Who (Hu) is American?

By Jon Jang. Posted Aug. 29, 2018.

Act I

My Grandparents

In 1882, President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act which banned Chinese immigrants from entering the United States as well as denying naturalization to Chinese immigrants to become US citizens. This was the first US law that excluded people in this country solely on the basis of race.

Because the fire from the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco destroyed all of the public birth certificate records, many Chinese immigrants claimed they were born in San Francisco. In resistance to the racist Chinese immigration ban, the Chinese immigrants created the “paper son slot system” to make it possible for new Chinese immigrants to enter San Francisco and become US citizens.

Using my paternal grandfather whose original family name was Woo (Hu in Mandarin) as an example, here’s how the paper son slot system worked. Because my great grandfather Jang Kai Yow, who was born in San Francisco and of the merchant status, he was exempt from the Chinese Exclusion Act and was a US citizen. During the mid-1890s, he left San Francisco to Heungshan, a county in Guangdong Province in Southern China renamed Zhongshan in 1925. After Jang Kai Yow returned to San Francisco on April 28,1899, he would report the birth of a son in China to create a slot even if one was not born. A merchant broker or a family relative would serve as a middleman to sell the slot to a family named Woo in China who had no family relationship in San Francisco. Two years after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, my grandfather, who was twelve years old in 1908, arrived in San Francisco under the paper son surname of Jang and became a United States citizen.

Two years later in 1910, Angel Island Detention Center was built in San Francisco to exclude Chinese immigrants from entering the US. To paraphrase Him Mark Lai, a prominent scholar of Chinese American history, Angel Island was regarded as the “Ellis Island of the West.” The major difference is that “doors were open for European immigrants on Ellis Island, whereas on Angel Island the doors were at best half open for Chinese immigrants.”

Angel Island Immigration Station in 1971 prior to restoration. Photos by Eddie Wong/VC Photo Archive.

I am a grandson of a paper son, an undocumented Chinese immigrant (illegal alien). A Hu-man being. My paternal grandparents, my father and his two brothers lived a life of hardship living in single occupancy rooms in San Francisco Chinatown during the Chinese Exclusion Act era. There were only two rooms: one room where my father and his brother slept on a sofa bed. The bedroom was also the family dining area. The other room is where my grandparents slept in a bed and my father’s youngest brother slept in a crib. In a separate area away from their SRO, my grandparents had to share a community kitchen with other SRO tenants who lived in the building.  Whenever my grandparents traveled back and forth from Zhongshan to San Francisco, they had to undergo intensive traumatic interrogations on Angel Island in 1914, 1916, 1921, 1933 and 1936.

In 1995, the Kronos Quartet commissioned me to compose a string quartet work with a Cantonese Opera singer that would memorialize the Chinese immigrants who were detained on Angel Island. I selected the poems from a book called Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910-1940 by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim and Judy Yung. These were poems that were either carved or painted on the walls of Angel Island.

In the first movement, I selected a poem of sorrow translated in English, “sadness kills the person in the wooden building” set to a modern harmonized treatment of a popular Cantonese melody called Pinghu Quiyue (Autumn Moon on the Calm Lake). In the last movement, I selected a poem that expressed resistance to being imprisoned on Angel Island featuring the string quartet performing fast dissonant phrases linking it with the anti-immigrant bill HR 2202 in 1995:

Movement V

“It depends on all of us together to roll back the wild wave”

Stop anti-immigrant laws!

Performed by David Harrington, violin; John Sherba, violin; Hank Dutt, viola; Joan Jeanrenaud, cello; and Eva Tam, Cantonese Opera singer at the Cowell Theatre in San Francisco in May 1996.

Act II

My Father

“In a few short years, the dominant image of Chinese lurched from despised oriental ‘other’ to wartime ally to dangerous communist threat.”  – Mae Ngai’s book, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America

Act II, Ob-Scene 1

Who (Hu) Are You?

Jap? Illegal Alien? Wartime Ally?

While working on his dissertation in Minneapolis during 1942-1943, my father also had to wear a “I’m not Japanese” badge because of the imprisonment of Japanese American families in concentration camps during 1942-1945.  Generally speaking, the US military and media wrote pamphlets describing the physical difference between the Chinese and the Japanese: Chinese are tall and slender. Japanese are short and squat. Because my 5’2” father was short and squat, these ridiculous racist generalizations tend to be more farce than fact.

When my father graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1938, his name on his diploma appeared as James Joseph Jang, his paper son false surname.

