In 1922, my grandfather, Wong Gin Wing, brought my grandmother, Mah Yel Sen, from China to the United States. They departed from Canton on the S.S. Nanking. Thirty days later, after stopovers in Shanghai, Yokohama, and Honolulu, Gin Wing and Yel Sen docked at Angel Island.
Entering the United States for the third time with a merchant’s passport, Gin Wing was readily released from the Angel Island Immigration Station while Yel Sen was detained. He returned the following day and saw women crowd the second-floor windows of the building, eagerly looking for their arriving mates. Gin Wing hurried to the entrance, carrying a package of dim sum for Yel Sen to enjoy.
Gin Wing had been extraordinarily busy in San Francisco for the last day and a half. After seeking the advice of the Wong Family Association, he successfully sought a meeting with Wong Yu Fong, a student at the University of California. Gin Wing requested Yu Fong’s help to expedite Yel Sen’s release from Angel Island. He found a sympathetic listener in Yu Fong as he gave an account of his wife’s life.
Mah Yel Sen and Wong Gin Wing, Hong Kong, 1922.
Yel Sen had been born into a large, well-to-do, Hong Kong family surnamed Mah. Her grandmother, known universally as The Big Boss, presided over the clan. She took special care to arrange the marriages of Yel Sen’s three older sisters to men from rich, well-known families, belatedly discovering that the high status of the men did not lead to amicable marriages. The Big Boss resolved to find a husband of good character for Yel Sen. Her network of contacts was vast, extending to California where she found Gin Wing. The Big Boss learned that he was from a poor family that had produced only one son in each of the previous four generations but possessed an unimpeachable reputation for honesty and hard work. After the Big Boss and Gin Wing’s mother agreed to the marriage, 19-year-old Gin Wing was called back to China to wed 16-year-old Yel Sen. All too soon, Gin Wing was compelled to return to the United States. His father in California had gone flat broke, and Gum San was the one place where Gin Wing knew he could use his only currency — his reputation of integrity and indefatigability — to earn enough money to save his family from ever suffering destitution. But an incalculable price had to be paid: Yel Sen was forced to stay stoically behind — for an astonishing nine years, amounting to more than one-third of her lifespan and more than eighty percent of her days of marriage. She lived not in the comfort of her wealthy parents’ home in Hong Kong but alongside her necessarily frugal mother-in-law in Gin Wing’s home village of Cheng Gong. Having long been separated from Gin Wing by the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Yel Sen was now a mere ferry boat ride away. Once released by immigration authorities, she would be among the few Chinese women in the United States — only 12.6% of the Chinese population in the 1920 Census consisted of women — pioneering a path forward without speaking English and creating a home in the small, Mormon town of Evanston, Wyoming, a completely unfamiliar place where Gin Wing had serendipitously established himself as a restaurant owner. Yel Sen faced her future with well-honed stoicism newly mixed with fearlessness, an unbeatable alchemy.
Yu Fong was moved by Gin Wing’s account to take action on Yel Sen’s behalf. Accompanied by Gin Wing, he wasted no time in calling upon his godfather, Maurice Dooling, formerly a lawyer in Ukiah and now a judge for the Northern District of California. Judge Dooling ruled on immigration court cases. Together Yu Fong and Wong Gin Wing persuaded him to immediately contact immigration officials at Angel Island to vouch for Yel Sen. As Gin Wing undoubtedly knew from intelligence supplied to him by the Wong Family Association, Judge Dooling was favorably disposed to the admission of Chinese merchants and their wives. The Chinese Exclusion Act did not bar them from the country and so his personal disposition was legally correct as well. Gin Wing’s request for a meeting with Wong Yu Fong had been highly strategic.
Mah Shee’s ID on the China Mail Steamship called the S.S. Nanking, June 30, 1922. Following Chinese tradition, Mah Yel Sen was formally known as Mah Shee, meaning female member of the Mah clan.
As the result of the interventions of Wong Yu Fong and Judge Dooling, astutely orchestrated by her husband Gin Wing, Yel Sen was spared the indignity and strain of the typical Angel Island stay. Luck was at hand too. When Yel Sen was called to interrogation by an immigration official, no interpreter was available; and so, Gin Wing was asked if he would take on this role. He quickly said yes and not only posed the official’s questions to Yel Sen, but also answered them for her! In ten minutes, the investigation was over. Yel Sen and Gin Wing left Angel island for San Francisco en route to Wyoming.
Mah Shee’s Alien Tax Receipt, May 30, 1922.
To secure their wives’ release from Angel Island, other men were known to hire lawyers who charged $500 fees. Nonetheless the women were detained for an average of three weeks. Yel Sen was released after a two-day, one-night stay. The price paid by Gin Wing was a $20 thank-you box of cigars for the judge.
Mah Yel Sen and Wong Gin Wing, Hong Kong, 1922.
Mah Yel Sen and Wong Gin Wing, Evanston, Wyoming, date unknown.
Author’s Bio: A fifth-generation Chinese American, Linda Wing worked for 50 years to empower invisible, disenfranchised and underrepresented students by advancing equitable and excellent education at the PreK12 and postsecondary levels. She had the unique opportunity to pursue these goals in school systems and universities throughout the U.S. — the Bay Area, the Inland Empire, the South Side of Chicago, and Boston. Linda is glad to be back in the Bay where, as a beginning high school teacher, she joined Asian American parents to develop an Asian American Studies curriculum and gained their trust to teach their children Asian American History and Literature.