Who were our female ancestors? What did they do? What was life like for them? In honour of Women’s History Month, I bring you the story of Aileen Won Cumyow. In this post, I would like to share with you what is in a Chinese Exclusion Act Case File and why, if you have Chinese ancestors who lived and travelled during the Chinese Exclusion Act period (~1882-1943, although records exist beyond 1943), you have a rich, untapped resource for genealogical records, even if your family was Canadian and never lived in the United States.
This post is a follow up to my post 13 databases for Chinese Ancestry on Ancestry.com and concerns the records at the Seattle branch of the National Archives and Records Adminstration (NARA) of the United States.
What are Case Files?
Case Files may contain photos, questionnaires, letters, immigration forms, landing records, and indices. They may be anywere from a few to a few hundred pages.
What was in Aileen’s Case File?
I have to admit, when the file arrived in my email on Friday afternoon, I was able to wait all of five minutes before dropping what I was doing to look at it, and once I started reading, I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. There are 49 pages in her file – nearly all are single paged documents. I counted 42 separate letters, memos or forms.
Here’s what happened.
Summer of 1925 – visiting friends
Aileen Won Cumyow was born on 1 May 1901 in Vancouver, BC to parents Won Alexander Cumyow and Yea Chan Cumyow. The Cumyow family of Vancouver are longtime and highly respected Chinese residents of British Columbia.
Aileen’s Case File story begins when she applies for permission to travel to Seattle, WA on 29 Jun 1925. This is the trip I found when I was researching and found her Case File index number. Little did I know then how much more I would learn about her.
Before Aileen can leave the country, she must assemble the necesssary paperwork:
- Registration of Birth proving she was born in Vancouver, BC
- Four affidavits: Aileen and 3 others: her father, the Canadian Pacific Railway agent, and her father’s coworker
- A Chinese Immigration Certificate #10 – Permission to leave Canada to visit the USA (and return)
- This photo
She submits all of these to the Consul General in Vancouver, Harold S. Tewell. In this file, there is a detailed memorandum from Mr. Tewell summarizing the merits of her visa application: a “Section 6 Précis.”
- Her personal details: name, birthplace, family, social standing in the community, and how much financial backing she has so she won’t be a burden on the US government during her stay;
- Her travel details: the class of travel, the dates of when she’s planning to enter and when she’s planning to leave, what she plans to do, where she plans to go and who she plans to see; and
- Her references: Who she’s connected to in Canada and the USA
Insamuch as the father of this applicant is amply able to send her to the United States for the summer vacation and she, herself both from appearance and education belongs to the “traveler” class entitled to Section 6 Certificates, it has been thought advisable to visa the same.Précis of Section 6 Certificate, American Consulate General, Vancouver, BC, Canada, June 25, 1925. Harold S. Tewell. One page. RG 85, Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files, Seattle District, File 7022/9-I, Aileen Won Cunyow, Chinese Showboat Co. Page 47 of 49 total documents.
Can I say here that writing like this makes me flinch? I worked for lawyers for a decade. The best of them avoided the passive voice and wrote directly. “… it has been thought advisable to visa the same,” could be: “We issued a visa.” Don’t even get me started on using “visa” as a verb.
Aileen returned to Canada in Aug 1925 but the paper trail didn’t end with her return.
When Aileen was questioned at the port of Seattle on how long she intended to stay in the country, she said, “…maybe one month and maybe even a year.” She was charged a head tax of USD$8.00 (USD$120 today) for a stay up to 8 months. In other words, although her paperwork said she planned to travel during the summer, five extra words caused her to be charged a head tax.
For the next 3 months, Aileen’s brother Gordon Cumyow wrote to Luther Weedin, Commissioner of Immigration, Seattle, for a refund but no dice. Mr. Weedin wrote,
In order to be entitled to a refund certificate, it is necessary under the Law that a person definitively declare at time of admission that departure will be within the period described that refund may be made, otherwise the head tax is turned into the Treasury as absolute tax and cannot be refunded.Letter from Luther Weedin, Commissioner, to Gordon W. Cumyow, 17 Sep 1925, File #3652-I-2, One page. RG 85, Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files, Seattle District, File 7022/9-I, Aileen Won Cunyow, Chinese Showboat Co. Page 38 of 49 total documents.
1928 – Touring with the Chinese Showboat Company
In 1928, Aileen and her sister Mae are actresses, touring the USA with the Chinese Showboat Company. Aileen crosses the border from Vancouver to Seattle three times: on 2 Jul 1928; 21 Sep 1928; and 14 Nov 1928. This time, Aileen must post a Public Charge and Departure Bond of USD$900 (USD $13,780 today).
In March, 1929, Aileen and Mae are planning a trip to Europe with the theatrical company, but their plans fall through. They go instead to Montréal to visit cousins. The Montréal, Vancouver, and Seattle offices of the Commisioner of Immigration confer with one another and phone Aileen and Mae’s brother, Harry, to confirm their whereabouts.
