Establishing and maintaining a family in the shadow of Chinese exclusion: a case study of the Fong family of Santa Barbara County, California.

Author:Fong, Colleen

Even before the nascent labor movement's charge of "The Chinese must go!" the federal government in 1875 passed the Page Act, which essentially barred Chinese women from entering the country. (2) Seven years later, at the height of the anti-Chinese movement, it passed the first of a series of Chinese exclusion laws, barring the entrance of laborers and their wives. (3) One result was a highly skewed sex ratio of nearly twenty-six males to one female by 1890. Contrary to the contemporary image of Chinese (and other Asian) Americans living in close-knit, multigenerational households, the vast majority of Chinese men lived as "bachelors" in the United States until the 1920s when families began to emerge, largely among merchants not prohibited from immigrating or from bringing wives. (4)

Laborer Jin Fong departed from this bachelor pattern by establishing a family in the United States by 1904 when he married Wong Lon Ying, a Chinese immigrant who resided in the Presbyterian Mission Home for Chinese girls and women in San Francisco (hereafter Home). (5) Jin and Lon Ying raised their eight children (born between 1905 and 1923) in rural Santa Barbara County, where they farmed into the 1950s and became known as Jim and Nellie Fong (see fig. 1). Jin Fong and Wong Lon Ying are my paternal grandparents; my father, Samuel (1923-2013), is their eighth child.

This paper will describe the lives of Jin Fong and Wong Lon Ying from roughly the 1860s to the 1950s. By exploring how and under what conditions they were able to meet and marry during an era when U.S. immigration policy intended to prevent Chinese families from forming, I will show how ordinary Chinese women and men did extraordinary things to challenge Chinese patriarchy and pursue more democratic, "companionate" family patterns.

The skewed sex ratio and competition for scarce wives both exaggerated Chinese patriarchal family patterns and created opportunities for Chinese women to challenge those patterns. Chinese immigrant men fiercely competed with one another over Chinese women; sometimes this escalated to a conflict between two Chinatowns amid accusations of "stealing" women. Chinese immigrant women, for the most part free from in-laws and other social controls that would have been present in fully formed immigrant communities, resisted traditional patriarchal households when they wrote to Christian missions located miles away, reporting abuse at the hands of their Chinese husbands/fathers/masters and asking for help to escape. Both immigrant Chinese women and men appealed to mainstream U.S. ideals of fairness, justice, and civil rights in various aspects of life, including relationships between husbands and wives. Both men and women also asked White allies and institutions for support when it was in their interest, and aligned themselves with mainstream gender and family ideals as the companionate marriage bargain emerged out of late Victorian America. What developed was a uniquely Chinese American gender system and type of marriage that reflects the contradictions between "mission ideals, gender systems, racial hierarchies, and economic pressures." (6) Although centered in Santa Barbara County, this study includes sketches of Chinese women and men in other western locales, including San Francisco; Port Townsend, Washington; and Butte, Montana, as I trace family members' points of entry and migrations.

This study is part of a larger research project comparing the Fong family to another Santa Barbara County family, which was comprised of a laborer father and a former Home inmate mother who was biracial Chinese-White. In contrast to the Fong family, which remained intact and resided on the same farm for more than forty years, the Chun family (7) moved from place to place and dissolved after ten years of marriage, when the wife ran off with another Chinese laborer (ca. 1913) and the husband, to whom the court granted custody of the children, placed them in the San Francisco Home where their mother previously had lived. (8)


Jin Fong was born around 1872 and emigrated from Mun Low village, Sunning County, Canton, with his uncle on the steamship Gaelic (9) There are conflicting reports on the year of immigration; Jin's "Certificate of Residence" (essentially an "internal passport" required of Chinese laborers (10)) indicates June 1878, before the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which would make the entrance of a laborer perfectly legitimate. (11) But in his 1911 testimony for a duplicate Certificate of Residence--Jin Fong claimed his wife inadvertently burned the original--he states he immigrated in 1888, (12) after exclusion, which raises the question, How was he able to enter the United States as a member of the excluded class? Jin Fong may have entered the country through the use of a false identity, as approximately 90 percent of Chinese did, (13) yet this did not dissuade him from applying for and receiving a duplicate Certificate of Residence.

