Born lucky: the story of Laura Lai.

Author:Dere, Jean


"I was lucky," Laura Lai said to me one afternoon as she drove me home after we had had lunch together. "When I was born, my father decided to report that he had a daughter born to him instead of a son." What was so significant about this decision that would make Laura feel special her whole life?

By the time Laura was born, the United States had passed a number of laws that excluded Chinese from entering the country unless they were merchants, diplomats, teachers, students, travelers, or American citizens. These Chinese exclusion laws were aimed at preventing Chinese laborers and their families from entering the United States. The Chinese had been targeted by White workers and their labor organizations, such as the Knights of Labor, since the hard economic times that hit the country in the later part of the nineteenth century Anti-Chinese sentiments were later taken up by politicians. These laws included denying the Chinese the right to become naturalized citizens. The only way a Chinese could be a citizen was to be born on U.S. soil. (1) When the Chinese realized there was a loophole in the law that granted the children of U.S. citizens the right to citizenship--and therefore the right to emigrate to this country regardless of their country of birth--they found a means by which they could continue to enter this country. Chinese laborers just needed to claim they were the sons of American-born Chinese and therefore were U.S. citizens. This is how Laura's father was able to come to the United States.

After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed all written records, including immigration records, many more Chinese made the claim that they were native-born citizens. This allowed any children they claimed to have in China the right to come to America. Chinese men working in the United States would often report the birth of a son after returning from a trip to China, regardless of whether a boy or girl had been born. This practice of claiming to have sons born in China allowed for other family members to come to America or for the claims to be sold as "slots" for other people to use. This is how the term "paper sons" came to exist. Some people came over using the papers of people much younger than they were. This meant that later, when they reached retirement age, they could not retire for many more years because on paper they were younger. One estimate is that almost 25 percent of the Chinese living in the United States in 1950 had come as paper sons.

Apparently Laura's father, Tong Jung, held onto the belief that one day he could bring not only his sons but his daughter to the United States as children of an American citizen. While listening to Laura describe this untypical beginning to her life, I thought this would be an interesting story to write. Her husband, historian Him Mark Lai, had intended to write about her life one day but didn't have the chance to do it before his passing in May 2009.

I had known Laura and Him Mark Lai since I was a young child. My father was a member of the Mun Ching youth group that Laura and Him Mark belonged to in the 1950s. My brothers and I used to go with our father on his visits to their house to talk. I used to borrow books from their library When Him Mark began to work on A History of the Chinese in California: A Syllabus, he wrote everything out by hand. My father would bring home his handwritten drafts for my younger brother, Benton, and me to type. With this long history between us, I felt that I should help Him Mark finish something he didn't have time to do: write Laura's story. In October 2009, I visited Laura at her home one afternoon, and she told me the story of her life. She felt honored that I wanted to interview her.


Laura's father, Tong Jung, emigrated to the United States in the mid-1920s and worked as a laborer. He picked fruit, harvested vegetables, and worked as a cook in private homes. He told Laura that the worst job he ever had to do was harvesting asparagus because it required bending down to the ground to cut off the asparagus. Around the time of World War II, he opened a restaurant in Tracy with relatives with the surname of Tong; it was called Tong's Inn.

After working for about five years in the United States, Mr. Jung returned to China, where he got married and had his first son in 1929. He stayed in China for a year. Upon returning to California, he reported the birth of his first son and also reported that his wife was pregnant again to secure a slot for a paper son. He planned to visit his family every four to five years. However, after Laura was born on January 7, 1933, he would not see his family again for over a decade; the Depression and World War II made it too difficult.


"I was told that I was very weak when I was born. Maybe I was premature," said Laura. On the day she was born, her mother fell while carrying a knife and cutting board as she was going to prepare a special dinner for the New Year celebration. She fell two or three feet down to the concrete pavement in front of the house. Her father rushed to help her mother up. Laura was born that night.

Both Tong Jung's mother and his wife wanted him to report that a son was born. They argued that since Laura was so weak and sickly, she might not even live to grow up, much less go to the United States. They argued that claiming a boy would save a slot for someone else to go as a paper son, or maybe even for a future son-in-law to go, and was more practical. Mr. Jung's mother and wife could only see reporting the birth of a girl as wasting a slot. But Laura's father was firm in his decision to report that he had a girl.

Because of the money Mr. Jung sent home, the economic situation of his family in China was secure. Laura recounted, "My mother never bought jewelry with the money. She only bought land, one piece at a time as she saved up money." They rented out the land to be farmed, and the family was able to afford servants to help in the house. Her mother's management of the household and finances kept the family well fed even when other people in the villages went hungry.

Laura's mother also provided support to three other families. Laura recalled with pride, "She also helped my father's older sister's family and her own older sister and older brother's families with food and money She helped keep all three families from starving in the nearby villages where they lived. So my mother did a good job helping these close relatives." Those were extremely difficult times in China. The 1930s had brought rampant inflation, food shortages, government corruption, the Japanese invasion of China, and war. (2)

When Laura was old enough, she was sent to school with her older brother. The village had no formal school, only a school that was set up in a temple. Laura did not enjoy going to school. Instead she would go off with the servants to dig for oysters or go up the mountains to pick fruit. Laura said her mother was not concerned that she did not always attend school: "She didn't care because I was a girl. Whether I had education or not, eventually I would get married and be in somebody else's family."

Laura always felt this attitude was unfair. "My mother thought more of boys than girls, and her treatment towards me was almost the same as for the servants. My mother would often scold or spank me, and I would cry. I would get out my frustrations by crying and talking with the servants, and they would also complain and cry, and we would cry together."

Not being very healthy since birth, Laura was always very skinny and weak. One thing she remembered from her early childhood was her mother's disapproval and lack of understanding during a short period when she had a problem with wetting the bed. Her mother accused her of doing it on purpose and even suggested that she was too lazy to get up to go urinate. This accusation really stung her. "Why would I do that? It was so uncomfortable being all wet, and then all the bedding would need to be changed. I would be sleeping, and when I woke up, the bed would already be wet." Her poor health was responsible for the problem, but her mother's angry words and attitude really hit a raw spot for her.

She felt that her mother often thought she was being disobedient. "I thought I was being treated unfairly When I was much older--it was after I got married that I realized that it was not completely my mother's fault for how she treated me and preferring boys more than girls. All of China was like that, and in the whole village...

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