The Saga of First Journey to U.S.

The journey of my father to the U.S. started in the summer of 1921 when he was not yet 15 in his home village of Gock Chung Village, Taishan County, Guangdong Province in Southern China. It started with sadness by saying farewells to his mother, grandmother, older brother and new sister-in-law, and younger sister. He didn’t know that it would be another nine years before he would see them again. But in the day it took to travel downriver from Guangzhou, the big city near Taishan, to Hong Kong, the sadness of goodbyes was replaced with the excitement and opportunities of looking forward to a new life in America. He was also meeting a distant older cousin from Taishan who was returning to Providence, Rhode Island on the same ship, a cousin with whom his life would later intertwine.

My father King Tow (or Jew King Tow which is the phonetic translation of his Chinese name 曹朝敬) boarded the ocean liner Empress of Russia in Hong Kong. The Empress of Russia was built by the Scottish Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company near Glasgow, Scotland for the London-based Canadian Pacific, owner of the Canadian Pacific Railway and also one of the world’s largest Atlantic and Pacific ocean-crossing steamship companies. The ship made stops in Shanghai, Kobe, Yokohama, before landing in Vancouver, Canada on July 11, 1921. This journey would be quite an eye opener for a young teenager going away from home for the first time in his life. He then took a train from Vancouver, arriving in Boston on July 22, 1921 to meet his father who was then living in Providence, Rhode Island. The long approximately 10-day train journey from the West Coast to the East Coast must have been exhilarating and at the same time intimidating for a young boy who didn’t quite speak English.

My grandfather is Deep Sam Tow, also known as Cho Chit Sam depending on which Chinese dialect is used to pronounce his Chinese name and the corresponding choice of phonetic translation; Cho and Tow are just different phonetic translations of his Chinese family name which is listed first in a Chinese name. My grandfather had been living in the U.S. since 1908 as a merchant, involved mostly in the restaurant business, primarily in Providence, Rhode Island. He recognized the importance of higher education and with the modest income he was then making in the U.S., he thought that he could support one of his sons to achieve that objective, and he wanted his son to be educated in the U.S. Since his first son was already a married adult, he applied for a merchant’s son visa for his second son, my father, to come to Providence, Rhode Island.

Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act that was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1882, which was the only law in American history to deny citizenship or entry based on a specific nationality, there were a lot of restrictions that applied to the immigration and livelihood of Chinese only, and there was no analogous law that applied to people from any other country. The only Chinese who were allowed to visit the U.S. were teachers, merchants (including their sons), students, diplomats, and tourists. These restrictions included:

  • Very few Chinese were allowed to immigrate to the U.S.
  • Chinese immigrants were no longer allowed to become U.S. citizens
  • Women, including wives of Chinese living in the U.S., were not allowed to immigrate to the U.S.
  • Chinese were not allowed to testify in courts
  • Chinese were not allowed to enter into many professions. Few notable exceptions were restaurant and laundry business, partially because in the gold rush days in the West there was a lack of women to cook and to do laundry
  • Many other restrictions, such as barring Chinese from owning land or property and marrying whites.

Originally the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was supposed to last for 10 years, but it was extended several times and actually more restrictions were added with the extensions. The Chinese Exclusion Act reflected and encouraged a discriminatory mindset of white America toward the Chinese. This mindset resulted not only in discriminatory treatment of Chinese in terms of immigration policy, but also more importantly and more dangerously resulted in physical attacks, tortures, and murders of many Chinese and Chinese communities in the U.S. Here is an incident described in the book The Chinese in America by Iris Chang, Penguin Group, 2003: “… in the Snake River Massacre of 1887, which the historian David Stratton calls ‘one of the worst, yet least known, instances of violence against Chinese,’ thirty-one Chinese miners in Hell’s Canyon, Oregon, were robbed, killed, and mutilated by a group of white ranchers and schoolboys intent on stealing their gold and cleansing the region of their presence. A federal official who investigated the crime called it ‘the most cold-blooded, cowardly treachery I have ever heard tell of on this coast, and I am a California 49er. Every one of them was shot, cut up, stripped, and thrown into the river.’ Apparently some body parts were kept as souvenirs; according to Stratton, ‘a Chinese skull fashioned into a sugar bowl graced the kitchen table of one ranch home for many years.’ After the state identified the murderers, only three were brought to trial – and all three were acquitted.”

The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943, more than 60 years later, when the U.S. and China were then allies in WWII. Actually the discrimination against the Chinese in terms of immigration laws was not completely repealed until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, another 22 years later.

