Bringing the Past to Light through the Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files

Today’s post is by Katherine Stinson, Archives Specialist in Motion Pictures at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

When National Archives staff began working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was looking for new telework projects to do. One of the projects I discovered, through email updates from the National Archives Catalog, was the transcription of textual records related to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Records from this collection had been scanned into the Catalog but needed to be transcribed in order to make them more discoverable to researchers. Many of these records have handwritten words and blurry type that cannot be recognized by Optical Character Recognition (OCR) or other text reading software, so they needed to be transcribed by actual people. 

The reason this project spoke to me so much is that my maternal grandfather was a Chinese immigrant who arrived in the United States during the first half of the 20th century. I wanted to contribute to this project to help other families, like my own, learn more about their families’ history. One of my cousins has done some research into my family’s history and found our family’s immigration files at the National Archives in San Bruno, California. 

The Chinese Exclusion Act

The Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted on May 6, 1882 by President Chester A. Arthur. The point of the Act was to prohibit Chinese immigrants from coming to the United States and working as laborers. There were exceptions to this and if you could prove that you would be working as a merchant, diplomat, teacher, or student, you might be allowed entry into the United States. Chinese immigrants first started arriving in the late 1840s during the height of the California Gold Rush. They were initially welcomed but as the gold became less plentiful, they started facing backlash against them. Once the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, Chinese immigrants already in the United States faced serious issues. Many of the Chinese immigrants who had come to the United States were men who had left their families behind in China. If they wanted to go back to see their families and then return to the United States, they had to go through a rigorous process of obtaining a Return Certificate to prove that they had been in the U. S. before the Act was passed.

Document from the file of Eng Goon, with his photograph and physical description, (NAID 7798177).

Chinese Exclusion Act Records at the National Archives

Many of the Chinese Exclusion Act records that I have transcribed allude to the issues mentioned above. Chinese immigrants first arriving to the United States were subjected to intense questioning by Immigration Officers as to their intentions for coming to the United States, what exactly they planned to do in the United States, who they knew in the United States, exactly how much money they had and how they planned to earn more money without becoming a laborer or a public charge. These interviews were all conducted in English, but Chinese translators were available. 

From file of Chin Hung, claiming that he has always worked in a store, never performing manual labor, (NAID 7798182).

It was also not enough for these recently arrived immigrants to say they had an education in China or say that they had a means to support themselves without resorting to manual labor or government assistance. They had physically prove to Immigration Officers that they had an education with actual documents such as diplomas and testimonies from people they already knew who were in the United States that could attest to their character. Those providing testimony had to give very specific details on how they knew the immigrant in question, with Immigration Officers constantly trying to poke holes in their testimony. For instance, those providing testimony could tell an Immigration Officer that they knew the immigrant because they lived in the same village in China. The Immigration Officer would in turn ask for a map of where exactly the immigrant’s house was located in their village, or how the person providing testimony could testify to this immigrant’s character when they hadn’t seen each other in many years. 

Hand drawn map of the Nom Jew Village from file of Ligh Fook How, (NAID 7798179).

Many of these immigrants unfortunately did not have a happy ending in their files. Sometimes, Immigration Officers would deem the immigrant ineligible to immigrate into the United States and would request that they be deported back to China. A common reason for deportation was lack of funds to support themselves without becoming a laborer or public charge. Additionally, some were rejected because the immigration officers determined that there was not enough proof that a person was from an exempt class, such as a merchant. 

Document from the file of Chin Hung, recommending he be deported because there was not enough proof that he was from an exempt class of Chinese persons, (NAID 7798182).

These files are great sources for those wanting to learn more about their families. These records are extremely detailed and often include photographs of the immigrants in addition to detailed physical information such as height, weight, visible scars, health issues, and for women, whether or not they had bound feet. By transcribing these records, they are becoming more searchable in the National Archives Catalog and their unique stories can be brought to light. 


All documents featured above are from the series: Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files, 1911 – 1955 (National Archives ID 606277). Record Group 85: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

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