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Chinese-American Descendants Uncover Forged Family Histories

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Chinese-American Descendants Uncover Forged Family Histories

Chinese-American Descendants Uncover Forged Family Histories

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Consider how you'd react if you discovered that your last name is fake. Many Chinese-American are confronting this. Their families came to the United States before World War Two, when the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese laborers from entering the country. The law, repealed by Congress 70 years ago today, prompted tens of thousands of Chinese to use forged papers to enter the U.S. illegally. Their descendents are still uncovering the truth.

Here's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang.

WILLIAM WONG: My name is William Wong.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: So, Wong, is that technically your true family name?

WONG: It is not.

WANG: William Wong says, even as a child, he knew Wong was his last name on paper only. It was the name his parents had to buy because his mother emigrated from China during the Chinese Exclusion Act, pretending to be his father's sister.

WONG: We knew when we were growing up in Oakland's Chinatown that we were a Gee family.

WANG: One of thousands of families made up of paper sons and daughters, called that because they were the children of Chinese-American citizens just on paper, fraudulent papers with false names.

FELICIA LOWE: Kam Saw Kwan was her assumed name.

WANG: Felicia Lowe's mother was a paper daughter who was born in China and came to America in 1937. She impersonated an American-born Chinese girl who, unbeknownst to immigration officials, was already dead. Lowe's father lied, too: A paper son who legally reclaimed his real family name, Lowe, when Felicia was six.

LOWE: It was absolutely confusing. My father explained it was for business reasons, but how could any six-year-old know what that means?

WANG: You think your father wanted you to know everything you found out?

BYRON YEE: I think that he probably did not.

WANG: Byron Yee began researching his father's family history almost two decades ago. It helped inspire his one-man stage show called "Paper Son."

YEE: It was a game. Coming to America was a game. And the Chinese knew they were playing a game, and the Americans knew they were playing a game.

WANG: Growing up in Oklahoma, Yee didn't know much about his father. He had died when Yee was just 11 years old. But after piecing together documents from his father's old immigration file, he discovered that his father arrived as a teenager in Boston, where he claimed his eldest brother as his paper father.

YEE: Some of these things were based on truth and some of these were lies. And I think that's part of why the Chinese never really talked about it, because they don't want to talk about the lies.

WANG: Lies that for many Chinese immigrants were the key to opening America's golden door, held shut for more than half a century by the Chinese Exclusion Act - the country's first and so far only federal law to shut out an immigrant group based on nationality. The tight restrictions against Chinese immigration were finally lifted in 1965. Decades later, many of the descendants of paper sons and daughters are still driven to know the truth, including Felicia Lowe.

LOWE: I know for me, it's become extraordinarily meaningful just so that I can set the record straight within my own family.

WANG: William Wong thought he had the record straight until he recently spotted conflicting names in old documents, which led to more questions. He asked his sisters...

WONG: Are we sure Pop was legal? Or was he truly a paper son?

WANG: The family story, and the story told to immigration officials, was that Wong's father was the real son of a Chinese-American citizen, and that his grandfather was born in San Francisco. Now, even that is suspect. William Wong says he's proud of being a Gee, so proud that seven years ago, he had the Chinese character tattooed in red on his left bicep.

Now at age 72, he's planning to change his name legally to William Gee Wong.

Hansi Lo Wang - no relation, I think - NPR News.

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