Chinese migration to the United States and especially California began towards the beginning of the gold rush. As the gold rush died down and big industries began to monopolize the gold mining with larger and more mechanized means, the Chinese immigrants began to fluctuate towards the railroad. Finally, however, even the railroad work ended and the immigrants moved into the cities where there were jobs in industrial factories.
San Francisco was one of these cities and the S.F. Chinatown which had already been established was building rapidly in population. Most of the Chinese immigrants at this time were male and gathered in the Chinatown stores to hear news of families and friends in China.
The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake
In 1906 an earthquake hit San Francisco. Chinatown was only one of the places struck by the earthquake’s devastating effects. Buildings crumbled and collapsed as fires began to spread through the city. The city’s records were caught in these fires and much of the municipal and birth records were destroyed in the ensuing disaster.
A Change in Chinese Immigration to the U.S.
When the birth records were burned proof of birth and citizenship were destroyed along with the documents. Chinese immigrants and Chinese American alike were left without proof of their births within or without the borders of the United States. This left a possible opening to immigrants and many began claiming birth in America with false birth records. Thus immigrants became citizens that could bring in their wives and children. A large influx arose of Chinese immigrants that were flooding into the San Francisco harbor and into the city.
At this large influx there were many complications of paperwork and proofs of citizenship. Some of the young men flooding into the country were “paper sons” and had bought papers from other families in order to gain entry into the country. These were not legal citizens or even the actual sons of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, but simply men who bought the papers of those individuals. To weed out these young men from the actual rightful citizens Angel Island became a central immigration stopping point.
There, immigrants were detained in barrack rooms and gave them medical checkups. These individuals also had to pass oral exams to prove their identity. Questions were as mundane and strange as ‘how many steps up to your house’ or ‘do you have a dog?’ One thing is for sure, tens of thousands passed through Angel Island on their way back to China or into America where their dreams of the future were still shining bright.
- Takaki, Ronald T. Strangers from a Different Shore: a History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998. Print.