A Chinaman's Chance (12 page)

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
12.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

In 1887, four years after his first attempt to engage Kearney, he finally got his man. Kearney, by now a confirmed has-been and desperate for publicity, agreed to a public debate sponsored by the
New York World
. Papers from across the country sent reporters to cover the contest. What a Chinese American today notes about all the coverage is how favorable it was toward the nonwhite combatant—not just uncondescending but admiring. At one point, Kearney averred that he had nothing against the Chinese as a race; he simply opposed Chinese immigration because all Chinese had been brought “under the slavery contract system.” The
Fitchburg Sentinel
noted archly that “anyone who has read Mr. Kearney's speeches will at once see what a new and pacific departure this was from his usual line of talk” and continued the blow-by-blow dispatch:

“That is not true,” said Wong, briskly. “You cannot prove that. Can you show me one Chinaman that was brought to America on contract?”

“They all are,” said Dennis [

“I wasn't brought here on contract,” said Wong, warming up to his work. “I'm an American citizen.”

“The federal decisions are against that,” put in Dennis.

“I beg your pardon, they are not,” was Wong's calm reply. “I'm an American citizen, and I've voted for the good old Democratic ticket and sometimes for a good Republican. The Federal decisions you speak of are wrong and unconstitutional if they forbid the naturalization of Chinamen. They must be admitted to citizenship, as I was fifteen years ago, by the provisions of the constitutions made by our forefathers, and—”

“Your forefathers,” exclaimed Dennis, wrathfully, “sure, what had your forefathers to do with it? Nothing at all. You can't call the framers of the constitution your forefathers. Hah!”

Wong smiled wrathfully, but coolly, and said, “I call them my forefathers because politically they were.”

What makes Wong Chin Foo so remarkable is his fearlessness. Whereas other Chinese in America then were voiceless, he was a loudmouth; whereas other Chinese in America had learned from both the old country and the new to keep their heads down, he picked fights at every turn, gleefully. Some immigrants were Chinese in America; he was Chinese American. Wong propelled himself through the otherwise impermeable membrane that in his day had kept all but a few people of Chinese descent entirely out of the arena of public life. Wong Chin Foo was a late nineteenth-century character Mark Twain could have built a picaresque novel around: restless, democratic, ever shedding layers, always with a showman's knowing look. He was a crusader, in some ways a loner, but he broke through. He lived like a citizen.


It's the late 1990s, nearly forty years after my mother's arrival in America. She has been a widow for a few years. She has painstakingly rebuilt her life. She has managed to convert a mid-level job at IBM into a more significant one at the giant defense contractor that acquired her division of IBM. She needs security clearances in order to do this new job. She has to take a lie detector test.

My mother is earnest, without guile or pretense. Somehow she fails the lie detector. She fails it again. She gets nervous, can't sleep. Her blood pressure goes up. It has never come down. That was fifteen years ago. Eventually she passed, and she was cleared to do the work. But I for one never forgot the anxiety of that period.

Maybe that's because around that time, another Chinese American of her generation also failed a polygraph. He too had come to the United States via Taiwan to get educated and became a scientist. His name was Wen Ho Lee. He worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a government nuclear research center in New Mexico. He was quirky. He was quiet. He didn't talk much. Someone got it in their head that he was passing secrets to the Chinese, who had made sudden and surprising weapons advances. He stood accused by his peers and by fellow citizens. He was detained for nearly a year in solitary confinement.

I remember once being told by Norm Mineta, the former commerce secretary under both President Clinton and President George W. Bush, about the way the government had categorized him after Pearl Harbor and just before he was herded to an internment camp. On the forms he was made to fill out were two categories: “Alien” and “Non-Alien.” He asked, “What's a Non-Alien? Isn't that supposed to say ‘Citizen'?” No one answered.

In times of doubt and anxiety, some citizens can slip into an ambiguous status called “Non-Alien,” a holding pen of sorts. Just ask Wen Ho Lee, who, yes, had been sloppy about taking home some documents he shouldn't have but who fundamentally was not a spy. His life and name and career were all destroyed by a two-year witch hunt that played out in the media.

What my mother experienced, when she failed her polygraph, had nothing to do with suspicion of espionage. But her experience made me realize that with her face and accent and history, she might always be presumed foreign until proven otherwise. Not so Chinese but not quite American. In between, perpetually.


Excerpts from the interrogation of Wen Ho Lee by FBI agents in Santa Fe, March 7, 1999, as reported in
My Country Versus Me
, Lee's memoir, authored with Helen Zia:

: Look at it from our standpoint, Wen Ho. Look at it from Washington's standpoint. . . . You have an individual that's involved in the Chinese nuclear weapons program. And they come to your hotel room, and they feel free and comfortable enough to ask you a major question. . . .

: Uh, mmm.

: And then in 1994, they come to the laboratory and they embrace you like an old friend. And people witness that, and things are, are observed, and you're telling us that you didn't say anything, you didn't talk to them, and everything points to different than that.

: Well . . . (sighs).

: So, you know, I mean, it's, it's, it's an awkward situation that I, I can understand, you know, where, where these things could happen. I mean, you were treated very nicely in 1986 when you went to China.

: Uh, hum.

: I mean, they were good to you. They took care of your family. They took you to the Great Wall. They had dinners for you. Then in 1988 you go back and they do the same thing and, you know, you feel some sort of obligation to people, to talk to them and answer their questions. . . .

: No, no, no.

: You gotta understand this is the way it is. . . . You're being looked at as a spy!

