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Contact: Ted DeAdwyler
phone: (415) 338-1665

Early immigrants from Taishan come to life in a new book by S.F. State professor

SAN FRANCISCO, March 1, 2001 --- Many Chinese Americans can probably remember someone in their family mentioning a great-grandfather or a distant uncle who came to America to make a living while his family stayed behind in China.

These men --- even after working endless hours in menial jobs and sending most of their earnings back home --- were barred by immigration laws from bringing their wives and children to America during the era leading up to World War II. It would be years --- if ever --- before the families were reunited.

A new book by an assistant professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University sheds light on the struggles of these early immigrants and their lives in two nations: the United States and China. "Under very trying circumstance these men found better economic opportunities for their families and they created communities that were both Chinese and American. It was never one or the other," said Madeline Y. Hsu, author of the book "Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home" (Stanford University Press).

Hsu, an expert on immigration history in America, spent nearly seven months in China combing through Chinese language gazetteers, newspapers and magazines. She interviewed elders both in China and in the U.S. on their recollections of long distance marriages that spanned the Pacific Ocean.

Hsu, who earned her doctorate from Yale University, said her grandfathers inspired her work on transnationalism and migration. Her maternal great-grandfather came to America to start a grocery store in a rural town in Arkansas in the Mississippi Delta region. His son, Hsu's grandfather, later joined his father to run the business, one of the few places that local blacks could buy goods. After relaxation of immigration laws, Hsu's grandfather sent for his wife and daughter, Hsu's mother. "I would hear about these stories in my family for as long as I could remember," Hsu said. "I imagine that many other Chinese Americans may have heard the same stories, but we didn't learn much about the hardships both economic and emotional that they faced."

Hsu's book centers on the coastal county of Taishan (Xinning), where more than half of all Chinese in America came from until 1965. The migration of men to America began in earnest in the mid-19th century as the gold rush brought an unprecedented need for cheap labor. Taishan, located in southern China, was a largely rural community with little economic opportunity. The land was unsuitable for farming and bloody ethnic conflict forced more and more men to travel to the United States to support their families. Once in America, they toiled long hours in laundries, restaurants and Chinatown stores for little money, but they made more than they could have in China. They remained alone in the U.S. and were best able to support their families by remaining away. Despite separations that sometimes lasted decades, family and homeland ties remained strong.

S.F. State's Hsu said that the men endured that lonely existence because of their concept of family. "They believed that once the family bond was formed it would not be broken. And they were a family even though they were thousands of miles apart and it would be years before they would see each other again. It is hard to imagine an existence like that today but many families made it work. A prime motivating factor was to give their families better standards of living back in China. That is, they could most benefit their dependents by working away from them," the researcher said.

Hsu interviewed one woman in China who was known as a "grass widow," a woman living without her husband. Some grass widows continued to receive support but others did not. Social mores demanded that a woman marry only once, even if abandoned by her husband. After being married for only 10 months, the woman's husband traveled to the United States for work. He returned nine years later. But the arrangement had worked out just fine for her. "My husband loved me and my father-in-law always gave me the money," she told Hsu.

While in China, Hsu met a remarkable centenarian and his 80-year-old son. Mei Shiming had come to America in 1922 at the age of 38, leaving behind a wife and five children. Living alone, he worked as a laundryman to send money back each month. His wife was illiterate and could only respond by placing her thumbprint on letters written by their sons. He didn't returned to Taishan County until 1984, more than six decades later. He was then 100 years old and reunited with his 98-year-old wife and four surviving sons and daughters.

In exchange for a traditional family life, the men were able to send back enough money to allow their families to build some of the most expensive homes in Taishan. Also the men would send money to help build schools and roads in the county. "The men were able to create a way of life their families would have never known. They created a sort of upper class in many communities," Hsu said. For a Gold Mountain wife, a good marriage consisted of receiving a steady stream of letters and enough money to build a new house, educate children and perhaps buy land.

But there is another side to the story of the bachelor communities in America, Hsu points out in her book. Sometimes family ties faded. Men lost jobs and were too ashamed to come home or others simply remarried after arriving here. And some men returning to China discovered that their wives had been unfaithful.

Despite the prospect of loneliness, discrimination and hard work, more men wanted to come to America although they faced immigration barriers with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

S.F. State's Hsu reveals in her book that the search for "Gold Mountain" also contributed to illegal immigration from China to the United States. For example, one common practice to grow out of the era was known as the "paper son system" or the slot system, a practice even today not widely known outside of the Chinese American community.

Under the system, which flourished in the early 20th century, men seeking citizenship but who did not have birth certificates could document their birth in the United States by corroborating statements from neighbors. Once citizenship by birth was established they could send for their sons in China, real or not. In many cases, Hsu said, the men would sell their immigration slots, creating a "paper" son who often had to work years to pay off the debt.

Hsu said that by adapting existing networks of kinship and native place, the Chinese developed informal yet effective strategies for defying the immigration bureau at its own record keeping system. But it came at a price. "The taint of that crime cast a shadow over the Chinese American community beyond the years that the Exclusion Law was enforced. Chinese did not feel safe relinquishing the paper identities and false statuses under which they immigrated for fear of being discovered and deported," she said.

Hsu said time has now changed Taishan, a county of nearly a million residents, most of whom have family abroad. As opportunities for Chinese in the United States have expanded, Taishan has lost its appeal. Immigration laws changed so that more immigrants in general can come to the U.S. through family reunification. "Where once the laws enforced separation, now it is possible to have families live together in the country with the greatest stability and opportunity," said S.F. State's Hsu.

Note to editors: To contact Madeline Hsu, assistant professor of Asian American Studies at S.F. State, call Ted DeAdwyler of the SFSU Public Affairs Office at (415) 338-7110.

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