As Eddie Wong grew up in Chinatown, his mother would often point out people on the street and whisper, “Look, there’s your false auntie!” or “That’s your false uncle!”
It wasn’t until Wong was in college that he really fully understood the situation. His father had been a “paper son,” faking an identity as an American citizen’s son so he could navigate through the thick barrier of the federal Chinese Exclusion Act and escape the extreme poverty of his youth.
Like thousands of other immigrants of the time, the first steps Wong’s father took on California soil were on Angel Island, where he was detained and interrogated. Because of the exclusion law, only children of Chinese-Americans who had been born in America were allowed to immigrate. He and other paper sons memorized dozens of facts about their adoptive families, and were forced to lie and say they had been conceived by the American citizens when they were on a trip to visit family in China.
Wong said his father found the experience horrible, and that he succeeded in convincing his interrogators that he was telling the truth. They finally allowed him off Angel Island, and he was welcomed into San Francisco by a family he did not know.
For decades afterward, he was burdened with a secret identity, perennially afraid that he would be deported if the wrong person found out the truth.
“Because he had this secret that he was carrying, we had a father with three names — his American name, his paper name and his real name. Different people would call him different things,” Wong said. “We didn’t know what to think of it.”
The story is not an uncommon one, and it is one of many that will be remembered today at a ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Angel Island Immigration Station. The event will include a ceremony in which 100 immigrants will take the oath of allegiance to the United States and officially become citizens.
“The overarching theme is going from exclusion to inclusion,” said Wong, who serves as director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.
The event is being held at Herbst Theatre rather than Angel Island because of the poor weather.
State park interpreter Casey Lee, who lives on the island, said stories like that of Wong’s father are important to remember.
“A lot of people know about Ellis Island and not so many people know about Angel Island,” she said. “I imagine that many of the participants that will be sworn in [at the ceremony] would not have been allowed to be sworn in 100 years ago because of the country they’re from or their background, and I think that really shows we’re moving ahead.
“I think acknowledging those immigrants of the past is done very well by acknowledging the people who are doing the same thing today, joining the fabric of the country.”
100 on the 100th
What: 100 people will become naturalized U.S. citizens on the 100th anniversary of the Immigration Station at Angel Island
When: Today, 10 a.m.
Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave.