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

Continued from yesterday, part 3 of 3…

At 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, the San Andreas Fault ruptured off the coast southwest of San Francisco, triggering a monstrous earthquake that hammered the city for 45 seconds, collapsing and toppling buildings. Fires sprang up in the wreckage, and the many small conflagrations burned together until they’d merged into a massive flaming maelstrom that raged for three days, devoured 490 city blocks and left 225,000 people homeless. As many as 3,000 people died in the twinned catastrophes.[1]

Chinatown was devastated. Most Chinese survived the disaster with nothing besides what they’d physically carried from the flames, but the apocalyptic devastation held a surprise benefit for poor, working-class Chinese who’d been denied the opportunity to naturalize by the Exclusion Acts of the last three decades – among the 28,188 destroyed buildings were San Francisco’s City Hall and the Hall of Records. The quake-sprung fire had incinerated the city’s birth and its citizenship documentation. Like thousands of Chinese all over the United States, Joe Chin swore he’d been born in the ruined city. The immigration service couldn’t prove otherwise, and United States v. Wong Kim Ark made them all American citizens.[2]

Thus minted a citizen, Joe Chin worked in the United States for another six years, sending money to his family in China all the while. In 1912, he returned to Wing-Wa village to see his wife, daughter, and the nine-year old son he’d never met. His wife became pregnant again during his visit, and 9 months later, under mosquito netting attended by a midwife, she gave birth to a third child, a son they named him Moon Fun Chin.

Soon after the birth, Joe Chin returned alone to the United States. He couldn’t take his family because his two older children would destroy the post-earthquake fiction he’d built with the U.S. immigration. However, when he reached U.S. soil, Joe Chin announced to American authorities that he’d married and fathered a son while in China. Joe Chin was an American citizen, and any child he fathered, anywhere in the world, automatically qualified for citizenship. Moon Fun Chin may have been born in an obscure South China village, and he may have learned Cantonese ten years before he ever heard English spoken, but he was born an American citizen  – courtesy of the San Francisco earthquake.[3]

Tomorrow: Moon Chin finally meets his father — at age ten.

[1] Chang, Iris, The Chinese in America, footnote to page 146: “Between 1855 and 1934, a child born abroad legally gained U.S. citizenship if his father was a U.S. citizen at the time of the birth, and had lived in the United States before the birth.”

[2] SF earthquake; also, Winchester, Simon, A Crack at the Edge of the World.

[3] Moon Chin’s story of his father obtaining U.S. citizenship in the earthquake: author’s interviews with Moon Chin; Chang, Iris, The Chinese in America, pp. 145-147, corroborates the fact that many Chinese obtained American citizenship after the San Francisco Earthquake; as does Winchester, Simon, A Crack at the Edge of the World, pp. 343-350.

(Winchester is a superb writer, I highly recommend his books, particularly The Map that Changed the World and The Professor and the Madman, both bestsellers. A little more obscure, but relevant to my work on China’s Wings, is The River at the Center of the World, about the Yangtze. Iris Chang is also good, and I suggest both The Chinese in America and her Rape of Nanking.)



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