by Estelle T. Lau. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. 232pp. Cloth. $74.95. ISBN: 9780822337355. Paper. $21.95. ISBN: 9780822337478.

Reviewed by John S.W. Park, Department of Asian American Studies, University of California at Santa Barbara. Email: jswpark [at]


At the beginning of her volume about immigration during the Chinese Exclusion period, Estelle T. Lau states: “The analytical scheme [of this study] seeks to reveal how the continual interactive and responsive dialogue between the immigration service and Chinese immigrants helped create an arena in which the surveillance powers of the state and the identity of one immigrant group were mutually constructed” (p.4). To examine the details of this dialectical process, Lau studied “a random selection of San Francisco Chinese immigrant files . . . chronologically. A random selection of twenty files was taken at ten-year intervals by archival storage box.” These archival records – drawn primarily from the National Archives collection in San Bruno, California – have formed the bases of similar studies of Chinese Exclusion, including excellent monographs by Lucy Salyer, Xiaojian Zhao, Erika Lee, and Mai Ngai. Because Lau’s work contains detailed analyses of several specific immigration cases, as well as the responses of immigration officials to entire family histories and narrative, her book is an important contribution to the scholarly literature in this field. And yet the book’s most central argument is supported by a relatively few cases – one believes that Lau is right, even as one would like to see more evidence to support some of her broader conclusions.

Chapters 1 and 2 review familiar materials about Chinese immigration from the mid 19th to the mid 20th centuries. After state efforts to regulate Chinese immigration, many of which were held unconstitutional, the federal government passed the first of several Chinese Exclusion Acts in 1882. Although these rules exempted merchants, students, and other privileged classes, they clearly attempted to stop the migration of all Chinese laborers. The principle of exclusion against Asians would be extended and maintained in American public law until 1965, but the rules both did and did not succeed, depending on one’s point of view. By 1950, Asians were less than 1% of the American population. Still, “studies of illegal Chinese immigration have shown that over one-quarter of the Chinese population in the United States in 1950 had entered under false pretenses as derivative citizens” (p.23). In addition to lawsuits, strikes, and boycotts against exclusionary immigration laws and other formal modes of harassment, the Chinese often evaded their way into the United States through elaborate systems of collective misrepresentation.

Chapter 3 is precisely about “entry despite exclusion.” In UNITED STATES v. WONG KIM ARK (1898), the Supreme Court had held that Chinese born in the United States were citizens [*757] under the 14th Amendment. Moreover, “another loophole in the law . . . held that children of US citizens, regardless of birthplace, were eligible for citizenship and, thus, immigration. Taking advantage of this loophole, US citizens of Chinese descent would create fictive or ‘paper’ children whose kinship status could then be used by others who would be otherwise ineligible” (p.36). “At the most basic level . . . we find that Chinese immigrants manipulated the names and ages of immigrants and family members and took advantage of missing information to create kin where none existed.” (p.41).

Because immigration inspectors soon came to expect that all prospective Chinese entrants were lying, they developed elaborate systems of interrogation. Surely, they surmised, true kin would know the layout of their village, the number and order of children in the family, or whether they had kept a pet. In response, Chinese immigrants wishing to enter illegally developed even more elaborate fictive networks and relationships. The inspectors replied with still more interrogation. “The sum of this spiral was to fix, over time, the stories the Chinese had to remember about themselves and their ‘kin’ with immigration regulators” (p.60). Confiscated notes and letters were easily several pages long, sometimes containing the dullest minutiae.

But those who could successfully get in still found that they sometimes needed to repeat the same lies, or in some cases, live a lie. Having someone lie for you, even if you paid them for it, still created obligations, meaning that one might need to show up at another immigration hearing for another “relative.” “Extended family and other clansmen were necessarily involved in the sale of family slots and family histories and in the supply of witnesses” (p.65). In a strange way, it was like getting a new set of relatives: “Once established in the United States, relocated family members formed a new community that could help arriving immigrants meet their basic material needs as well as provide a family culture and ambiance” (p.66).

