The U.S. banned Chinese immigration in 1882. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906, because it destroyed records, opened the door to immigrants whose only ‘family ties’ were made of paper.
By Ching-Ching Ni
January 24, 2010
For his children, the mystery surrounding Joe Yee’s past started with his name.
Growing up in Sacramento, Steve Yee, now 56, remembers piling into his father’s big Pontiac Streamliner to visit the Ong family association. The group’s members welcomed his father in a Cantonese dialect and addressed him as one of their own.
But Joe Yee never explained to his six American-born children why, if he were part of the group, his last name was not Ong. Odder still, their father claimed to be an only son, with no surviving relatives in China or America.
“For us, the question was always ‘so who are you anyway?’ ” Steve said. “There was the sense that you have no past.”
It wasn’t until years after their father’s death in 1979 that his children learned the answer to that childhood mystery. What they learned shed light on a chapter of Chinese life in California that is little known today but was key to shaping the immigrant communities of the last century.
“My father was a ‘paper son,’ ” said Steve Yee.