to visit my widowed mother in California, a visit that coincided with the funeral of a distant relative from the same village as my family. It was here, near the gates of the Evergreen Cemetery in East L.A., that my sharp ears caught a scrap of information I was never supposed to learn. 

As I got into the back seat with my mother, Uncle Wong started the car. He was not my blood relative, but we kids were trained to address nearly all my parents’ friends from Toisan as “Uncle” or “Auntie,” honorific titles that nicely covered ambiguities about family relationships. Uncle Wong had recently retired from his laundry business, but had not yet become the go-to buyer for Oriental Silk Export and Import on Beverly Boulevard (a glamorous, late-life enterprise that far exceeded the success of his laundry days). In this brief period of free time, he generously chauffeured my mother to various events and errands in Chinatown. He had picked us up at our house in the drab borders of Hollywood and would bring us back after the funeral.

Looking over his shoulder as he backed out of the parking lot, Uncle Wong asked off-handedly, “What’s a Toisan neu like you doing in Canada?” I answered that I was teaching at the university, like my husband, and our daughters were doing well in high school. Then, it struck me: Toisan neu—didn’t that mean “girl born in Toisan?” I laughed and corrected him, “But, Uncle, I’m not a Toisan girl. I was born in Hong Kong.” Now it was his turn to laugh. “Really?” He laughed again and turned to look at my mother. “You haven’t told her? You know very well she’s from the mainland.” Then he emphasized, “Just like us, born in the village.”

Now I looked at her, too, “Ma-ma, zhun hai ma?” I begged for clarification. “Really? Truly?” She made a sound, half cough, half giggle, and looked down at the large patent leather purse sitting in her lap. She fiddled with the gold clasp and glanced sideways at me, vigorously shaking her head. Instead of following her signal to drop the subject, I pursued it. In a voice loud enough to be heard in the front seat, I asked, “I’m not really a Toisan girl, am I?” She said, “We’ll talk about that another time. Let’s just thank your uncle for the ride. He’s so kind, isn’t he?” It was code for “Shut up, girl! Save face. Don’t embarrass me.” Uncle cleared his throat, discreetly winked at me from the rearview mirror, and drove on. He knew a thing or two about saving face and keeping secrets, too.

After he dropped us off, I picked up on the thread of conversation. As we snacked on leftovers for lunch, I asked again, “What was Uncle talking about? Why did he call me a Toisan girl?” She quickly replied, “Oh, he was confused. He doesn’t know everything.” I could tell she was peeved . . . at him and at me. Having kept the secret for so many years, she wasn’t about to confess. I reminded her that I had a copy of my birth certificate, which clearly stated I was born in Hong Kong. In fact, I remembered the French name of the street I was born on, Des Voeux Road. “Isn’t that true?” She nodded and said flatly, “Yes, that’s what it says.” But I persisted, “So how come back there, Uncle said I was born on the mainland, in the village?” She repeated, “He doesn’t know everything.” And to end the conversation, she carried our bowls to the sink and started washing them vigorously and loudly. I couldn’t get her to say more on the topic for the rest of that visit. A few days later, I flew back to Toronto, clearing customs with a U.S. passport that clearly declared Hong Kong as my birthplace.

Many years later, my brother Eddie called, announcing excitedly that he had huge news for me. “Hey, Suzi, did you know”—he paused dramatically—“you weren’t born in Hong Kong!” According to Eddie, the admission came out of the blue. He and Mom were looking at old photo albums from our childhood when she divulged the secret, affirming that I was born on the mainland, in Toisan.

Political strategist, historian, and documentary filmmaker that he is, my brother applied his skills and drilled down to get the whole story from Mom. I think she was probably glad to finally get it off her chest. “So, what did she say about the birth certificate?” I asked. Eddie related that apparently, my parents had gone to Hong Kong with their infant daughter just as soon as mother and child were healthy enough to travel. A doctor and friend of the family was willing to state that I was born in Hong Kong, a British Crown Colony. He signed an official birth certificate for me. And just like that, I became a British subject, born under the far reach of the Union Jack.