However, as years gone by, China was becoming a closer wartime ally with the United States. When my father received his Master’s in 1940 and his PhD degree in 1943 from the University of Minnesota, his name on his diplomas appeared as Hu James J. Jang, both his true surname and his paper son false surname. When my father received his PhD degree in 1943, it was in the year of the Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Act II, Ob-Scene 2

Who (Hu)’s Next?

My In Laws Unlawfully Sentenced to a US Prison Camp

After President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, tens of thousands of Japanese American families with children were abruptly uprooted from their American homes and sentenced without due process to US prison camps located in desert areas. The grandparents and parents of my wife Joyce Nakamura, who founded Nikkei Resisters in 2017, were imprisoned in a US prison camp in Poston, Arizona. Joyce’s older brother and sister were also born in a US prison camp. My brother in law Glen and sister in law Shirley were born US citizens in the US prison camps but branded as the enemy.

The United States government has a cruel and peculiar history of being a gatekeeping nation characterized by their fickle xenophobic reaction to different groups of people based on their race: “Go back where you came from!” or “Lock ‘em up!” While people of color are dehumanized, white people are humanized. In his book, Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb, Ron Takaki explained:

“The war against the Japanese became kind of a racist fight,” recalled James Covert, whose father and brother had fought in the armed forces, “whites against the yellow race, and the yellow races were inferior. In Europe it was a little different. You felt the Europeans (Germans and Italians) were good people. They just followed the wrong leaders (Hitler and Mussolini).”

 Act II, Ob-Scene 3

Who (Hu) Gets to Live Like a Family in the US?

During the postwar year of 1947 in the second decade of the Liberal Protestant Chinatown era in San Francisco, my mother and father met as volunteers through the collaboration of Christian organizations such as the True Sunshine Episcopal Church, YWCA and the YMCA. My mother and father volunteered to help latchkey children of Chinese immigrant parents who had to work low wage jobs on long hours with little to no time for parenting. This issue hit particularly home to my father’s experience when he was fifteen years old.

During the early 1930s, the Great Depression devastated what was already limited employment opportunities for Chinese immigrant men in San Francisco Chinatown. As a result, my grandfather was forced to work in Vallejo and had to move there. My father joined my grandfather and had to stay as a “half orphan” at the Chung Mei Home for Chinese Boys in El Cerrito. My grandmother took her two younger sons to China to work there for 18 months.

Vallejo may have not been a happy experience for my father when he was fifteen years old, but there were management position opportunities for Chinese immigrants in Vallejo. During the 1930s, Chinese families began branching into other businesses, especially men’s clothing and supermarkets. The dry goods stores were predominantly run by people from the Chungshan District. My grandfather benefited working and living in Vallejo because he was from Chungshan and could speak the Long Du dialect.

James Jang’s article “Two Lives” appeared in East Wind’s June 1947 edition.

Fifteen years later, my father was very active on multiple levels in the annual Chinese Christian Youth Conferences held in July at Lake Tahoe during the postwar years. He continued his concern for the youth and stable family living in San Francisco Chinatown by contributing articles in the June 1947 and September 1947 issue of East Wind (not to be confused with the same name of the nationwide progressive Asian American publication in the 1980s that is on this website). In his September 1947 article entitled “San Francisco,” my father reported “Poor living conditions are not conducive to good family life. Youngsters constantly avoid staying at home…the children do not have the benefit of adult guidance and supervision in their recreation and many of them organize in gangs which eventually could get them into trouble.”

Act II, Ob-Scene 4

Who (Hu) Are You?

Dangerous Communist Threat?

Vice President of Fluor Corporation?

After the People’s Republic of China was founded and ruled under the Communist Party of China in October 1949, Chinese Americans became under suspicion as a potential communist threat during the McCarthy era of the 1950s.  In 1950, there was a McCarthyite law called Title II of the Internal Security Act that legalizes the use of concentration camps for alleged “subversives.”

In 1951, my father was a chemical engineer for an oil company in Los Angeles and was interrogated by the FBI. He passed and was designated Q clearance, the highest security clearance from the FBI. Because China was an ally to North Korea and the US an ally to South Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953), Chinese Americans feared that they could be placed in US prison camps just like the Japanese American families during World War II.