The entrance of the Chinese into Santa Barbara County dates back to the 1860s when the "traditional Mexican pastoral economy was being replaced by Anglo-American capitalism" and Chicanos were becoming an increasingly smaller proportion of the population. (14) By 1870 most Mexicans were being displaced numerically, economically, and politically (15) from a local rancho/subsistence agricultural economy. Except for a small group of elites who were representatives of prominent rancho families (Californios), Anglo-American capitalism relegated most Mexicans to unskilled laboring jobs like the Chinese. But whereas the Mexicans were a displaced labor force who were present before the Anglos entered, the Chinese came to the United States expressly to labor. Chinese comprised only 12 percent of the state's population but fully 25 percent of the workforce in 1870. (16)

Chinese male laborers were commonly employed as domestics, laundry workers, farm laborers, servants, and construction workers by Whites like William Welles Hollister, who migrated to the area in 1868 from San Benito County (17) and actively became involved in developing the region using Chinese labor. "Every settlement of any size at all [in Santa Barbara County] soon had a Chinatown. Boats and stagecoaches to Santa Barbara were almost never without Celestial passengers." (18) Anglos perceived the Chinese as hardworking and hired Chinese laborers instead of Mexicans, whom they perceived as "backward" and "idle." (19) Santa Barbara historian Walker A. Tompkins (1966) disparages other groups, including Whites, to explain how and why Hollister used Chinese labor:

Local paisanos were utterly incompetent, and the available Yankees in Santa Barbara were what Hollister termed 'bummers,' many of them veterans of Stevenson's New York Regiment, who were even more slothful than the laziest Indian. Finally, in utter disgust, Col. Hollister boarded the coastal sidewheeler Orizaba for San Francisco, where the manpower pool was swarming with coolies fresh from China ... Hollister, who for the rest of his life would be a vigorous exponent of Chinese labor, returned to Santa Barbara with 30 pigtailed coolies whom he installed on the Glen Annie to do everything from housework to field work, at a fraction of the wages an American would demand. (20) But the Anglos also abused and exploited Chinese workers. In the mid-1870s anti-Chinese agitation was heating up in Santa Barbara. In May 1876 a demonstration called for the end of Chinese immigration and a boycott of Chinese establishments, and by 1879 a chapter of the Workingman's Party had been established. In the same year the Weekly Press was pleased to report, "Chinamen are leaving here nearly every day ... there is not more than half the Chinamen in Santa Barbara than there were a year ago." (21) According to Camarillo, by 1880 "only 227 Chinese remained" in the county and Anglos tolerated them because many had "embraced the missionary efforts of various Protestant sects." (22)

Like many Chinese laborers, Jin Fong started out as a domestic servant, working as a cook for Santa Barbara dentist H. W. Moore, but he resided at the Presbyterian Mission at 1024 Santa Barbara Street rather than with his employer. (23) In 1902 Jin Fong moved to Lompoc to farm. His move coincided with the economic recovery after the end of the worst drought in years. (24)

In 1904 Jin Fong traveled to San Francisco to marry Home inmate (25) Wong Lon Ying, who was between seventeen and nineteen years old. Most of the Chinese women who lived in the Home were formerly prostitutes and mui tsai, (26) many of whom had been legally purchased in China from the girls' fathers. Elizabeth Sinn argues that the selling of daughters was normalized: "The use of the term ming mai, ming mai, meaning open, legitimate purchase and sale (of persons), with written documents confirming the transactions, clearly indicates the wide acceptance of the system." (27) Maria Jaschok includes deeds of sale in her appendix of Concubines and Bondservants: A Social History of the Chinese Custom. (28)

Living in the Presbyterian mission in Santa Barbara in the early 1890s probably enhanced Jin Fong's chances of obtaining Lon Ying as a bride from the Home. Home officials approved of the union, as evidenced in the 1905 Annual Report: "Rescued from Butte City, Montana, a few years ago, a little heathen servant maid, she [Lon Ying] now goes out as the Christian wife of a Christian husband, and begins married life under the most favorable circumstances." (29)

Home officials believed that the inmates in the Home were not innately immoral, but were the victims of circumstance or unscrupulous Chinese men. Once placed in a stable Christian environment and taught domestic skills, mission women believed Chinese women could become moral authorities in their own marriages and homes. Imbued with moral authority in the private sphere, these wives would render...

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