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Numbed with Fear: Chinese Americans and McCarthyism

From the Collection: The Asian American and Pacific Islander Experience

When China entered the Korean War, Chinese Americans scrambled to demonstrate their loyalty to the United States.

Two immigration officers interrogate Chinese immigrants suspected of being Communists or deserting seamen at Ellis Island. January 31, 1951, Getty

When Senator Joseph McCarthy began to allege that “known communists” were working at the State Department, he and his allies paid no attention to Chinese Americans. Instead, they accused Owen Lattimore, a U.S. wartime advisor to Chiang Kai-shek, and other “China hands” in the U.S. foreign service of creating “American policy in Asia which has resulted in the loss of China, with its 400 million inhabitants, to Soviet Russia.” In these early months of 1950, a small handful of Chinese Americans did face persecution, but only because of their association with the US Communist Party or with leftist groups in America.

When the People’s Republic of China entered the Korean War on the side of North Korea, however, Chinese American communities and their politics suddenly attracted public attention in new and unwelcome ways. In late 1950, with China and the US essentially at war, the veteran journalist Gilbert Woo described his fellow Chinese Americans as “numbed with fear” and wrestling with the sense that “being Chinese is itself a crime.” Outside of Chinatown areas, vandals attacked several Chinese-owned businesses, while Chinese Americans, many of whom remembered the World War II government incarceration of the West Coast Japanese American population, scrambled to demonstrate their loyalty to the United States. Businesses withdrew advertising from community newspapers that seemed too supportive of the People’s Republic of China, including New York’s China Daily News and San Francisco’s China Weekly and Chung Sai Yat Po, and readers cancelled their subscriptions. Chinese American veterans’ groups marched in anti-communist parades, carrying American flags and banners denouncing the “reds.” Even children felt the need to prove their loyalty: San Francisco’s 1951 Chinese New Year parade included a girls’ marching band carrying signs urging onlookers to “rid the world of communism.

China’s involvement in the Korean War exposed the unique vulnerability of Chinese Americans, who had long grappled with public and official hostility to their citizenship and rights. In 1882, the United States barred almost all immigration from China and prohibited Chinese from naturalizing. With this legislation, the Chinese became the only national group the US government ever singled out by name for exclusion. In the decades after that, thousands of Chinese emigrated unlawfully, usually by posing as the children of U.S.-born citizens or “legally domiciled” Chinese merchants. These “papers sons” (and a few “paper daughters”) lived their lives knowing that if their true status came to light, they faced deportation. But even Chinese American citizens born on US soil faced deep racial discrimination in almost every area of their lives.

After Pearl Harbor, though, the Chinese American sociologist Rose Hum Lee joked that “as violently as the Chinese were once attacked, they are now glorified and mounted on a pedestal.” Once the United States entered World War II, the Republic of China became a key American ally against Japan, which had occupied much of China since 1937. Large numbers of Chinese Americans enlisted in the military or worked in the defense industry. In late 1943, Congress finally repealed Chinese exclusion, allowing Chinese immigrants to naturalize and giving China a token immigration quota of 105 people per year. That tiny number revealed the persistence of anti-Asian racism in the United States, and repeal did nothing to help paper sons and daughters. Still, many lawful immigrants naturalized in the years after 1943, while legislation passed right after the war enabled many Chinese American citizens to bring China-born spouses to the United States after years of separation.

Chinese American Woman's Voluntary Service. Back row, Mrs. Florence Wong, Mrs. Helen Chan, Mrs. Lily Chu; center: Mrs. Elizabeth Ong, Mrs. Bik Lee; front: Mrs. Josephine Hong, chairman of the New York Division of AWVS. 1942, Library of Congress.

