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Since 1970 Asian American Curriculum Project, Inc. - Books for All Ages June 2003
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A Visit to the National Archive (Part 2)
By Philip Chin and Leonard Chan

In last month's May newsletter, Philip wrote about our visit to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) - Pacific Region facility located in San Bruno, California. In the May article, we gave a general overview of this NARA facility. For this month Philip writes about our return visit to the archive where we did some personal research on each our own roots. Philip's experience follows.

Research at NARA: A Personal Account (Abridged Version)
By Philip Chin

In researching your ancestors you generally start out knowing some information about your father and mother and if you're lucky something about your grandparents as well. I didn't start out with much beyond my father's name, birthdate, the street in San Francisco where he was born, some vague information about a trip to China in the 1930s, and equally vague information from a cousin that the family had at one time lived in Deadwood, South Dakota as well as in San Francisco. I also knew that my grandfather had been born in San Francisco but didn't know when. Unfortunately, my father's family has never been prone to talking much about the past. This is probably the first lesson if you ever want to look into your ancestors. Make sure your relatives talk about or write down the information so that you will have a better clue as to where to start looking.

Through searches of the indices (described in the side bar) I was finally able to find reference numbers to case files belonging to people that could be my father, uncle, and grandfather.

I gave the reference numbers listed in the ship landing cards to David Piff, the archivist assisting us, and he soon came back with the files. I looked into my supposed father's file first and at first Mr. Piff and I didn't believe it was him. The file photo looked far too young. Then the details began to fall into place. The street he was born on was the one I remembered in San Francisco. The date of birth was also correct. It turned out that the first photo in the file had been taken when my father was 8 years old and when he'd gone through his first "Immigration Service" (IS - predecessor to the INS) interrogation. I'd never seen any photos taken of him at that early an age and it was a shock to realize he'd ever been that young.

I was less surprised when I examined my uncle's file. He had pretty much the same glum expression in the photos taken when he was 14 that I was used to 40 years later. Amazing how some people never change isn't it.

My grandfather's file was fairly thick. It contained the record of his multiple returns from China and multiple documents related to his children and his wife. The IS was very thorough in cross-referencing because this was one of their main tools in enforcing the immigration acts against the Chinese.

The documents in my grandfather's file covered the period from 1911 when he'd first applied for pre-investigation to 1956 when the Social Security Administration accessed the file. Form 430 was an application for pre-investigation to the IS. To facilitate quick reentry into the US, a Chinese person would have to apply to have their status in the US investigated before they left the country. A denial of Form 430 meant either deportation or a denial of re-entry to the US. I was shocked to discover a letter from IS Inspector J.W. Nicholson recommending that my grandfather have his Form 430 denied in December 1911 based upon "discrepancies" in the accounts given between the applicant and witnesses.

I'd heard about the detailed answers required of Chinese immigrants by IS inspectors at the time but never before have I read any actual interrogation transcripts. These transcripts were obviously very moving to me because of my personal connection to the people involved. Reading about the discrimination and suspicion that Chinese faced at that time has always been disturbing but actually knowing that it affected your own relatives is something that disturbs you far more.

My grandfather had moved to Deadwood, South Dakota when he was 12 year old in 1903 and returned to San Francisco when he was 19 years old in 1911 when he put in his application. He was first asked about the building he lived in when he was 12. How many floors did it have? Where was the stairway located? Was it to the left or right of the ground floor store? What business was in the store? How many stories was the building? This proved to be a major point of interest for the IS. As part of the pre-investigation, the IS also interrogated my great-grandfather and great-grandmother. Grandfather remembered the building as having four stories, great-grandfather remembered two, and great-grandmother remembered three. Another point of IS interest was that my grandfather didn't remember living in a previous building that the family had moved from when he was 6 years old. As far as grandfather remembered, he'd lived in only one building on Commercial Street in San Francisco before he'd left for Deadwood. Inspector Nicholson stated in his recommendation, "It seems apparent to me, from these discrepancies, that this applicant is not the son of this couple, as he claims."

With this far from promising start another interrogation was ordered by a different IS inspector. "Do you remember the plaza in 1903?" "Did it have a fence around it?" "Don't you remember if there was ever any railing or fence around any part of it?" "Do you remember the Globe Hotel in Chinatown before you left?" "Where was it?" What were the locations of other prominent buildings in Chinatown? What were the locations of churches and missions, and their orientation to Chinese stores in the area? Then the questions went back to the plaza. "Are you sure there was no monument in the plaza when you left here?" "Nothing in the center?"

In his concluding report of March 1912, Inspector Charles Mayer stated "Applicant was re-examined by me and I found that he speaks English very well. He has the appearance of being thoroughly Americanized. I questioned him concerning San Francisco's Chinatown at about the time he claims to have gone to Deadwood and, from his ready answers, considering the length of time that has elapsed, I was impressed that he must have lived in San Francisco for a number of years before going to Deadwood, in order to have been so familiar with things that he described. I am inclined to think that the investigation at Deadwood and the re-examination of applicant, together with his ability to speak English, and his Americanized appearance, outweigh the discrepancies pointed out by Inspector Nicholson, for which reason I recommend favorable action."

I might never have been born except for Inspector Mayer. Grandfather was returning to China in 1912 to marry my grandmother. She would finally arrive in the US in 1917 as the "wife of a native."

