"We Were Real, So There Was No Need to Be Afraid": Lum Ngow's Long Detention on Angel Island

By Yung, Judy | Chinese America: History and Perspectives, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

"We Were Real, So There Was No Need to Be Afraid": Lum Ngow's Long Detention on Angel Island


Yung, Judy, Chinese America: History and Perspectives


An earlier version of this story appears on the website of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, www.aiisf.org, under "Immigrant Voices."

On February 5, 1935, thirteen-year-old Lum Ngow [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and his mother, Ow Soak Yong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], arrived in San Francisco from China on the President Taft. They had come to join his father, Lum Piu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a merchant who ran Lun Kee [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a Chinese poultry market and deli in Oakland Chinatown. Family members of the merchant class were exempt from the Chinese Exclusion Act, and they should have been admitted into the country. Instead, mother and son were detained on Angel Island for eighteen months, fighting a legal battle to prove they were in fact the son and wife of Lum Piu. (1) At issue was a major discrepancy between their testimony and that of other witnesses regarding the wedding date of Lum Ngow's parents. As Lum Ngow (also known as Lee Show Nam [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) explained to me seventy-five years later,

   Before my aunt [Mo Shee [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] came to
   America with my uncle [Lum Yun [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] in
   1921, they knew she would have to answer questions from the
   immigration bureau, like when did your brother-in-law [Lum Piu] get
   married? And if he had married, there would be more questions, like
   where is the wife from, what Ls her surname, how many were at the
   wedding, who introduced diem, did she ride in a sedan chair, and so
   on. To avoid all these kinds of questions, she was told to say, "My
   brother-in-law is not married." But they did not tell my father
   that was what she said at the interrogation. So when we arrived,
   they saw that her interrogation records had said my father was not
   married when she left China for America. Yet my father had said he
   got married in 1920 and was sponsoring his wife and son to come to
   America. So it was all wrong!

      In those days, things were very crooked. Someone told my father
   he could give a $350 bribe to get us admitted. (2) My father said,
   "$350 is a lot of money. I could buy a new Ford automobile for that
   amount." So he didn't want to pay that much money. He thought there
   was nothing to fear since our papers were real. So he took it to
   court instead. The appeal process took eighteen months, during
   which time 1 lived there on Angel Island. In the end, the appeal
   failed, and my mother and I were deported back to China in 1936.

It was not until 1958 that Ow Soak Yong would be admitted into the United States and not until 1963 that Lee Show Nam would be able to bring his family and join his parents in America. By then he was forty-two years old and had suffered through the hardships of the Sino-Japanese War and the Communist takeover of China. Still, he was not bitter, for he had persevered and in the end attained his goal of making his home in Gold Mountain.

I met Lee Show Nam at the annual Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation gala in 2009 and knew right away that I should interview him. (3) He looked much younger than his age (eighty-seven) and he obviously had a great memory for details about his long stay at Angel Island. He attributed his robust health and jet-black hair to his chi gung [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and liu tung quan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] exercises as well as his stoic attitude toward life: "I don't let things get to me." By then I had done a considerable amount of research about Chinese immigration through Angel Island, including over fifty oral history interviews with former detainees. (4) Lee told me things that I had not heard before about the Zizhihui [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Self-Governing Organization, founded by Chinese immigrants on Angel Island), the smuggling of coaching notes, the "dark room" or isolation cell, and the role of Donaldina Cameron, matron of the Presbyterian Mission Home, in helping immigrants get landed. …

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