Inspectors who saw “members” of the same family repeatedly developed methods to determine who or was not a legitimate immigrant. Bureaucratic “shortcuts” were common: inspectors relied on early biometrics – the Bertillon system, for example, to measure body parts and thus verify identities. Documents were useful, until successful forgeries made them less reliable. And testimony or letters from white people could speed the entry of an immigrant, even though they did not necessarily speak directly to issues of identity. More importantly, though, there was the time-consuming task of comparing answers across witnesses and over time. “The coherence and uniformity of an immigrant’s answers would serve as a substitute for honesty” (p.71). Indeed, “the primary method of distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate claims by the Chinese was to carefully compare recorded statements taken during the interrogation process and to ferret out inconsistent statements” (p.105).

All of this deception had its consequences. “Chinese were forced to change their names, family histories, and [*758] personal identities to conform to immigration entry information. Moreover, they often lived their entire lives in conformity to these changes. Families were separated or joined depending on the needs of the immigration stories they told. The fictions they created for immigration purposes became part of the lived reality of Chinese life in the United States” (p.116). This is the heart of Lau’s argument, and in the set of cases she reports in detail, we get a strong sense of the unintended ways in which these immigration stories shaped people’s lives.

From 1957 to 1965, when the FBI implemented the Confession Program to find leftists among Chinese in the United States, many Chinese Americans revealed their “true” identities, and so revealed the true cost of maintaining fictions throughout their lives. For example, Mr. Lim was actually married with a child when he first landed, but he pretended to be single and the son of someone else for immigration purposes. After he entered, he returned to China, “married” the same woman again, petitioned for his wife, and then petitioned finally for his child, the same one that he had pretended not to have had when he first came to the United States. The inspectors pulled his original files and balked. How could he have such a daughter so old when he had claimed to have been single so long ago? The discrepancy meant that the daughter could not rejoin her parents; at the time of her father’s confession, “Lim Mee Hung continued to reside in Hong Kong with her paternal grandmother.” “Fiction, once officially documented, could overcome fact, turning fact into fiction” (p.125).

In the final sections of her book, Lau suggests several other legacies associated with the complicated immigration histories of the Chinese, and it is here that the book loses some of its force. For instance, Lau suggests, “while fear of detection and deportation cannot explain by itself Chinese isolation and the unique development of Chinatowns as organizations providing social and economic services, it seems like that such concerns led the Chinese to be wary of interacting with the greater population, especially with government agencies, and to develop alternative support networks” (p.135). It seems like it. Lau also notes that in surveys after World War II, most Americans still considered the Chinese inscrutable, foreign, clannish, and “not participatory.” Would these also seem to be related to the past? Again, it might seem so.

And as for the immigration service, was the sorting of Chinese immigrants the very experience that shaped it into the kind of regulatory agency that it became? In particular, Lau suggests, because these federal institutions expected to encounter persons who were lying and cheating, these very expectations became part of the institutional culture. “The practices and techniques employed by immigration officers came to form the fundamental basis for immigration regulation” (p.141). Moreover, “current immigration legislation codifies the presumption that all immigrants seeking to enter the United States do so under a [*759] veil of suspicion and may commit fraud. The burden of proof rests squarely on the immigrant to affirmatively prove that he or she falls within an accepted category for admission.” To this day, “the bar is set with the presumption to exclude rather than to admit” (p.155). Was this solely or chiefly related to Chinese Exclusion? It might seem that way.

For the most part, as a piece of socio-legal scholarship, Lau’s book succeeds in showing again that Chinese Exclusion shaped both the Chinese American community as well as the federal government. Still, as to whether Chinese Exclusion and subsequent practices of illegal entry shaped American public opinion about the Chinese, or shaped institutional practices and public law well after Exclusion – more than, say, nativism against Southern and Eastern Europeans, or against Mexicans before World War II – these are broader claims that can not necessarily be supported with the evidence presented in this volume alone. These claims tend to be distracting, perhaps stretching the evidence too much. They could be true, but Lau’s book would have been stronger had she focused on the detailed ways in which Chinese American families and communities were distorted by having to live within a law of exclusion. What is missing in the literature of Chinese immigration during the Exclusion period is more of that type of painstaking archival evidence. More of that – and less conjecture about what that evidence suggests – would have made for a much more powerful and original scholarly contribution.

UNITED STATES v. WONG KIM ARK, 169 U.S. 649 (1898)

© Copyright 2007 by the author, John S.W. Park.