Campus: San Francisco State University -- March 05, 2001
Early Immigrants From Taishan Come To Life
In A New Book By S.F. State Professor
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.