Aileen’s visa is revoked as she has left the United States.
On 30 Jun 1930, Aileen writes to the Commissioner of Immigration in Seattle to ask for permission to use her pre-existing bond to re-enter the United States. She is denied and must re-apply.
1930 – Last tour with the Chinese Showboat Company
Aileen resumes touring the USA with the Chinese Show Boat Company in Jul 1930. This time, she must post a Public Charge and Departure bond of USD$1000 (USD $15,730 today), which she takes out with R.V. Winch & Co. Ltd., the Vancouver agent for the National Surety Company of New York. The bond is good for a six-month stay and expires on 28 Feb 1931.
The immigration offices of Seattle, Vancouver, and Washington, DC discuss her visa application before she is approved to enter the United States at Seattle on 30 Jul 1930.
Getting the money back
Aileen and her sister Mae return to Canada via Montréal in February, 1931, but it takes 8 letters before the bond is released.
- Feb 17 1931 – The letters begin with the bond company R.V. Winch who first writes to the Commissioner of Immigration at Seattle to ask to release the bond money.
- Feb 18 to Mar 12 – The Commissioners of Vancouver, Seattle, Montréal, and Washington, DC confirm with one another through 6 letters that Aileen and Mae are in Montréal and the bond may be released.
- Mar 16 1931 – The Seattle Commissioner writes to the National Surety Company releasing the bond.
As I read this stream of correspondence, I can’t help but think that Aileen must have thought the process nerve-wrackingly slow, but was for its day remarkably efficient.
The last letter in Aileen’s Case File is a letter from the Commissioner of Immigration, Vancouver, to his counterpart in Montréal, confirming Aileen is still in Canada as of Aug 1932.
Locations of the Commissions of Immigration in this Case File: west to east: Vancouver, BC, Canada; Seattle, WA, USA; Washington, DC, USA; and Montréal, QC, Canada.
Unlike all my other genealogical posts, this one derives all of its information from ONE case file.
There are so many things that come up for me as I read through this file, but uppermost is how hard it was for Aileen to do her job. She is a live performer. If she can’t travel with her touring company, her career is over. I think of the bureaucracy surrounding entertainers already – how many of them could afford to perform if they had to post a USD $15,000 bond each time they performed in the United States?
The second impression is surprise as how closely Aileen’s movements were monitored even when she was in Canada.
The third is how few Chinese would have had the resources to do anything similar: post pricey bonds, travel, and establish relationships with the Commissioners of every city. If the price of doing business was having USD $15,000 (as of today: CAD $19,878 / AUS $22,976 / 11,496 pounds / 13,602 Euros) cash on hand, my guess is that most of them wouldn’t exist today.
There’s one final document in this file. It’s a Reference Card, and it lists all of Aileen’s relatives who also have Case Files with the Commissioner of Immigration. If I wanted to pursue this, I’d have 7 more Case Files to review:
- Father, Alexander Won Cumyow
- Mother, Yea Chan Cumyow
- Brother, Harry Won Cumyow
- Sister, Margaret Won Cumyow
- Sister, Mae Won Cumyow
- Brother, Victor Won Cumyow
- Brother, Clifton Won Cumyow
Aileen travelled in the USA from 1924-1931. Her file concerned trips made in 1925, 1928, and 1930. Had she continued, I have no doubt her file would have been very much larger.
The Cumyows and the Yips are related.
How this was done
I wrote to the Seattle Archives with the Chinese Exclusion Act Case File number at 11:45 pm on Friday, February 28, 2020 and was surprised and pleased to get an answer by Monday afternoon.
The archivist explained I was welcome to visit in person, but there was an option for them to pull the file on my behalf and have it copied at USD $0.80/page. They were sensitive to costs, suggesting I might find it more cost-effective to visit if I had many files I wished to see. It took one week from request to fulfillment and cost USD $39.20.
Then I put on my analytical hat and went to work. I have deep experience in organizing and analysing correspondence. I used Excel but you can use any document system so long as it allows you to build tables.
The trick is to record these details:
- File number(s) – all
- Description of letter contents – “LT” means “Letter to,” and “re:” means “regarding”
After that was done, I inserted a filter to sort by date of correspondence, and numbered them from earliest to latest. (Click on the picture below to see it larger.)
If you’d like a blank copy of this sheet, please contact me through my website, in the lower left corner.
This week, thanks go out to the Seattle Archives, for speed, knowledge and humour under trying conditions; to cousin Doug for his interest in my work and enthusiasm for genealogy; to Marisa Louie Lee for her expertise in American archives; and to the wildly varied and fascinating genealogists I meet along the way. Thank you – I couldn’t do it without you.