On his way to becoming a vice president in Fluor Corporation, my father, the only nonwhite passenger, died along with 127 passengers and crew in a two commercial airplane collision over Grand Canyon on June 30, 1956. My sister Deeana was born 8 ½ months later in 1957. My mother, who grew up working class Toisanese in segregated San Francisco Chinatown during the Chinese exclusion era, had to raise three children on her own in a neighborhood where we were the only non-white family in Whittier, California. My mother became depressed.  One evening, my older brother was locked up in the family station wagon because my mother wanted to “protect” him from her fear that “someone was out to hurt him.”

Two years later in 1958, my mother’s depression grew worse. One early evening, she attempted suicide and filicides with her three children by driving her car at a dangerously high speed. We had to  stay temporarily with our relatives who lived in San Francisco while my mother’s older brothers had to decide about how to treat my mother’s state of depression.  One of my uncles was an alcoholic and a wife beater. He venomously forced my mother against her will to enter a mental institution for electric shock treatment in Belmont, California. My mother had to abandon her three children. I was only four years old and remember kicking my uncle as the white men from the mental institution dragged my mother away from me.


Stanford Built the Railroad?

In 1960, my mother, older brother, younger sister and I moved from Whittier to Palo Alto. After my father died, my mother wanted to live closer to her father and brothers who lived together in a family owned building in San Francisco. Because my mother and my relatives didn’t like to drive a car, my mother chose to buy a house in Palo Alto because it was one of the few towns that had a train station stop. Because Stanford University is located in Palo Alto, it was also my mother’s dream that her three children would someday attend Stanford University. Years later, I learned that my mother’s decision to live in Palo Alto was because of the train station stop and the railroad.

Nearly five decades later, I composed the Chinese American Symphony to pay tribute to the Chinese immigrant workers who built the first transcontinental railroad. I never realized that my childhood growing years in Palo Alto and our family history in San Francisco Chinatown would influence one of the most significant achievements of my musical legacy: I would become the first American born Chinese composer to compose a symphony that pays tribute to the Chinese immigrant workers who built the first transcontinental railroad in the United States.

In 1963, the year the Chinese Historical Society of America was founded in San Francisco, I was 9 years old. Because I lived in Palo Alto, I was often reminded that Stanford built the railroad. By the time I was in the 4th grade in 1963, students had to learn to sing children songs about building the railroad such as I’ve Been Working on the Railroad, John Henry and Paddy Works on the Erie. But there were no children songs that valorized the Chinese immigrant workers who built the first transcontinental railroad in the United States.

I also watched a lot of cartoons on television such as Popeye the Sailor Man that used Verdi’s Anvil Chorus to depict the repetitive shipyard work, as well as working in a spinach can factory. Recalling these childhood experiences, the very first sounds that you hear in the Chinese American Symphony is the anvil, a percussion instrument, to not only suggest the striking of the golden spike but also to obscure the racialized identity of the railroad worker because I learned who (Hu) really built the railroad six years later.

Act IV

Who (Hu) Built the Railroad?

In May 1969, I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a ceremony in Utah to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad. I was shocked to learn that it was actually the Chinese immigrant workers, not Stanford, who built the first transcontinental railroad in the US. I was shocked to learn that John Volpe, the keynote speaker who was the Secretary of Transportation, declared a number of times that it was quote unquote “American workers who built the railroad.” My Uncle Phil Choy, Chairman of the Chinese Historical Society of America, was outraged about the US government complete erasure of the history of Chinese immigrant workers who built the first transcontinental railroad in United States.

At the same time in May 1969, I was the 9th grade president at a predominantly white student school in Palo Alto. During the last month of school, I had to spend the remaining weeks in San Francisco because my maternal grandfather, who was the last living Chinese immigrant born member in our family, was dying. Gung Gung was also a member of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, one of the first Chinese American civil rights organizations in San Francisco. After Gung Gung passed away, I returned to Palo Alto, to Stanford –the name of the person recognized for building the railroad. After I spoke as class president at my junior high school graduation, I never ran for office again in high school.

Act V

Oberlin College Conservatory of Music

The Underground Railroad

The Afro-American Symphony

During my undergraduate years at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, I learned that the town of Oberlin was an important destination point for black slaves who had escaped through the Underground Railroad. I was encouraged to take an Afro-American music history course taught by Dr. Wendell Logan who became an important father-figure and mentor in my life.

During the early 1970s before I enrolled at Oberlin, I read eight books about Afro-American music written mostly by black writers. When I took Dr. Logan’s Introduction to Afro American Music Course, there were only two books about Afro-American music that was on the required reading list: The Music of Black Americans: A History by Eileen Southern and Blues People by Leroi Jones.  Jones notes that black slaves brought their work songs from West Africa to United States. This made me consider the possibility that Chinese immigrant workers who built the first transcontinental railroad in the United States may have brought their work songs from China to the American West.