: Yes, I know. I know what you think, but all I'm saying is, uh, I have never say anything classified. I have never say anything.

: It might not be that, Wen Ho. It might not even be a classified issue. It might just be something that was said, but Washington is under the impression that you're a spy. And this newspaper article is doing everything but coming out with your name. I mean, it doesn't say anything in there that, that it's Wen Ho Lee, but everything points to you. People in the community and people at the laboratory tomorrow are going to know. That this article is referring to you. . . .

: Let me ask you this. OK? If you want me to swear with the God or whatever, OK? I can swear if that's what you believe. I never tell them anything classified. I never told them anything about nuclear weapons. . . .

: You are a scientist, a nuclear scientist. You are going to be an unemployed nuclear scientist. You are going to be a nuclear scientist without a clearance. Where is a nuclear scientist without a clearance going to get a job?

: I cannot get any job.

: You can't! Wen Ho, you gotta tell us what went on in that room. You gotta tell us why you're failing these polygraphs! Washington is not going to let you work in a laboratory or have a clearance!

: I can retire, to tell the truth, I'm fifty-nine and something . . .

: You know what, Wen Ho? If you retire and the FBI comes in later on down the road. A day, an hour, a week, and we come knocking on your door, we have to arrest you for espionage! Do you really think you're going to be able to collect anything?

: No, no, but look, look, look. . . .

: They're going to garnish your wages. . . . They're not going to give you anything other than your advice of rights and a pair of handcuffs!

: But, but . . .

: And now, what are you going to tell your friends? What are you going to tell your family? What are you going to tell your wife and son? What's going to happen to your son in college? When he hears the news . . . “Wen Ho Lee arrested for espionage.” What's that going to do?

: But I'm telling you, I didn't do anything like that. I never give any classified information to Chinese people. I never tell them anything relating to nuclear weapons, uh, data or design or whatever. I have never done anything like that.

: Pretty soon you're going to have reporters knocking on your door. They're going to be knocking on the door of your friends. They're going to find your son and they are going to say, you know, your father is a spy?

: But I, I'm not a spy. . . .

: Do you want to go down in history? Whether you're professing your innocence like the Rosenbergs to the day that they take you to the electric chair? . . . Do you want to go down in history? With your kids knowing that you got arrested for espionage?

: I don't . . .

: The Rosenbergs professed their innocence. The Rosenbergs weren't concerned either. The Rosenbergs are dead.

: I'm just telling you. I believe truth and I believe honest, and I know, I know myself, I did not tell anything . . . OK? I told you more than ten times . . . eventually something will be clear-cut, OK?

The space between can be killing. In the cold waters of San Francisco Bay, not far from Alcatraz, is a smaller outcropping of rock called Angel Island. It is the little-known negative of Ellis Island. On Angel Island was a clapboard prison, created in 1910 to execute the policy of Chinese exclusion. Four years earlier the great fire in San Francisco had destroyed all immigration records, enabling Chinese immigrants to evade the Exclusion Act by claiming to be the “paper sons” of Chinese men already lawfully in the United States but whose records had been lost in the fire. Immigration officers were thus suspicious of every entrant. Until 1940, Chinese newcomers trying to disembark in San Francisco were detained at Angel Island, given often humiliating physical examinations, and then subjected to lengthy, detailed, even surreal interrogations.

Q: Did you ever see your father?

A: I saw him when I was a little boy and we have a big picture of him at the home.

Q: Did you ever see your paternal grandfathers?

A: No, neither of them. They died a long time ago.

Q: Did your father have any brothers or sisters?

A: Yes, four brothers including my father and one sister.

Q: How many of those are living?

A: Two living and two dead.

Q: In what house?

A: The same house with us.

Q: What is the location of your house?

A: 4th row 4th house.

Q: Where does Jew Mun Jew live?

A: Not far from our house.

Q: Same row with your house.

A: No, not on the same row.

Q: Toward the tail of the village?

A: Near the tail of the village.

Q: Did Jew Fook ever sleep in a house near you?

A: Yes, a long time ago.

Q: Where was that house located?

A: The 4th house on the 4th row.

Q: That is the same location given for your house, isn't it?

These were a few of the questions posed in 1918 to a thirteen-year-old boy named Jue San Tong. The policy of the immigration service was that all Chinese should be “presumed excludable until proven otherwise.” That presumption became, in practice, a presumption of mendacity. The goal was to force the detainees to betray themselves and their “alleged” family members, to expose their fabrications. Each detainee was forced into a dizzying maze of memory.

Q: How many steps exactly from one bedroom to another?

Q: Was the clock metal and hung on the wall or wooden and set on the mantel?

Q: Did the second uncle live in the fourth house or in the fifth?

Q: Had the marriage of an aunt been conducted in the traditional way or not?

Q: How many times did your father write to you last year?

Q: Does your village face north or west?

Q: What is your name?

Q: What are your other names?

Whether their answers were real or fabricated, whether the anchors of their entry were phantom or quite corporeal, the detainees were equally poorly treated. They languished for weeks and months, sometimes even years, on Angel Island. Some committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells or, in one notable case, ramming a chopstick into an ear. Others simply waited. They had no papers, or even paper. So into the wooden and cement walls of the compound, those earnest emigrants carved Chinese characters, stroke by clear stroke, Chinese poetry composed in rough classical form, lamenting their limbo as they stared out helplessly across the water at America.

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
12.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Presumption of Guilt by Terri Blackstock
The Grip by Griffin Hayes
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
La tierra olvidada por el tiempo by Edgar Rice Burroughs