Given their ties to family in China, Chinese Americans paid close attention to events there, and some even participated in Chinese politics. The civil war that broke out in 1946 between China’s ruling Nationalist Party and the Chinese Communist Party provoked heated debates in Chinese American communities. Major cities like New York, San Francisco and Honolulu were home to branches of the ruling Nationalist Party, whose most famous U.S. member was the California-born Albert Chow, a gregarious San Francisco Democratic leader and friend of President Harry Truman. At the same time, a small number of Chinese Americans were committed communists. 

The vast majority of Chinese Americans belonged to neither group, but as the civil war continued, many in the community expressed particular disgust at the Nationalists’ corruption and economic mismanagement. Honolulu native and Chinese Democratic Constitutionalist Party leader Jun-ke Choy even wrote directly to Secretary of State Dean Acheson to argue that a non-communist China “has no future until this cancerous Nationalist faction is eliminated.” 

The debate intensified after the Chinese Communist Party officially established the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. In New York, the leftist Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance, Chinese Youth Club and China Daily News all raised People’s Republic of China flags over their buildings in solidarity with the new regime; the local Nationalist branch and the Chinese consulate unsuccessfully demanded that the mayor and police commissioner remove the flags. In San Francisco, violence erupted when a group of leftists, most of them Chinese Americans, held a celebration of the new government. As the gathering began, pro-Nationalist thugs entered the building and beat the attendees. The next day, posters appeared in the city’s Chinatown listing fifteen Chinese American People’s Republic of China supporters as marked for death and offering a $5000 reward to anyone willing to kill them.

This ferocious community debate about the future of China attracted little outside attention, even as Joseph McCarthy and his supporters sought scapegoats for what they called America’s “loss of China.” By framing the outcome of the civil war this way, McCarthy not only cast China as America’s to lose but also avoided blaming the real culprit for the Nationalist Party’s defeat: the Nationalists themselves. Many Chinese Americans knew better, though, and the Truman administration’s initial unwillingness to defend Taiwan enabled them to say as much. The outbreak of the Korean War changed that, too. Many Chinese Americans not only came to believe that they needed to publicly demonstrate their anti-communism but also that they must express support for the Chiang regime after it received U.S.  backing again. 

Nationalist Party leaders used this to enhance their influence in communities across the country, often in ways meant to intimidate ordinary Chinese Americans into conformity. In late 1950, the decades-old Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of San Francisco, known as the “Chinese Six Companies,” created the Chinese Six Companies Anti-Communist League. When fearless Chinese World publisher Dai-ming Lee accused the League’s leaders of diverting donations intended for US soldiers in Korea to the Chiang government, the local Nationalist Party threatened Lee, who eventually hired guards to protect his newspaper and his own safety.

Many Nationalist Party supporters also secretly passed information and rumors about community leftists to federal agencies, which viewed Chinese Americans as potential subversives and monitored many of them. Future San Francisco community historian Him Mark Lai, an American-born engineer active in local leftist organizations, found himself the target of such FBI surveillance. Still, he knew that his U.S. citizenship protected him from much worse; after all, the Department of State had seized the passport of his foreign-born wife Laura. In addition, the Lais and other community members increasingly came to realize that pro-Nationalists were exposing left-wing “paper sons” to Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents, who sought to deport a number of such people.

Albert Kam Chow (known as the unofficial mayor of San Francisco's Chinatown), Senator Harry S. Truman (second from left), and unidentified men eating with chopsticks at a luncheon in San Francisco, California. 1942, Truman Library and Museum.

In late 1950, federal officials gained even greater leverage over the community when President Truman used the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act to impose economic sanctions on the People’s Republic of China. In New York, the Treasury Department invoked the act to bring criminal charges against the editors and staff of the leftist China Daily News for running advertisements for Hong Kong branches of People’s Republic of China-backed banks. Convicted in 1954, the paper’s editor Eugene Moy died in prison, while many on his staff returned to China.