I was stunned and even felt a little betrayed by their lies, but I got it! The more I pieced together my parents’ strategy, the more my admiration and respect grew. I put myself and my husband in their shoes; would we, as brand-new parents caught in the crosshairs of history, have had the ingenuity and foresight to come up with such a bold plan? In 1948, U.S. immigration policy operated on a “per-country” quota system that disadvantaged Chinese by limiting immigration from China to 105 persons a year. At the same time, however, the policy allowed thousands of folks from Great Britain to enter the U.S. annually, including a generous reserve of generally unused slots from the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong. By obtaining a birth certificate for me in Hong Kong, my parents had proactively and preemptively secured our future immigration to Gold Mountain. Thanks to my contrived status as a British subject, all three of us would get bumped up in the immigration queue and be guaranteed passage across the Pacific whenever we wished. Given the turmoil in post-war China with the imminent ascendancy of the People’s Republic likely to trigger a break in diplomacy with the U.S., my parents’ exit strategy was brilliant. As it turned out, the ability to leave China sooner rather than later made all the difference in their destinies and mine. For that opportunity, I would gladly and gratefully masquerade as a Hong Kong native, born on old Des Voeux Road in Kowloon.

“What about the birthdate on the paper?” I asked Eddie, mentioning the date on which we had celebrated my birthdays from childhood on. “No, no, not June,” Mom told him. “June 2nd is just the day we went to see the doctor in Hong Kong. Anyway, he couldn’t change the date on the birth certificate because he had to have a witness on the certificate, someone in his office.” Eddie, of course, asked the obvious follow-up question: “So, what’s her real birthday?” but Mom was evasive. “Oh, sometime in April . . . I don’t remember now.” She added, “It was a long time ago.” “Gee, thanks, Mom,” I thought to myself, as Eddie cheerfully wrapped up the call with a “Well, that’s about all.” 

But for me, there was more to the story. No longer a Gemini? I couldn’t believe it! Uncle Wong was right, after all: I am a Toisan native. I could accept that, but it was much harder to give up my Gemini identity. After years of blowing out birthday candles on June 2nd, I thoroughly bought into the zodiac icon of the Gemini twins. In my teens, I read the daily horoscope for Geminis before making plans and decisions. I believed everything I read about the typical Gemini: witty, charming, spontaneous, lively. Geminis are supposed to be good artists, linguists, diplomats, and journalists; while I was none of the above, I’d had several careers employing the typical Gemini’s skills in communication, relatability, and diplomacy. I thrived on multi-tasking, spinning projects and full plates mid-air with the Gemini’s renowned ambidexterity. I even instinctively loved opals and agates, the precious stones assigned to Geminis by astrological tradition. I couldn’t fathom the idea of identifying with the personality traits of an Aries or Taurus or wearing diamonds or emeralds, the gems associated with April babies. In mid-life, I wanted to remain a Gemini, even if I had to hang on to my fake ID like my dad, who readily signed “Frank G. Wong” with cursive flair on documents, checks, and even his watercolors.

Growing up in the sixties, when “What’s your sign?” was the popular greeting, and one’s sign was used as a clue or shortcut to decode personality, this duplicity in birthdays plagued me and muddled my perception of “self” for a while, until a dear friend set me straight. She, who has celebrated many a June birthday with me, said, “Hey, Suzi, having two birthdates is no problem. In fact, isn’t that perfect for a Gemini?!?” She elaborated, “You know the zodiac symbol for your birthday is the Gemini Twins, representing Castor and Pollux, mythological twin brothers; their two stars in the same constellation represent the dual personality of a Gemini, someone who is often contradictory but also very compatible and open-minded.” She concluded, “Actually, a Gemini should have two birthdays! Go ahead and have two cakes!” I laughed at the possibility of biting into a creamy Red Velvet Cake and a tangy Lemon Chiffon on my next birthday. By the way, my wise friend just happens to be a Gemini, too—a genuine one.