(Click here to read the full-length version of this article)

Steps Taken For Our Research
  1. Get info from living and willing relatives
  2. Make contact with the regional archive that you plan to visit - share what you know with an archivist and set an appointment for a visit
  3. Equipment that we brought to the archive
    Notebook computer and scanner
  4. When you arrive at the archive, the first thing you get will be a researcher card (it's like a library card) - you will need to show some picture ID
  5. What we started with
    The archivist that was helping us started us off with immigration (INS) records - they're classified as record group 85. Inside the research room are shelves of "Finder Aid" binders to each of the record groups. The group 85 binders contain the names of people that were processed through the immigration department. We were also shown the record group 85 microfilm cabinets, which contain a much more thorough list of names. The binders are organized by date and the names are sorted alphabetically. Next to each name is a number used for finding the case file for that particular person.
  6. Write the case file number on a form to request the file and give it to an archivist for retrieval. A cross-reference list of related files can be found in the back of most files, so finding a correct match can often lead to other files with information.
Why Am I Looking
By Leonard Chan

When I started this genealogical research process with Philip, my mom kept asking a vital question, "Why are you doing this and what are you going to do with it when your done?"

My short answer is that interest in history is piqued when one studies their own past. My uncle got my curiosity juices flowing a few years ago when he wrote a short article on our family history for a reunion. I returned the favor :) two weeks ago by giving him an early report on my finding from the archive. My email to my uncle has gotten him excited enough to offer to join me on my next research visit to NARA.

For me, the fun part of this whole experience is in the sharing of my findings with the rest of my family - I really hope my nieces will appreciate this some day.

As for other reasons why I did it and why others should try it - by learning about my predecessors, I felt as though I was bring a piece of them alive again. Like many have said before, "no one is truly gone as long as you remember them."

This reminds me of something former President Nixon use to say about how no one would ever write a book about his mother. Most everyone will leave this Earth with not much ever being written about him or herself. If searching ones roots inspires people to record their own personal history too, then I say go do it. Perhaps people in the future, if they care to read it :), will learn about us and in so doing may benefit from our experiences.

Start researching your roots and writing about yourself. Somebody will care.

Up Coming Events

Here are some events that AACP will soon be attending.
Invite us to your events.
June 21
The Japanese Cultural Fair
Santa Cruz, CA
July 12-13San Jose Obon FestivalSan Jose Buddhist Temple
San Jose, CA
July 19
Books by the BayYerba Buena Gardens
San Francisco, CA
Other Event of Interest that AACP May Not Attend
June 29
10am - 4pm
Asian American and Pacific Islander Information Fair Stern Grove
San Francisco, CA

Give Us Your Feedback

Please feel free to send us your reviews, comments, and book suggestions. You can contact us at -

Editor's Message

Hello everyone. AACP's newsletter is now in its second year. When Florence, Philip, and I started this newsletter, we didn't anticipate its importance to our organization and you the readers. As the months have passed, we are slowly making improvements to its contents and I hope the trend continues for years to come.

Please continue to give us feedback and let us know what's working and what's not. Let us know what you'd like to see and we will try to accommodate. Also, keep those invitations to your events coming. We have many free weekends we'd like to fill up.

Special thanks goes out to our relatives, my uncle Gaing and others, that helped get us started on the NARA research article. Thank you David Piff at NARA for all of your help. Thank you Steven Tanamachi, one of our new interns, for giving us input on the NARA article and helping enter book description information. Thank you Kathy Reyes for the book review. Thank you all for your continued support of our organization. Hope to see you at an upcoming summer event.

Leonard Chan


The following books are discounted for subscribers to our newsletter. The discounts on these books end July 7, 2003.

An Ocean Apart, a World Away

By Lensey Namioka
2002, 197 pages, hardback.

"It's interesting reading for young people in that it keeps the reader absorbed at the same time learn about a young Chinese woman student who grew up in the old country and came here to study to become a doctor. Quite revolutionary for that time, I suspect."
A Review by Kathy Reyes

View Additional Information
ORDER -- Item #3134, Price $15.95

Grandparents Song

By Sheila Hamanaka
2003, 29 pages, hardback.

A rhyming celebration of ancestry and of the diversity that flourishes in this country.

View Additional Information
ORDER -- Item #3165, Price $15.99

Chachaji's Cup

By Uma Krishnaswami
Illustrated by Soumya Sitaraman
2003, 32 pages, hardback.

A boy learns about his family history and the Partition of India from his great uncle, through stories told over a beloved old teacup.

View Additional Information
ORDER -- Item #3163, Price $16.95

Lakas and the Manilatown Fish
Si Lakas at ang Isang Manilatown

By Anthony D. Robles
Illustrated by Carl Angel
2003, 32 pages, hardback.

A boy, his father, and an increasing number of people rush through the streets of San Francisco's historic Filipino American neighborhood, Manilatown, in pursuit of a fish that can talk and jump and play.

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ORDER -- Item #3164, Price $16.95

All Over Creation

By Ruth Ozeki
2003, 420 pages, hardback.

Meet Yumi Fuller. A Japanese American prodigal daughter, Yumi - aka Yummy - is returning home to the Idaho potato farm she ran away from twenty-five years earlier. Then a freewheeling hippie chick, Yumi is now a (semi) responsible parent and a professor with a side gig selling lava lots in Hawaii. But can she possibly be prepared to face her dying father, Alzheimer's-devastated mother, and Cass, the best friend she left behind? Not to mention a former lover whose agribusiness client has banished him to Idaho-where he lands in the small-town community he once offended and in Yumi's life. As she grapples with her conflicted past and uncertain future, Yumi collides with the Seeds of Resistance, an eco-activist group with a knack for causing trouble wherever it plants itself.

View Additional Information
ORDER -- Item #3150, Price $24.95

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