The first step: immigration journey as “paper sons”

The Wong Family III

The Wong family’s journey to the U.S. began on paper. Wong Doo Set, Dimock’s great-great-grandfather, was a medical practitioner from a well-established family in China. His younger brother Wong Ben Yuk, then 13, decided to move to America to increase family wealth, according to The Wongs of Beloit Wisconsin. His home city, Mong Dee, was an emigrants’ village — one from which many young men departed to find work, as the city itself was an active trade route next to the Pearl River Delta. 

Ben Yuk’s move was part of a larger phenomenon occurring at the time. In the late nineteenth century, stage migration, or the process of moving to different areas during the different stages of life, was typical for Chinese emigrants. Due to the population density and land scarcity from European colonization, a quarter of the men in Taishan, Guangdong, where the Wong family lived, sought work elsewhere in the 19th century. 

When Ben Yuk arrived on Angel Island, an immigration station widely known as the “Ellis Island of the West” that further complicated admission through more severe literacy tests and questioning, its detention center had not been built yet. As a result, while waiting to be processed, he was left detained with a shipping company that was responsible for housing dozens of other Chinese men, all of whom were left suspended in tiny warehouses that fostered diseases like smallpox.

Ben Yuk arrived at Angel Island in San Francisco in 1889, just following the end of what immigration restrictionists at the time claimed was a loophole in an earlier Chinese restriction law: foreign-born sons and daughters of Chinese-American citizens were entitled to U.S. citizenship

Although this complicated his citizenship process, Ben Yuk was still able to naturalize as a part of the influx of “paper sons,” the fictive children of Chinese American fathers, to be admitted into the U.S. This was further made easier by the 1906 SF earthquake, where public birth documents were destroyed and thus prevented the city from tracing blood relations, allowing for immigrants to call for citizenship through relations established by paper, not blood. 

In response to U.S. officials’ query for documents, he referred them to the one person he knew was living in San Francisco at the time: Wong Sang.  While the identity of Wong Sang and his connections to the Wong family are not definitive, Wong Sang not only vouched for Ben Yuk’s previous status as a permanent resident of the U.S., but claimed that he knew of Ben Yuk’s birth in the country, meaning that he was a U.S. citizen. Ben Yuk was granted admission in that same year.

He continued to make several trips back and forth from China to California, leaving home permanently for Mong Dee in 1908. Four years later, however, his brother Doo Set would take over his documentation papers and emigrate to America, a move that was likely orchestrated by their parents, who selected which sons would go forth from the village to interact with individuals at all levels of society. 

Doo Set came to the U.S. in 1912 in place of his younger brother, successfully convincing U.S. immigration officials that his face matched Ben Yuk’s photograph taken four years prior, a process McKenzie wrote was likely due to the fact that officials were more deferential towards Doo Set’s higher class status as a physician. 

Doo Set initially settled in Chicago, where previous Chinese businessmen had organized a Chinese village at the World Fair in 1893 to combat negative views of Chinese Americans among the Anglo-Americans there. Eventually, he moved to Beloit to avoid the summer-heat that had regularly exacerbated his asthma. Doo Set would later testify for the citizenship of several children who were not his actual sons, alongside three of which were his own.

Photo courtesy of David Palmer.