Sau Ung Loo Chan, An Advocate for American Citizenship and Immigrant Rights

Today’s post is written by Ruth Chan, archivist and Subject Matter Expert for Asian American and Pacific Islander records

Special thanks to Holly Rivet, Archives Specialist at the National Archives at St. Louis; Katie Seitz, Archives Specialist at the National Archives in Washington DC; and Victoria Blue, Public Affairs Specialist, for access to the records and feedback during the process of writing this post.

In our nation’s history, archival records associated with immigration exclusion often reinforce the marginalization of Asian American women by confining them to traditional roles as daughters, wives, or mothers. However, these very same records can also show how Asian American women defied those roles to overcome the restrictions placed upon them by policy and society.

Sau Ung Loo Chan was one such woman. As a Yale Law graduate and the first Asian American woman lawyer in Hawai’i, she became an advocate for Chinese Americans, restored U.S. citizenship for her family, and fought for broader immigrant rights.

Photograph of Sau Ung Loo Chan, undated, Official Personnel Folder of Sau Loo Chan; Immigration and Naturalization Service (NAID 3758206)

Sau Ung was born in 1905 in Honolulu to a prominent Chinese American businessman who understood the value of citizenship in securing a rightful place within a community. Her father, Joe Loo, had been naturalized under the Hawaiian Kingdom and became a U.S. citizen upon annexation. When the opportunity arose, Joe Loo secured Hawaiian Certificates of Identity for the entire household, thereby solidifying his family’s American status. The certificate proved useful for Sau Ung’s journey to the United States mainland to study at the University of Southern California in 1923. Upon returning to Hawai’i, she sought an updated certificate, complete with an adult photograph.

Hawaiian Certificates of Identity for Joe Loo, his wife Choy Shee Loo, and their daughter Sau Ung Loo (as a child and adult) (NAID 1560125)

But, as with many American-born Chinese traveling through U.S. ports during the exclusionary era between 1882 and 1943, Sau Ung would eventually face scrutiny over her citizenship. During her time as a Yale law student, she was refused re-entry after traveling to Europe due to her Chinese background. Understanding due process and her rights as a U.S. citizen, Sau Ung vividly recalls “scream[ing] ‘habeas corpus’” (a petition for release from unjust imprisonment) when detained by officials and was released.[1] It was at this moment she became acutely aware that her legal training could serve as a potent weapon to challenge xenophobic policies imposed on the Chinese American community.

Insight into Sau Ung’s ability to navigate immigration complexities can be gleaned from her husband’s nearly 300-page immigration file. These records captured her struggle to collect evidence to prove Hin Cheung Chan’s claim as a U.S. citizen – an undertaking that spanned 10 years. This crusade to establish Hin Cheung’s birthright citizenship affected not only the couple’s ability to reside in the U.S., but Sau Ung’s own citizenship as well. By the time they married in 1929, Sau Ung lost her citizenship since at this time, any American woman who married an alien ineligible to naturalize (mainly applied to those of Asian descent) would be deprived of her U.S. citizenship.

Doubts over Hin Cheung’s citizenship stemmed from a mix of family migration and draconian decisions made by immigration officials. Despite being born in San Francisco and moving to China as an infant, Hin Cheung unknowingly returned to the U.S. on a Chinese student visa. Upon learning of his true birthplace, Hin Cheung filed a claim to American citizenship only to face rejection from immigration officials due to his prior assertion of Chinese birth.

After marrying, the couple moved to China where they gathered affidavits from family and friends, as well as letters from American and Chinese officials who petitioned on their behalf. The couple also faced an unexpected hurdle obtaining the affidavit from Hin Cheung’s mother, Loui Oy, who was vexed over their marriage given that she had already chosen a wife for him.

Hin Cheung’s sister’s affidavit with photos of herself as an adult and child, their mother, and Hin Cheung as an adult and child. Arrival Case File 40388/001-01 (NAID 296445)

As the couple continued their efforts in China, revised U.S. naturalization policies in the mid-1930s provided a pathway for women married to foreign men to reclaim citizenship, which allowed Sau Ung to successfully petition repatriation for herself and her sister-in-law. As the law was amended to let women confer derivative citizenship to children born abroad, Sau Ung and her daughter moved to Hawai’i where she continued her quest to restore her husband’s citizenship. By chance, she was able to locate a photostatic copy of his California birth certificate which was thought to have been lost due to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Along with Loui Oy’s affidavit which she eventually signed in 1937 (spurred by the impending Second World War) and a final immigration hearing, Sau Ung finally succeeded in restoring Hin Cheung’s American citizenship in 1940 and the family reunited thereafter.

Certificate of Citizenship – Hawaiian Islands for Sau Ung Loo Chan (NAID 1565934). Special travel documents were designed for those born in Hawai’i. Read more about these certificates in this History Hub blog.
Letter from Sau Ung to Edward L. Haff, SF Immigration District Director, 1940. This letter lists the exhibits gathered by Sau Ung to support her husband’s claim to US citizenship. Arrival Case File 40388/001-01 (NAID 296445)

Sau Ung’s exhaustive and determined efforts on her husband’s appeal prompted an immigration official to recommend her application for a position with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Regrettably, due to an illness, her tenure with the INS was brief. Despite this, Sau Ung’s personnel file holds commendatory reviews from esteemed colleagues nationwide. In her application, she also detailed the legal counsel she provided for others in China during the same decade she dedicated to advocating for her family’s behalf.

Letter from Victor S.K. Houston to J.R. Espinosa, 1941; Official Personnel Folder of Sau Ung Loo Chan; Immigration and Naturalization Service (NAID 3758206)

By the mid-1940s, Sau Ung returned to Hawai’i, passed the bar, and launched her legal career. While estate and guardianship formed her core practice, she found herself drawn to immigration law. Her dedication was such that the INS Central Office devoted a file specifically for her appeals. Between 1947 and 1948, Sau Ung secured wins for two groups of Chinese immigrants in Hawai’i. Her correspondence, at times resembling legal briefs, championed for the registry of lawful admission for the “Chin Sams” and the reentry permits for Chinese merchants and their family. The petition for the merchants even resulted in an amendment to the Immigration Act of 1924.

Though this INS file only captured these two cases, Sau Ung’s fight for Chinese Americans and their rightful place in the U.S extended far beyond. One can only imagine the impact she could have made if she had been able to continue her work with the INS and had served from within the system.

Further reading and resources:

[1] Tyau, Blossom Y. “Sau Ung Loo Chan,” in Called from Within: Early Women Lawyers of Hawaii, ed. Mari J. Matsuda (The Hawaii Women’s Legal Foundation, 1992), p176.

3 thoughts on “Sau Ung Loo Chan, An Advocate for American Citizenship and Immigrant Rights

  1. A very enlightening article regarding the battle for the truth in a era that held Asians in disrespect during a battle of human rights in America. The highest honors should be given to this woman of epic proportions in her ongoing struggles to right many wrongs. Thanks to Ruth Chan for bringing this out of the archives.

  2. I am glad I was able to provide you with the scans you needed. I look forward to reading this article through.

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