How the SF earthquake made Moon Chin a citizen, Part I

Moon Chin was born on April 13, 1914 in Wing-Wa Village, a tiny hamlet in the undulating coastal lowlands of Kwangtung Province about 60 miles up the Pearl River from Macau and a half a day’s walk west of the riverbank — a place so obscure that it didn’t have its own store. Moon wouldn’t hear English spoken until he was ten years old, but he was born an American citizen courtesy of the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

In order to understand how that came to pass, one has to jump back a generation to Chin Kwok-tung, Moon Chin’s father, who was born in 1880. Around the turn of the 20th Century, Chin Kwok-tung married a young woman from the nearby Toi clan, the result of a rigorous inter-family negotiation mediated by a professional matchmaker. As was customary, he didn’t lay eyes on his bride until the wedding. In 1902 or 1903, Chin Kwok-tung anglicized his name to Joe Chin, left his infant daughter and pregnant wife, and crossed the Pacific Ocean crammed into the steerage hold of a side-wheel steamer, one of the tens of thousands of impoverished Chinese men who had left South China in the last fifty years and sailed to the United States, lured to Gum Shan, the “Gold Mountain,” by stories of easy-made wealth and wide-open opportunity. Some of which were actually true. A few Chinese had struck riches in the California Gold Rush; others staked land and made money in agriculture; some began successful business ventures. The vast majority didn’t enjoy such good fortune, however, but the United States did afford them opportunity to work hard, and for the most part, to retain their earnings.[i]

In harsh western conditions, Chinese labor had proved to be a foreman’s dream. Between 1864 and 1869, more than ten thousand Chinese men worked sunrise to sunset, six days a week, braving landslides, blizzards, and avalanches in the Sierra Nevada and withering heat in the Great Basin deserts to hack, shovel, chisel, drill, blast, and carry the hundreds of thousands of tons of earth and rock necessary to build the western half of the transcontinental railroad, 690 miles of Central Pacific track laid east from Sacramento, California to Promontory Point, Utah. From 1870 to 1885, thousands of Chinese men mucked through thigh-deep tule swamps constructing the levees, dikes, and drainage ditches that converted five million acres of the Sacramento River Delta into productive farmland. In other parts of the country, Chinese immigrants worked in mines, canned salmon, opened shops, restaurants, and laundries . Chinese labor contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the economic development of the United States and they did it for wages their Caucasian counterparts considered unacceptable.[ii] The Chinese are “quiet, peaceable, tractable, free from drunkenness, and as industrious as the day is long,” wrote Mark Twain in Roughing It in 1872. “A disorderly Chinaman is rare,” he continued, “and a lazy one does not exist.”[iii]

Part one of three, to be continued tomorrow… Here’s Part II

[i] Joe Chin’s history and details of Moon Chin’s early life: Moon Chin’s Oral History; author interviews with Moon Chin, September 10, 2004, September 17, 2004, July 15, 2005; telephone follow-ups in the summer of 2005; Moon Chin isn’t sure exactly when his father first came to the United States. He thinks 1902 or 1903 is most likely. The majority of overseas Chinese hailed from South China: Bixby, Harold M., Topside Rickshaw, Chapter VI, pp. 59; author’s interview with Moon Chin, September 17, 2004

[ii] Transcontinental Railroad statistics: Chang, Iris, The Chinese in America, pp. 53-64; five million acres reclaimed in the Sacramento River delta: Chang, Iris, The Chinese in America, pp. 72-73. Chang’s book is excellent. I also highly recommend her Rape of Nanking, an important but extraordinarily disturbing book. Chang’s website.

[iii] Twain, Mark, Roughing It.



  1. Let me know if/when you come up to do that, Don. I’d be interested in going over to check that out, too. You’re welcome to stay here, too, as I only live about 10 miles from West Oakland. Oakland’s chinatown is pretty great, too.

  2. Thanks for the great post. It reminds me of our own family history. My great grandfather was born around 1880 also, although it’s not exactly clear because of course his immigration interviews may or may not have been accurate, and dates may have been changed as a result of the SF earthquake. I wonder if Moon Chin’s dad ever encountered my great-grandfather or great-great grandfather, Lew Hay Gum (our patriarch, who was the first in our immediate family to immigrate to the US). His uncle was the first relative to come over, and he made it well here. First becoming a foreman of a mine I think, and then going into business for himself. However, his contribution to the economic development of the U.S. was not one of the examples you listed above. I’m embarrassed to say he ran a brothel!

    1. You’re welcome, Don, and I love how it mirrors your own family’s experience. And you should be proud of your brothel-running ancestor… considering the 400 to 1 ratio of Chinese men to women in the United States at the time, his service might have been more critical than you’re crediting. He must have made a fortune, too. :-)

      Thanks for commenting. Hope you’ll keep checking back in. I’ll have a lot more to say about Moon Chin in the coming weeks.

        1. I’m a little bit in awe of what the Chinese-American community endured while establishing themselves in the United States, Don.

          1. So am I Greg. One of the things I learned from our family history was that one of the reasons my great-great-grandfather was able to remain in this country was because he was employed at one of the major canneries of his day, Pacific Canning Co. in West Oakland. The company was owned by fellow clan member, Lew Hing, a pioneer in canning and the major employer of Chinese in SF. Pacific Canning supplied much of the canned foods for WWI troops.
            If I get the time, I’d like to go visit the remains of the canning factory which has been converted to condominium lofts.

    1. Glad to hear it, Julie. I’ll have the next two installments of the story over the next two days. (Love your email addy, btw.) Cheers, GC

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