HomeTucson Speaks!: The PodcastSpot#01: Fighting for Citizenship

Spot#01: Fighting for Citizenship

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This is Tucson Speaks! featuring voices from the collections  of the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center’s Oral History Program. I’m Priscilla Martinez.

Born in 1838 in Guangdong Province in southeast China, Kwong Lee immigrated to the United States in 1861 at the age of 23. When he stepped off the passenger steamship at the port of San Francisco, Kwong Lee entered a country on the precipice of a civil war. Called to serve in his newly-adopted country, Kwong Lee enlisted in the U.S. Navy in May of 1862. Three months later in July of that same year, desperate for Union soldiers, the U.S. Congress passed an act that stated that any foreign-born male living in the United States not yet naturalized at age twenty-one could enlist and be granted full citizenship if they could prove at least one year’s residency. Kwong Lee would go on to serve for three years on a Mississippi gunboat and mail vessel as a cabin boy, one of the only jobs afforded to non-white soldiers. He would be shot five times in service of his country.

Raymond Lim, a Chinese Tusconan, remembers his grandfather Kwong Lee’s participation in the Civil War.

Lim: Because he was in the Civil War, later on he was granted a citizen. He became—They gave him citizenship in the United States.

In 1874 in St. Louis, Missouri, Kwong Lee would file for and receive his naturalization papers, which gave him the ability to cross transnational borders as a citizen in an era of increasing Sinophobia.

However, in a country divided by race in the late-nineteenth century, issues of citizenship, particularly for Chinese peoples, came under immense scrutiny. Kwong Lee would move to La Colorada, Sonora, to run and operate a gold mine in the early-1890s, presumably to escape the mounting Sinophobia taking root in his home state of California.

Raymond Lim recounts how his grandfather negotiated citizenship in the face of Chinese Exclusion.

Lim: And, so he was a citizen. And then because of the Chinese Exclusion Act—

Martinez: Uh-hm

Lim: They revoked his citizenship. So they took it away from him. After that he went to Mexico and he worked and he learned how to make cigars. He was a cigar maker down there. And then, I guess he got the urge to go hunt for gold so he had a little gold mine down there, and then that’s when he took two of his kids—the oldest kid down to Mexico. And then my grandmother knew he was down there so she took off and went to look for him.

His wife, Lai Ngan, and his children did indeed join Kwong Lee in Mexico where they moved around northern Sonora running various grocery stores and cigar shops for much of the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries. Kwong Lee would later return to San Francisco in 1908.

In the process of filing for his Naval Veteran’s pension and registering to vote, Kwong Lee’s military naturalization was revoked and his pensioned denied. These actions may have reflected then recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that held that foreign-born Chinese were unfit to be citizens.

Many newspapers at the time claimed that Kwong Lee was the only Chinese man granted military naturalization only for it to be rescinded decades later. In fact, he was one of many Asian military veterans in the post-Civil War era who were promised naturalization through service. However, like Kwong Lee their citizenship was revoked years or even decades after their service in the midst of mounting xenophobia and nativism during the Chinese Exclusion era.

Yet, despite federal exclusionary laws, Kwong Lee and his family would go on to live transnational lives and form communities in California, Sonora, and Arizona. This demonstrated that, while precarious, for borderland Chinese like Kwong Lee and his family, belonging could be fluid and negotiable even in the face of national exclusion.

After his death in 1913 in San Francisco, Kwong Lee’s wife,  Lai Ngan, would remarry and eventually re-settle with her family for the final time in Tucson, Arizona, in 1918. Stories like Kwong Lee’s can illustrate both the complexities of citizenship and the day-to-day flexibility of belonging in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

This project was produced by the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center and was made possible in part by a fellowship from The Humanities Institute at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and a grant from the Southwestern Foundation for Education and Historical Preservation.

Tucson Speaks! is available on Apple Podcast and Soundcloud. For more information about the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center’s Oral History Program or our collection, visit us at www.tucsonchinese.org

For Further Reading on Chinese Participation in the Civil War:

Day, Alex. “The Blue, the Gray, and the Chinese.” Website. Accessed 4 July 2018. http://bluegraychinese.blogspot.com/

McCunn, Ruthann Lum. “Chinese in the Civil War: Ten Who Served.” Website. Accessed 4 July 2018.  http://www.mccunn.com/Civil-War.pdf

Shively, Carol A., Ed. Asian and Pacific Islanders and the Civil War. Washington D.C.: The National Park Service, 2015.

Sohoni, Deenesh and Amin Vafa. “The Fight to Be American: Military Naturalization and Asian Citizenship.” Asian American Law Journal 17, No. 1(2010), Accessed 4 July 2018. http://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/aalj/vol17/iss1/4