In Dr. Logan’s incredible history course, I was also introduced to a recording of William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony (1930). This symphony honored the blues and other African American folk forms that had been considered lowly expressions of the despised and primitive at that time.

After the class was over, I stopped in front of the sculpture of the Underground Railroad that had been created by a white student which was across the street from the Conservatory. I gazed in wonderment at the sculpture of railroad tracks jutting upward from the grass. An epiphany came through me and I thought to myself: “Someday I will compose a Chinese American symphony, like William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony, which would pay tribute to the Chinese immigrant workers who built the first transcontinental railroad in the United States.” Thirty years later, my big dream came true.

 Act VI

Who (Hu) Composed the Chinese American Symphony?

Jon Jang

“I write history. You put it to music.” – Uncle Phil Choy, historian and spokesperson for the Chinese Historical Society of America

In 2006, after enduring 15 years of rejections, my big dream came true when the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra and the Oakland East Bay Symphony commissioned me to compose the Chinese American Symphony. In 2007, I composed this work to pay tribute to the Chinese immigrant laborers who built the first transcontinental railroad in the United States, as well as to “Uncle” Philip Choy, longtime historian and spokesperson for the Chinese Historical Society of America. History was made when the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra and the Oakland East Bay Symphony under the direction of Michael Morgan, gave two very powerful and inspiring performances of my composition, the Chinese American Symphony, to audiences’ of 2000 people in Sacramento in 2007 and 6000 in Oakland in 2008.

To prepare to compose my first symphony about Chinese immigrants building the railroad, I focused my attention on studying scores of music that had train themes such as Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231 (Mouvement symphonique No.1) (1923), Li Jinhui’s Midnight Express (1928), Heitor Villa-Lobos’ 4th movement Tocata (O Trezinho do Caipira) from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2 (1930), Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s Daybreak Express (1933) and Track 360 (1958), and Steve Reich’s Different Trains (1988).

In these works, Honegger, Villa-Lobos, Ellington-Strayhorn and Reich showed me musical techniques concerned with acceleration, repetition and momentum. In works by Villa-Lobos and Li Jinhui, I also learned about composing a melody that was attached to a national identity whether a Brazilian or Chinese melody over a structure of train sounds. Because Villa-Lobos utilized Brazilian rattles and I grew up listening to Verdi’s Anvil Chorus music used in cartoons, it gave me the idea to feature the anvil, a percussion instrument, to musically suggest the golden spike.

 Act VI, Scene 2

Who (Hu) Are You?

Jiebing Chen on ErHu

The Chinese American Symphony depicts the Chinese immigrant harsh and working conditions in the American West, the Irish workers and robber barons (a reference to the unofficial Irish anthem “Danny Boy” played by the third flutist performance on the penny whistle, a popular Irish instrument) and the iron horse. The dazzling virtuosity of Jiebing Chen’s erhu (Chinese two string violin) becomes the hero, symbolizing the unconquerable Chinese worker, whose strength reaches mythic proportions despite his small stature. As is evident in one of Chen’s showcase works, Galloping Horse, the horse in Chinese culture is a powerful symbol of boundless spirit and energy. Toward the end of the Chinese American Symphony I incorporated this spirit and energy. When the erhu plays a four-note figure and accelerates to rapid speed, the instruments suggests the iron horse.

The symphony ends with a pastoral musical setting featuring a simple Chinese folk song melody performed by the erhu. A single flute, oboe, and clarinet each echo a call of pathos to the departing erhu as a sweet whisper of a flower. The violas, cellos, and double basses become deciduous trees that shed their leaves as the harp glides away. As the memory of the unconquerable Chinese immigrant worker fades away, the erhu becomes the lily that can endure the winter of our discontent made glorious by our summer by our sun. We are left with just three sounds of the golden spike (anvil) to express the ephemeral sense of life. As it opened, the Chinese American Symphony closes with sound of the golden spike performed by the anvil. Let America remember not only the golden spike but the Chinese immigrant worker who drove it!

Chinese American Symphony – Dangerous Working Conditions






Author’s Bio:

San Francisco composer Jon Jang’s works brings to life the transnational history of Chinese immigration in the United States, as well as pay homage to Afro American history and the present.

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