I’ll soon celebrate another birthday, but as years go by, there is no talk of reparations for the many thousands of lives derailed and diminished by the outright racism of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (at least, not yet). It would probably take a mathematical genius to calculate a just compensation for the bigotry that lynched civilians in Los Angeles Chinatown in 1871 and a decade later turned that hatred into the Chinese Exclusion Act, sanctioning practices that barred generations of immigrants, dishonored family bonds, and perverted family names into secret genealogies. As the immigrant daughter of a paper son, I grew up ambivalent about my identity: not white enough, not Chinese enough, eyes not round enough, speech not idiomatic enough in either English or Chinese; I’ll always struggle against those early habits of double-thinking and second-guessing myself. At college, however, after being educated about the omission and/or misrepresentation of people of color from the American history books of my childhood, I understood more about the systematic undermining of selfhood, mine and that of other peoples of color. I claimed my Asian American identity and the status of being “other,” along with the challenge of fighting injustice, racism, and other forms of inhumanity.

Once I accepted the truth about when and where I was born, the fossilized errors on my driver’s license became meaningless. I gave myself license to freely identify as the paper son’s fierce daughter and embraced my lineage of made-up histories, make-do tactics, and make-it-new immigrant lives. Through extraordinary courage and determination, my father had overcome insults and obstacles to attain success; he worked long hours in his laundry to provide his family a safe home and his children the opportunity to rise above and beyond his own achievements. I loved him, feared him, rebelled against his authority, and inherited his prominent cheekbones and quick temper, but I never wanted to be like him. Yet we were twins, one generation apart, with our fake IDs, our fraudulent immigrations, and our intertwined secrets. 

In 2010 and 2013, long after my father passed away, I visited Angel Island and got a glimpse of his hidden history. The Angel Island my father knew in the early twentieth century had been “civilized” into a state park with well-maintained trails and inviting picnic areas, yet its very remoteness (accessible only by public ferry or private sailboat even today) made it easy for me to imagine my father’s utter isolation as he withstood the bitter winds that whipped the eucalyptus trees and penetrated the paper-thin windows of his barracks that winter of 1929–30. These same bungalows where he slept, ate, and mentally rehearsed his false persona were slated for demolition in 1970, but saved through the efforts of Asian Americans, descendants of immigrants, and other people in the community who valued the history of the site; the Angel Island Immigration Station was declared a National Historic Monument in 1997. Coming full circle in fulfillment of karmic justice, my brother Eddie served from 2008 to 2012 as executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, the nonprofit organization that spearheaded the restoration and transformation of the abandoned site into a living landmark that raises awareness about the immigration experience and its confrontation with racism and hostility.

Strolling across the expansive grounds, I saw signage for the buildings and commemorative monuments, such as the Immigrant Heritage Wall where my siblings and I placed a plaque to honor our parents. The barracks were clean and freshly painted, but as I walked between the bunk beds, noting the yellowed newspapers, cardboard suitcases, hanging laundry, threadbare blankets, and vintage furnishings replicating the detainees’ experience, I immediately felt the misery and despair that led some detainees to commit suicide and others to write on the walls. Throughout the decades, immigrants had carved poems and inscriptions on the only canvas available to them. The Chinese characters, precisely cut into hardwood and plaster, spoke of loneliness, deprivation, anger, humiliation, and heartache. The authors of the surviving poems (many others had been painted over or erased by administrators who, unable to read the poems, called them graffiti), may well have expressed my father’s feelings, too. However, he chose to repress the trauma and never revealed what happened to him on Angel Island. My brother petitioned for my father’s immigration records from D.C., so we have copies of the x-rays of his hands as well as the transcript of his second interrogation. But when asked to elaborate on that daunting time, my father exercised his right to remain silent: “I don’t want to talk about it.” 

Regrettably, because he also so cleverly managed to take to the grave the secret of my Hong Kong birth certificate, I never had the chance to applaud him for his victory over the Chinese Exclusion Act or thank him for making my own immigration so easy. But one way I can express my gratitude for his strength and resilience is to remember his journey and to celebrate him, not only with the two cakes each year for me, but cakes throughout the year for his children, his grandchildren, and now, his great-grandchildren whom he never met but had the audacity to dream of and make citizens of his adopted home. Against all odds, my father (by any name) made good on that flimsy piece of paper granting him entry to Gold Mountain.


Suzi Wong lives near the mountains in Altadena, California, with Jed Rasula and their greyhound, Brownie. Her writing has been published in Gidra, Amerasia Journal, and East Wind and has been broadcast on CBC Radio in Canada.