The economic sanctions also affected thousands of ordinary Chinese Americans who regularly remitted money to family in Guangdong, the ancestral province of almost all people of Chinese ancestry in the United States. At the very moment such remittances became illegal, the People’s Republic of China intensified its land reform campaign on the mainland. In Guangdong, some local Chinese Communist Party cadres started to target the families of “overseas Chinese,” not just seizing their holdings but also pressuring them to ask relatives abroad for money, usually for the payment of land taxes. Ethnic Chinese across the world, including the United States, began to receive letters begging for help and outlining the dire consequences their families in China would face if they did not provide such assistance. In response, fearful Chinese Americans of all political persuasions violated US law to send their relatives more than a million dollars. Far more expressed profound distress about the situation, and at least one, a Bronx laundry worker named Chin Hong, attempted suicide. While San Francisco’s fervently pro-Nationalist Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association warned community residents not to respond to demands for money, it did not accuse those who did of being pro-People’s Republic of China. The sense of panic and despair in the community was simply too widespread.

By late 1951, the Treasury Department moved decisively to stop the continued outflow of remittances, charging several Chinese American firms in New York and San Francisco with violating the law. Reflecting widespread ambivalence about these indictments, Dai-ming Lee and other community leaders organized a petition drive to urge the department to allow remittances again. The effort proved unsuccessful, however; remittances did not become legal again until the 1970s.

Still, the petition drive signaled that a growing number of Chinese Americans were refusing to accept the Cold War suspicion and scapegoating that had plagued them since 1950. Instead, many now sought to play a more active role in US politics in order to defend their communities. In Hawaii, which remained a territory until 1959, many members of the Chinese American population had entered politics years before the war. One of them, former territorial legislator Hiram Fong, served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1952. Another, the pioneering attorney Sau Ung Loo, testified in 1948 before the House Judiciary Committee, and her lobbying helped convince Congress to revise immigration statutes on alien reentry. Now, such pioneers’ mainland counterparts also turned to politics in significant numbers, especially on the West Coast.

The Bay Area, with its large Chinese American population, produced a welter of new activists, who attended both parties’ conventions, sought seats on county committees, stumped for their chosen candidates at all levels, and even ran for office themselves. In contrast to the approach of older politicos like Albert Chow, many of the younger pointedly avoided intracommunity debates about China’s future. Lim P. Lee, a Chow protégé who eventually broke with his mentor, recalled that “in Chinese politics, I am mute and play dumb.” Like other second-generation activists, he preferred to focus on local and state questions, federal civil rights issues, and immigration problems. 

By 1955, the immigration question had become especially pressing. After the State Department closed its consulates and embassy on the Chinese mainland, the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong became the processing center for Chinese applicants seeking entry to the U.S. as family members of lawful residents and citizens. The U.S. consul-general in the colony was Everett Drumright, whose political conservatism shielded him when Joseph McCarthy attacked the State Department. To establish that the huge backlog of applicants were who they claimed to be, Drumright required them to undergo blood tests, bone X-rays (to determine age), and extensive interrogations—and then found new reasons to reject those who cleared all these hurdles. And in 1955, he submitted to the State Department a lengthy memo titled “Report on the Problem of Fraud at Hong Kong,” contending that almost all Chinese applicants were not just imposters but also that most Chinese in the United States were fraudulent too. Furthermore, Drumright’s report portrayed Chinese attempting to enter the US from Hong Kong as potential communist subversives and agents of the People’s Republic of China.

Foreign Minister Shen Chang-huan and Ambassador to the ROC Everett Drumright signing the agreement, 1960, Central News Agency (PD)

In response to Drumright’s allegations, the Immigration and Naturalization Service cooperated extensively with the FBI to intensify investigations into Chinese immigration fraud throughout the country. In early 1956, the Department of Justice impaneled grand juries in San Francisco and New York to investigate the supposed fraud and made plans to do so elsewhere in the future. The federal government’s attack on the alleged “Chinese immigration racket” used anti-communism to justify pursuing thousands of paper sons and paper daughters, the vast majority of whom had no interest in politics.