My father, being a son of a merchant and coming to the U.S. to study, was given a visa. Upon his arrival in Boston on July 22, 1921, he was united with his father whom he hadn’t seen since he was a two-year old toddler almost 13 years earlier. It must have been a most joyful and heart-warming reunion for a father and son who really didn’t know each other, and had been separated by about 7,000 miles with perhaps only a letter or two of communication per year. But that was not the end of his immigration saga to the U.S. That joy of reunion was tempered knowing that the reunion may be short-lived if they do not pass an upcoming interrogation test.  I remember that my father had mentioned to us many times about this interrogation. He said that it was very easy to fail the interrogation even for an honest applicant, and it was really unfair because the questions were so detailed and tricky.

On August 15, 1921, my father and grandfather had to appear at the Boston immigration office for interrogations that would determine whether my father would be allowed to stay in the U.S. or be sent back to China. While sitting on a bench in that immigration office waiting for his interrogation, stories flashed through his mind of boys who had been refused entry after arriving in the U.S., such as when a boy did not remember who lived in the fifth house to the left of his house on the same street. That boy was sent back to China. He was also repeatedly recalling what he needed to remember in order to pass the interrogation test, fully realizing that one false move or a lapse in memory could evaporate all the dreams, opportunities, and aspirations circling in his mind during the last many weeks.

Why the interrogation? As the name of the act implies, the purpose of the Chinese Exclusion Act was to exclude Chinese from immigrating to the U.S.  So the immigration laws and procedures were designed to make it especially difficult for Chinese to be allowed to come to this country.  So all kinds of obstacles were created to block such entry.  It didn’t matter that the laws and procedures discriminated against a specific type of people based on race.  It is interesting to note that the great 1906 earthquake in San Francisco created a loop hole for some Chinese to get around the restrictions.  The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the subsequent fire nearly destroyed the entire city, including the buildings holding official government documents and files, such as birth records and immigration records. As a result, a number of Chinese would claim that they were the sons of other Chinese who were U.S. citizens, resulting in the so-called “paper son” phenomenon.

The interrogation was in front of three inspectors, an interpreter, and a recording clerk. Based on the transcript from the Immigration Service (then under the U.S. Department of Labor) in Boston, Massachusetts, my father was asked 38 questions.. A Brown University Asian Studies researcher retrieved the interrogation transcript for us from the National Archives Office in Waltham, Massachusetts. The inspectors asked many detailed questions, making it very difficult for a fake applicant to pass and very easy even for an honest applicant to fail. They asked questions such as: Describe your father’s parents and mother’s parents, when is the date of your brother’s marriage, describe your village, how many houses in your row, is there any building opposite to your small door, who lives opposite your large door, how many houses in the 4th row, who lives in the 5th house in the 4th row, who lives in the 7th house in the 4th row, where did you get your drinking water? [1]

In a separate session later on that day, my grandfather was also interrogated. He was asked 45 questions, with many identical questions. Any discrepancy between my father’s answers and my grandfather’s answers was grounds for rejection.

Fortunately, my father passed the interrogation test, and he was allowed to stay in the U.S.


[1] One might wonder how did the Immigration Office get such detailed information about the neighborhood of our family.  They had several sources:  (a) from the information in my grandfather’s various applications with the Immigration Office, (b) from previous oral interrogations of my grandfather, (c) from information gathered from others’ applications and interrogations, keeping in mind that most of the immigrants from China at that time were from that county Taishan.  That was why even until the late 1950s and early 1960s if you went to Chinatown in New York City or San Francisco, most of the Chinese there spoke the Taishanese dialect, and (d) from Chinese or Chinese Americans working as translators at the Immigration Office.

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3 Responses to “The Saga of First Journey to U.S.”

  1. Don – Thanks, very informative. Great that you can get these records and bring this history alive for us!

  2. Rich Braverman says:

    Don—I enjoyed this history of the difficulties the Chinese faced in coming to America. My father’s father had an easier time when he arrived in 1912 in Taunton, Mass. My father arrived in 1913 at age 17 having completed high school in Russia. He passed the exam for entry into M.I.T. in Boston. In 1920 he graduated with a degree in Chemistry. But applying for work at DuPont and Dow Chemical he was denied employment because he was a Jew. He never had a chance to work in the field of chemistry.

    Thanks as always. You do a great job.


  3. Qingyan Zhao says:

    Thanks for this short documentary. Even though I knew the discrimination against Chinese immigrants in American history, it is still eye-opening for me to see your family experiences in such great details, it is almost dramatic. And I have to say you are a very talented writer — very simple, plain in language, but very focused, and full of emotion and imagination!! I enjoyed it!

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