PIEDMONT -- Many early immigrants to the United States either changed or altered their names -- or had them altered by immigration officials -- but Chinese immigrants found themselves in a unique position when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.

It was the only time a U.S. law singled out a particular race for exclusion.

This year marks 70 years since the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was introduced as a way to keep cheap Chinese labor out of the United States. Certain Chinese groups, such as scholars and merchants, were exempt from the immigration restrictions.

"It was during that window when the law was in effect that my father came to the U.S. as a teen," said William Wong, 72, a retired journalist and former columnist and assistant managing editor with the Oakland Tribune and a reporter with The Wall Street Journal who lives in Piedmont with his wife, Joyce. Wong and his wife have one son, Sam Mende-Wong, 31, who recently got married.

"Many Chinese immigrants came to California during the Gold Rush and through the mid-20th century from the region where my father grew up in the rice-growing Pearl River Delta."

Wong's father, whose name was Seow Hong Gee, came through the Angel Island Immigration Station and settled in Oakland's Chinatown.


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Wong said immigrants had to devise many ways of working around the exclusion act to get into the United States, including "paper sons and daughters," children on paper only who created identity slots that were given or sold to other Chinese immigrants.

"Despite the act, a lot of Chinese immigrants wanted to come to the U.S. to live and make money," Wong said. "Families risked the ill treatment in the U.S. and were willing to go through all sorts of crazy schemes because they wanted 'gold on the streets of California.' "

Wong's father met his first wife in China and they had one daughter together before she passed away.

"When my father wanted to bring his second wife, my mother, back to the U.S. in 1933, he had to list her as his 'sister' on immigration papers, since the law prohibited him from bringing in a 'wife,' " Wong said. "In reality, they were married with three daughters."

In 1934, Wong's mother, Theo Quee Gee, became pregnant with another daughter.

"What to do? She was supposed to be my father's sister, a single woman who is now pregnant," Wong said.

Wong's father hired a man whose surname was "Wong" to "marry" his mother to legitimize her pregnancy.

"My mother took the Wong surname, but within Chinatown we were always known as the 'Gee' family," said Wong, who is the youngest of seven siblings and the only boy. "Outside Chinatown, I and my three sisters who were born in the U.S. went by the name of Wong."

Wong said there was no confusion on his part about the situation since name changing was a common way to circumvent the exclusion act. He said there were lots of other Chinatown families who had similar kinds of dual-identity situations.

"On official documents, such as school registration, I carried the name of Wong," he said. "There was never any doubt in Chinatown that we were all the 'Gee' family. I don't remember it being a big deal."

However, after the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, Wong said it became increasingly easy for Chinese-Americans to assimilate into mainstream U.S. society.

"It was an opening to Chinese-Americans to broader participation and involvement in American society, including jobs and housing."

Wong's family, who owned a restaurant on Webster Street from 1944 to 1961, moved from Chinatown to the China Hill area of Oakland -- a few blocks from Oakland High School -- when Wong was 7 years old.

"Before World War II, that was mostly a white neighborhood, but after the war, it became more accessible to Chinese," Wong said.

By the time Wong was a student at Oakland High School in 1954, he spoke English and was losing some of his Chinese language skills.

"I was becoming socialized into American culture, while still retaining links to Chinatown," he said.

He graduated from UC Berkeley in 1962 with a liberal arts degree, but even then, he didn't know about the Chinese Exclusion Act or the isolation of the population of Chinatown.

"I learned about that much later through journalism, books and articles and talking to people," he said. "There was nothing in the Cal curriculum back then that dealt with Chinese-American history. The 1960s marked the beginning of the ethnic studies movement."

Wong, who became editor of The Daily Californian during tumultuous times at the university, went on to become a reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

"We were doing a lot of political stuff at the Daily Cal which sowed the seeds for my interest in American politics," said Wong, who wrote features on Asian-American topics for The Wall Street Journal and later as a columnist for the Oakland Tribune.

Over the years, Wong's interest in his family history and Chinese-American history grew.

"The 1960s saw a huge turmoil in American society, including the birth of the Asian-American movement," he said. "I picked up on that and began unearthing stuff -- it was the beginning of my self-education and interest in the history of Chinatown and my family."

In 2004, Wong published "Images of America: Oakland's Chinatown," a pictorial history with 215 photographs (Arcadia Publishing Co., 2004).

Since 2011, he's been busy on a family history project.

"It focuses on my father's life story. I intend to write a book about him," he said.

Wong also intends to reclaim his family name of Gee -- he already has the Chinese character for the name tattooed on his left arm.

"A couple of months ago, I decided to legally change my name to William Gee Wong," said Wong, who filled out all the necessary paperwork at the county courthouse. "It will be Valentine's Day, 2014, when it becomes official that I have 'Gee' as my middle name."

He said he looks forward to seeing "William Gee Wong" printed on his upcoming book about his father's life.