Ironically, right-wing Nationalist supporters now discovered that their previous collusion with federal officials to persecute community leftists won them no reprieve from investigation themselves. In New York, INS agents crafted a strategy of pursuing the brokers, attorneys, and “fixers” who had made the paper son system work, and in the process they even detained Shing-tai Liang, the head of the city Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and a well-known Chinese Nationalist publisher. In San Francisco, the U.S. attorney attempted to subpoena the records of the conservative Six Companies, believing these would reveal the true names and immigration status of Chinese American residents of the area. When the group turned to the Nationalist regime for help, the State Department dismissed Taiwan’s intervention.

In the Bay Area, Chinese American activists’ growing ties to Democratic Party progressives proved crucial to protecting the community as a whole. Unable to stop the subpoenas on its own, the desperate Six Companies leadership turned to Chinese American veterans’ groups and liberal activists to craft a legal strategy. The judge who heard their challenge rejected the Justice Department subpoena as racist, as did many liberal Democratic officials and candidates in California. Chinese American community activist even managed to convince the Democratic National Committee to insert anti-discrimination language into the 1956 party platform.

In New York, however, pro-Nationalist leaders exercised far more power than in San Francisco, and the proportion of paper sons to legitimate citizens was much larger. The result was that Manhattan lacked San Francisco’s political activism, networks, and intercommunity ties. When the federal grand jury indicted ticket agent Sing Kee, a California native and decorated hero of World War I, on five counts of passport fraud, panic spread through a community uncertain about how to deal with the crisis and stunned to see one of its most prominent men arrested.

Still, federal officials began to worry that their wider investigations were bogging down because of Chinese American resistance. The subpoena challenge was just one example. In other parts of the country, Chinese organizations changed their records to protect paper sons, while witnesses in the United States and Hong Kong proved uncooperative or simply disappeared.

Finally, the San Francisco Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association in late 1956 agreed to work with the federal government to promote a new “Chinese Confession Program” that the INS eventually extended to the rest of the country. The program encouraged paper sons to confess their status and uncover their false family trees in return for leniency and a possible path to citizenship. Many of the first people to confess were veterans of World War II, who were eligible for almost automatic naturalization because of their service. However, authorities used their discretion to refuse leniency to leftists, an approach that suited the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association’s own agenda. Because the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan generally refused to accept Chinese whom the US wished to deport, many exposed paper son leftists ended up living as stateless people in the United States.

Still, most paper sons were not leftists, and the Confession Program—which operated long into the 1960s—eventually enabled thousands of such people to finally shed the burden of possible discovery and deportation. The Drumright-inspired attack on Chinese immigration fraud also inspired a growing number of second-generation people to fight for their rights. In San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Oakland, and other West Coast cities, many of the Chinese Americans who jumped into politics to defend their communities in the 1950s forged multiracial coalitions and participated in the fight for integrated housing, civil rights, and immigration reform in the 1960s and 1970s. 

After the People’s Republic of China entered the Korean War, Chinese Americans’ unique history of exclusion and political marginalization left the community unusually vulnerable to the kind of public hysteria that Joseph McCarthy and his allies fostered. Politically weak and sometimes in legal jeopardy, Chinese Americans after 1950 often felt great pressure to prove their loyalty to both the United States and Taiwan, regardless of their private sentiments. Yet by the middle of the decade, a growing number began to work not only to defend their communities from attack but to seek the kind of power that would enable Chinese Americans to gain equal rights and treatment in the United States.


McCarthy Chinese Americans author Charlotte Brooks.jpg
Charlotte Brooks

Charlotte Brooks is a professor of history at Baruch College, CUNY. Her books include American Exodus: Second Generation Chinese Americans in China, 1901-1949; Between Mao and McCarthy: Chinese American Politics in the Cold War Years; and Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban California. She is currently doing research for a book about foreigners in prewar China.

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