Why is there such a high concentration of Asians in San Francisco?

Answer by Francis Chen:

I'd like to emphasize the early 20th Century a little bit, speaking from the perspective of a 3rd-generation Chinese-American and first-born generation Chinese/Cantonese American in the US (you'll see why below).

This history will explain why San Francisco has a historically strong Cantonese influence, and is based on hours of research I've done when I was in high school about Chinese-American immigration, stories my parents have told me about my great-grandfathers, and interactions with other third generation Asian Americans. 

I will explain:

  1. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and why the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake was a blessing for many Chinese-American and Chinese immigrants?
  2. What a paper son is, and how did they use this loophole to get around the Chinese Exclusion Act?
  3. The 1965 Immigration Act, and how this dramatically increased the amount of Chinese immigrating to the US, to the numbers we have today.

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and why the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake was a blessing for many Chinese-Americans and Chinese immigrants:

My great grandfathers from my mom's side and dad's side of the family immigrated to the United States around the early 1910s.

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act basically significantly limited the amount of Chinese Americans that could come to the United States. Unless you were a student, an important businessperson or somebody from a skilled, white collar profession, a diplomat, or you were related to somebody who was already a American citizen of Chinese descent, you could not immigrate to the United States. Note the bolded point.

However, in 1906, the San Francisco Earthquake took place:

San Francisco City Hall was pretty much damaged so badly that a lot of immigration records were pretty much gone.

However, this was good news for a lot of Chinese-Americans who were already in the US; some who were citizens and some who were not. For those who were not, they started showing up to City Hall and began claiming that they had familial ties or were related to Chinese who were citizens of the US.

For City Hall, they had no way to prove that they were right or wrong, especially since all the records were all gone. They had to take their word, and immediately, those Chinese who weren't citizens but were currently residents in San Francisco became American citizens.

What is a paper son, and how did they use this loophole to get around the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act?

Now, this began the movement of what is known as "paper sons". The video from CNN below describes it more in detail:

Basically, paper sons are fake identities that people purchase in China from American citizens of Chinese descent as a way to immigrate to the United States "legally".

Remember: in order to get around the Chinese Exclusion Act and immigrate to the US, you have to be related to somebody who is already a citizen in the United States. This was the only real loophole for most Chinese at the time. So by law at the time, these Chinese would have been considered illegal immigrants.

These fake identities usually come in stacks and stacks of papers describing everything about the family that the "fake identity" came from. On the way to Angel Island from China, it was very normal for the paper son to memorize every detail about the family. Immigration officials would interrogate you harshly:

A transcript of an actual interrogation. Note the detailed questions and expected responses the paper sons had to face:

My great-grandfather (both from my mom and dad's side of my familiy) were likely paper sons, immigrating to the United States when they were only 12-13 years old.

This is what they faced:

Not an actual picture of my great-grandfather, but an interrogation picture.

You basically have to take an identity, a last name that's different from yours. If you screw up the interrogation process and they notice you are lying, you could be sent back to China and lose your chance of immigrating to the United States.

Some facts from the CNN video:

  • Scholars say about 150,000 Chinese during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act used the paper son route as a way to immigrate to the United States.
  • 1 out of 3 Chinese-Americans today can trace their history through paper sons.
  • (not noted in the video) Many paper sons come from Guangdong province, which is why San Francisco Chinatown, for example, has historically a strong Cantonese influence. For those who know Guangdong's geography well, many came from the Four Counties area in the Pearl River Delta region,

After that interrogation, as teenagers, my great-grandfathers were able to
work as laundromats and other odd jobs in Chinatown (for my GGF in my mom's side, SF Chinatown, and for my GGF in my dad's side, New York City Chinatown).

There's a whole body of research that I won't go into in too much detail, but it was very normal for a lot of these paper sons to work long hours and send money back to their homes in China.

 In fact, back at home, this money was actually used to build schools, better homes, and infrastructure, as well as improve the businesses back at home in China. "Paper sons", despite living in the United States, kept a strong connection to their homeland, despite barely being able to see their family, and sent as much money as they could to support their families, who were extremely poor in China.

My great grandfathers, I believe in the 1930s or 1940s, went back to China once and got married to my great grandmothers.

My great grandfather from my dad's side had my dad's dad, or my grandfather. However, my great grandfather from my dad's side had to go back to New York City to continue working and sending money home. Meanwhile my great-grand father from my mom side had my mom's dad.  My great-grandfather from my moms side also went back to the US, to SF Chinatown, to continue sending money back home.

I'm not sure how many people were like my great-grandfathers, but I can tell you at the time, there were very few Chinese-American women or Chinese women in the US, because families in China were more willing to send men to do the hard work in the US.

The 1965 Immigration Act, and how this dramatically increased the amount of Chinese immigrating to the US, to the numbers we have today.

After the Chinese Exclusion Act had been repealed, President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Immigration Act. This act paved in immigrants to come from all over Asia, Africa, and Latin America, getting rid of racial "quotas" and leveled immigration to give people an equal opportunity.

This NPR article and recording describes this more in detail: 1965 Immigration Law Changed  Face of America : NPR

One key part of the 1965 Immigration Act was that foriegn-born US citizens already in the US could sponsor their families from their home countries to immigrate to the United States.

A quote from NPR:

In 1965, the political elite on Capitol Hill may not have predicted a mass increase in immigration. But Marian Smith, the historian for Customs and Immigration Services, showed me a small agency booklet from 1966 that certainly did. It explains how each provision in the new law would lead to a rapid increase in applications and a big jump in workload — more and more so as word trickled out to those newly eligible to come. Smith says a lifetime of immigration backlogs had built up among America's foreign-born minorities. These immigrants would petition for relatives to come to the United States, and those relatives in turn would petition for other family members. Demand from post-colonial countries in Asia and Africa, she notes, jumped after World War II.

My great grandfathers from my mom and my dad's side of my family were able to sponsor my dad's dad and his family, and mom's dad and his family, and in 1980s, they officially were in the United States and eventually became citizens. By the way, my great grandfathers also sponsored lots of other people in their families (Chinese family trees are huge!), and if it was not for them, a majority of my family and extended family wouldn't be in the US!

Similarly, many Chinese-Americans already in the US began sponsoring lots of their family members and other relatives at home in China to immigrate to the United States, especially from southern China.

My mom and dad eventually met in the US, and then had me and my brother. Thus, you can say that I'm a first-generation born, but third-generation historically Chinese-American.

Another wave of immigration from southern China also came from the impending 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Mainland China. Many Cantonese in the 1980s, who were afraid of the Communist influence of China coming to HK, began immigrating out of HK; for those who had family in the US, the US was one possible place to immigrate to.

For those who are interested in learning more about the Chinese-American immigration history in more detail:

FAQs – Paper Son (a more detailed look at paper sons)

Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home: Transnationalism and Migration Between the United States and South China, 1882-1943 (Asian America): Madeline Hsu: 9780804746878: Amazon.com: Books  (a great book discussing the history of Chinese-American immigrants during the Exclusion Act Era, looking at how they were both connected to the US and their homeland)

For those who want to look up their own immigration history and Angel Island records, the National Archives has immigration records, interview transcripts, available, in San Bruno, California, which is about 30 minutes driving distance from San Francisco: National Archives and Records Administration


Note: Unfortunately, I do not have access to pictures of my great-grandfathers when they were young. In fact, my great-grandfather from my dad's side did not know how to write in Chinese, as he never learned how to write in Chinese his entire life. When he sent letters back home, it was actually his friend who wrote the letters for him.

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