Open City: Blogging Urban Change
Our Forefathers Were Paper Sons
By Celina Su


In this video post, two New Yorkers talk about how the first people in their families to become American citizens were paper sons.

A bit more about paper sons:

Paper sons were especially prevalent at the turn of the 20th century in California– Hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants had arrived to participate in the 1849 Gold Rush and stayed to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. Many were also fleeing the Taiping Rebellion in southern China (1850-1864), which claimed 20 million lives. By 1880, over 300,000 Chinese immigrants (almost all men) constituted one-tenth of the Californian population. At the same time, the economic crisis after the Civil War fueled animosity towards the Chinese. Labor leaders, policy-makers, and crowds drove Chinese immigrants from mines, prohibited them from becoming citizens or marrying white folks, forcibly relocated to Chinatowns in major cities, and largely banned Chinese women from immigrating. These explicit and de facto public policies culminated in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned immigration from China.

In this context, many of the Chinese men who had already been living in the United States strategized to become “paper sons.” In the meantime, some calculated that if every Chinese-born man who claimed his birth certificate had been destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake had truly been a registered immigrant, then every existing Chinese-American woman in San Francisco at the time must have given birth to 800 sons.

The government repealed the Exclusion Act via the 1943 Magnuson Act, which limited new entries to 105 a year. (Supposedly, certain countries could emigrate the equivalent of 2% of their respective 1890 US immigrant populations each year… but according to census figures, the annual quota for China should have been over 2,000.) Many Chinese were still not allowed to own businesses or enjoy full citizenship rights until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which replaced the national quota system with one that emphasizes family reunification and applicants’ skills.

Much of the immigration from China to New York took place after 1949 and especially after 1965, when immigration laws were a bit more relaxed, and many of these new immigrants were relatively privileged, with the resources and skills to gain legal visas. While “tiger moms” and “paper tigers” get mass press coverage (and are analyzed nicely here and here), paper sons present less prominent, more complex, multi-layered stories of Chinese immigrants in the US. They come with no instructions.

(Picture used via public domain, work of the federal government, under Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.)

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About Open City
Open City: Blogging Urban Change is an interdisciplinary neighborhood blog and community project coordinated by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Five commissioned writers, called Organizing Fellows, are working with community organizations and neighborhood folks in Manhattan’s Chinatown/Lower East Side (LES), Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn to collect oral histories and interviews, offer commentary about gentrification, neighborhood change, and produce new creative work around these themes. Read more.
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CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities was formed in 1986 (formerly known as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) as a response to an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes both in New York City and around the country (which included violence by police officers against Asians).
They have two offices – one in Manhattan’s Chinatown (which houses the Chinatown Tenants Union, and the new Asian Youth in Action organizing project) and the Youth Leadership Project office in the Bronx – and have members from all over the city. Over the years, CAAAV’s main campaigns have focused on community-based organizing work rooted in Asian immigrant and refugee communities. Although their advocacy and organizing work is focused mainly in Manhattan’s Chinatown and the northwest Bronx, CAAAV’s work also touches upon larger issues (such as affordable housing, war, and immigration) shaping communities all over the world: “Our work is primarily centered around issues facing New Yorkers, but always with a global analysis.”
CAAAV’s mission is to organize and build the power of working-class Asian immigrants, refugees, and youth to change concrete conditions and participate in a broader social justice movement. In the past, CAAAV’s work included organizing South Asian taxi drivers, Korean women workers, and Filipina domestic workers. Several of these organizing projects have gone on to become their own organizations, such as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United. CAAAV’s current work focus on three different program areas: Read more.

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