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Family Histories
The Peopling of America
Photo of Byron Yee Byron Yee
Discovering a Paper Son
For actor Byron Yee, family history provides the inspiration for his one-man show. "My name is Byron Yee. I am the second son of Bing Quail Yee. I am the son of a paper son.

"My father was an immigrant. He came to America to escape the Japanese invasion of China in 1938. He was 15 years old and he didn't know a word of English. He didn't have a penny in his pocket and he was living in a crowded apartment in New York City with relatives he had never met. I know nothing about my father's history, about his past."

With little to go on, Byron set out to decipher his father's story. He started at Angel Island, located in the middle of San Francisco Bay. "Angel Island has been called the Ellis Island of the West and for the most part, all the Chinese who came to the United States came through here, from a period of 1910 to 1940. But the rules were a little bit different. European settlers, Russian settlers were processed within an hour. The Japanese were kept for one day. But the Chinese were detained anywhere from three weeks to two years for their interrogations. So this was not so much the Ellis Island of the West for the Chinese; it was more like Alcatraz."

In 1882, Congress passed a law prohibiting Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the only immigration law ever based on race alone. But people found ways around the act: US law states that children of American citizens are automatically granted citizenship themselves, no matter where they were born. Taking advantage of that opening, some immigrants claimed to be legitimate offspring of US citizens when in fact they were not. These individuals, mostly male, were called paper sons.

Byron's next step was to find his father's immigration file. The National Archives regional office in San Bruno, California contains thousands of files related to Angel Island. While Byron did not find his father's records there, he did find those of his grandfather, Yee Wee Thing. In one of the documents in his grandfather's file, Byron found a cross reference to his father, Yee Bing Quai. To avoid the scrutiny of Angel Island, Byron's father had sailed through Boston. Byron found his file at the National Archives in Massachusetts.

"My father at 15. He is asked 197 questions: 'When did your alleged father first come to the United States?' 'Have you ever seen a photograph of your alleged father?' 'How many trips to China has your alleged father made since first coming to the United States?'" The lengthy interrogation made Byron suspect that his father was in fact a paper son. Maybe this was why he never knew his father's story.

Though Byron's mother knew very little about her husband's past, she did have an old photo, which she sent to Bryon - a portrait of his father's family back in China. Byron learned that the baby on the left was his father. The boy in the middle was Yee Wee Thing, not Byron's grandfather at all, but his uncle.

"It kind of floored me because all of a sudden it made a lot of sense - why he was the way he was, why he never really talked about his past, why he was very secretive. It explained a lot about him and about his history.

"You see my story is no different from anyone else's In all of our collective past, we've all had that one ancestor that had the strength to break from what was familiar to venture into the unknown. I can never thank my father and uncle enough for what they had to do so that I could be here today. One wrong answer between them and I would not be here."
Most Chinese immigrants came through Angel Island in San Francisco Bay.
The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers.
Yee Bing Quai's immigration file.
Byron's father and his family in China

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