Moon Chin languishes in an INS gulag

Joe Chin wasn’t alone in having his citizenship minted in the San Francisco earthquake. Thousands of other Chinese had seized the same opportunity, and like Joe Chin, at long intervals those men returned to the villages, wives, and families they’d left in China. And when they returned to the United States, nearly every one of them registered a child with American authorities. Human biology immediately raised the suspicions of U.S. immigration, for men returning from China registered more than four hundred sons for every daughter. Legitimate immigration paperwork had extraordinary value, if not for one’s own son, then for another boy in the extended family. It could also be sold for an excellent profit. The INS found it difficult to discern true descendants from fictitious offspring, and every Chinese boy coming to the United States in the 1920s was jailed in detention facilities and subjected to grueling interrogations designed to expose the “paper sons.”[1]

The INS assigned Moon Chin a bunk in a room with about fifty male Chinese inmates, some of whom had languished in “detention” for more than a year. A lone window relieved the crushing monotony, and Moon passed hours perched on its sill, peering through glass and bars at the marvels of Seattle harbor, watching fishing boats, tugs, freighters, ocean liners, warships, and pleasure craft maneuver in Puget Sound, and trucks, longshoremen, trolleys, and trains bustling on the waterfront. A strange whiteness capped the mountains on Vancouver Island that reared into view beyond the sound. Moon Chin had no idea what it was. A stranger in confinement explained snow.

One day, Moon Chin heard a coarse, rapid-fire thunder coming through the window, a sound like nothing he’d ever heard. Moon wormed through the legs of the gathered adults and pressed his face to the glass. A black machine with wings, a tail, and floats flew across the sky! It banked close to the detention facility, and Moon clearly saw a man inside, perched between two sets of wings. Moon was transfixed. He’d never seen anything like that in Wing-Wa Village.

Immigration allowed Moon to see his father once a week. Each time, Joe Chin brought his son an apple and fresh clothes. Moon lingered in detention for almost six weeks. Finally, a jailer marched him to a cell in another part of the facility where three khaki-clad officers wearing jackboots and pistols suspended from Sam Browne belts sat behind a long desk and subjugated the boy to a half-hour interrogation with the aid of a Cantonese interpreter. The tall, glowering men were the first “foreign devils” with whom Moon had ever spoken, and his future depended on his answers. His father had warned him not to be tricked into mentioning either of his older siblings, but aside from that subject, Moon did his best to answer the questions as naturally and truthfully as he could. A single slip or inconsistency, even over something as trivial as the number of rooms in the family home, could cause the officers to reject the boy and return him to China.

The interrogators told Moon nothing when the interview ended. Moon didn’t discover that he’d been officially certified as a US citizen until he was released to his father two or three days later. Joe Chin took Moon straight to a shoe store and bought him his first pair of American-style shoes.

Tomorrow: the economic opportunities in a place called Baltimore.

[1] 400 sons for every daughter: Chang, Iris, The Chinese in America, pp. 147.



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