A rare, first person account of an experience shared by thousands of Chinese
One Man's Story
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Tung Pok Chin with Winifred C. Chin, introduction by K. Scott Wong
Listen to an interview with Winifred Chin on WBAI's Asian Pacific Forum, 8 April 2003.
Outstanding Academic Title, Choice, 2001
In this remarkable memoir, Tung Pok Chin casts light on the largely hidden experience of those Chinese who immigrated to this country with false documents during the Exclusion era. Although scholars have pieced together their history, first-person accounts are rare and fragmented; many of the so-called "Paper Sons" lived out their lives in silent fear of discovery. Chin's story speaks for the many Chinese who worked in urban laundries and restaurants, but it also introduces an unusually articulate man's perspective on becoming a Chinese American.
Chin's story begins in the early 1930s, when he followed the example of his father and countless other Chinese who bought documents that falsely identified them as children of Chinese Americans. Arriving in Boston and later moving to New York City, he worked and lived in laundries. Chin was determined to fit into American life and dedicated himself to learning English. But he also became an active member of key organizationsa church, the Chinese Hand Laundrymen's Alliance, and Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Associationthat anchored him in the community. A self-reflective and expressive man, Chin wrote poetry commenting on life in China and the hardships of being an immigrant in the United States. His work was regularly published in the China Daily News and brought him to the attention of the FBI, then intent on ferreting out communists and illegal immigrants. His vigorous narrative speaks to the day-to-day anxieties of living as a Paper Son as well as the more universal immigrant experiences of raising a family in modest circumstances and bridging cultures.
Historian K. Scott Wong introduces Chin's memoir, discussing the limitations on immigration from China and what is known about Exclusion-era Chinese American communities. Set in historical context, Tung Pok Chin's unique story offers an engaging account of a twentieth-century Paper Son.
"What a stunning book! Mr. Tung Pok Chin was a self-taught poet philosopher steeped in the Laundries and restaurants of Boston and New York City during the nightmarish years of the Chinese exclusion and McCarthy red-baiting. He writes with a penetrating insight that transports the reader into the working lives of isolated men trying their best to survive a hostile racist world while somehow saving pennies to support their loved ones still in Guangdong. This is far more than the story of one man: he is writing the truth of generations of paper sons and paper daughters."
"For scholars and students, Paper Son is valuable because it documents a life during an era that is perhaps the least studies in Chinese American History, the 1930s through the mid-1970s….Chin's account not only reveals the details and strategy of how he conducted his 'paper life'; it also puts human flesh to our skeletal knowledge of how papers sons lived their day-to-day lives during the Great Depression, World War II, and the McCarthy Era…. Chin's memoir relates this information in a manner that is immediately accessible, warm, reflective, human, and insightful. No doubt his writing style reveals a great deal about his personality, but it also reminds us that much of our history of the exclusion era is faceless."
Read a review from The Journal of American Ethnic History, Winter 2002, written by Erika Lee (pdf).
"Having read a number of autobiographies and biographies of Asian American that came before me, Paper Son reaffirms the notion that we are lucky to have not gone through what they had experienced.... At this time when [the Asian American Curriculum Project] is trying to promote new Asian Pacific American poets and their writings, it's good to be featuring a book on one of our community's pioneering poets."
Preface Winifred C. Chin
Part I: The Early Years
Part II: Gold Mountain Dreams
Part III: Becoming American
Postscript Winifred C. Chin
Winifred Chin is a Research Affiliate with the Asian/Pacific American Studies and Research Institute at New York University.
In the series
Asian American History and Culture, edited by Sucheng Chan, David Palumbo-Liu, Michael Omi, K. Scott Wong, and Linda Trinh Vő.
The "standard" written histories of Asian immigrants to the United States have been imbued with Western cultural biases. As a critique and corrective to earlier work, Asian American History and Culture, edited by Sucheng Chan, David Palumbo-Liu, Michael Omi, K. Scott Wong, and Linda Trinh Vő, aims to develop a history of Asian Americans that is compatible with their own experience, that treats Asian Americans as agents of historical change and as creators of a new culture. In addition, this series intends to focus on the groups that are flourishing in the contemporary U.S.Filipinos, Koreans, Vietnameseabout whom little has been written as well as to add to the substantial work done on the Chinese and Japanese in this country.