P is for Paper Son
No matter the time in history or place of origin, immigrants in search of a better life will go to almost any lengths to secure it—even if it means circumventing the law. To protect American jobs during a slumping economy, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which meant that only certain groups of Chinese immigrants and their family members could be allowed in or granted U.S. citizenship. Chinese merchants were acceptable because they didn’t replace American laborers.
Young men who didn’t fall into that merchant category would pose as the blood relatives of legal immigrants, often by paying the legal immigrants a fee. They would take on new names, produce fake documents, and memorize family histories so they could pass probing interrogations by U.S. immigration officials. They in effect became legal “sons,” but only on paper. Such deception increased exponentially after 1906, when birth and immigration records were lost in San Francisco’s massive earthquake and fire. Suddenly everyone came from a legal family, and there were no documents to prove otherwise. Fortunately the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, which eliminated the need for “paper sons.”
Q is for Qingming Festival
I love the idea behind this Chinese family holiday, and wish we had something similar in our western culture. In English it’s known as “Tomb Sweeping Day” or “Ancestors’ Day.” Held roughly two weeks after the spring Equinox (in early April), Qingming is a time for remembering and honoring one’s forefathers. Besides cleaning off the grave sites, family members offer food, tea, wine, chopsticks and other delicacies to the dearly departed. They pray and often burn “joss paper,” which is also called “spirit” or “ghost” money, to help support their ancestors in the afterlife. Made of bamboo or rice, the paper is often white, the Chinese color for mourning. Families try to gather in celebration to honor their deceased relatives. They also consider Qingming the start of spring planting season. Even young couples use the festival to begin their courtships. Qingming takes place in The Depth of Beauty; I use it to show it’s possible to both venerate tradition and still look forward.
R is for Royal Chinese Theater
I would love to attend a true Chinese theater sometime (and no, I don’t mean the old Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood!). San Francisco’s Royal Chinese Theater, built in the mid-nineteenth century, was the first theater in the United States that catered specifically to Chinese patrons. It put on Cantonese operas filled with familiar history and tradition, often starring actors from the homeland. Music was provided by boisterous Chinese gongs, flutes and drums. Homesick immigrants found the shows a welcome diversion and an easy way to meet up with friends. Hundreds of Chinese men would pack into the downstairs level of the auditorium, sitting on benches while smoking, eating and chatting, even during the performance. Women, relegated to a separate upstairs viewing gallery, also used the time to socialize. Even the actors joined in as they took short breaks at the back of the stage in full view of the audience. The cost of a ticket back then? Twenty cents for Chinese and a whopping fifty cents for whites. In The Depth of Beauty, Will Firestone and his sister attend a performance with a couple of elitist friends who consider the theater a strange, titillating adventure. Something happens during the performance, however, which throws all of them off kilter.