When Bock Guey Yee turned 18, he left Guangdong province in China for the United States and lost his name. He didn't get it back for almost 60 years.
"His official name for immigration and all legal purposes was the 'paper name' he used to get into the country," says son Jordan Yee, of Fremont, "His paper surname on all his legal documents was Mr. Lam G. Tuck. When my dad was in his late 70s, we had his name officially changed by the court back to his real name."
The use of a paper name was a way to get around the anti-Chinese exclusion laws first passed in the 1870s. By the time the senior Yee came to the States in 1930, the laws had been on the books for more than 50 years.
"Conditions in southern China would have been pretty bad. In that period China was experiencing the civil war. ... My father said it was remittances from America that kept him going and afforded him to go to school. Despite this the U.S. still offered economic opportunities. And in the context of my family, his father and his grandfather had established a family tradition of going to the U.S. for economic opportunity."
By the time Yee came through the Port of Seattle, his own father and grandfather had died many years before in Oakland. So he got on a train and went to South Dakota.
"Because that's where his extended family contact were, cousins and distant 'uncles' (i.e. men from the same village if not actual blood relations)."
Yee found work in a laundry. After a while he went to work in a restaurant and made a career out of cooking. While in later years he was reluctant to talk about his early days in America, he did talk about going to high school and learning English. He also had fond memories about riding a horse for the first time.
"When my dad arrived in the United States, he was already a married man. ... Over the years he made three or four trips back to China to be with and care for his wife."
With the advent of World War II, the elder Yee decided to join the Army.
"This was even though he was old, 36; because he like other Chinese-Americans saw this as a way to break across the exclusion acts."
Enlisting in the Army wasn't that simple.
"Chinese immigrant men who had entered as a 'paper son' as my dad did had to re-enter the U.S. legally in order to be properly inducted into the U.S. Army. Thus even though he entered in Fort Blanding in Florida, he was flown to Los Angeles where he and other Chinese-American men were naturalized."
Yee was then sent back to Fort Blanding and then to Fort Benning, Ga., where he trained enlistees and draftees how to cook and operate field kitchens.
In 1943 the Chinese exclusion act was repealed. But it wasn't until the 1946 Chinese War Brides Act that Yee could have his wife join him in the United States.
And it wasn't until this year that Congress apologized for having passed the anti-Chinese exclusion laws in the first place.
Days Gone By appears Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at email@example.com.