Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Paper Families

Immigration policy has been a steady topic for the media for many years in the United States. It has also been a rich topic for historical and other research. Estelle T. Lau’s Paper Families: Identity, Immigration Administration, and Chinese Exclusion (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006) is a study of U.S. immigration policy toward Chinese from 1882 (the year of the Chinese Exclusion Act) until 1943 and the impact of the laws, regulations, and policies on Chinese identity, community, and memory. Lau bases her study on the rich San Francisco Chinese immigrant files, considering how a loophole in the immigration system caused the Chinese to create an elaborate fictional world, inventing descriptions of Chinese locales, family relationships, and even names. Lau sees the individual immigration file, with detailed recording of responses to a lengthy set of questions and other related documents, as “surrogate informants,” (p. 8) and the result is also a detailed study of government recordkeeping and its impact on a particular group of people. Lau’s analysis is imaginative, and it is likely to draw a lot of attention in the scholarly community.

Scholars interested in the history of immigration and immigration policy will be the most interested in this study. Lau provides considerable detail about the immigrations laws, procedures, and efforts to combat the immigration restrictions. However, this is also a remarkable account of government recordkeeping, and it is an important volume for archivists and records managers curious about the evolution of government and other recordkeeping. As Lau carefully portrays, some of the laws and procedures encouraged the creation of forged or falsified records, creating “paper families,” especially after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed the Chinese public records and made it more difficult for the U.S. to counter claims about citizenship and family relationships. Her evaluation of the synergy between public policy and recordkeeping adds much to our understanding of how such record systems take shape and just what individual documents in such systems represent as evidence. The question of whether records are trustworthy or reliable appears like very differently when examined historically.

Immigration officials, most of whom could not speak or read Chinese and thus assess the veracity of applications, had to develop other approaches to regulating the arrival of the Chinese. They developed “procedural norms” as their main approach, searching for “consistency of responses to determine truthfulness,” giving rise to a growing government bureaucracy (p. 78). The immigration service also experimented with new methods of identification, including fingerprints, photographs, the Bertillon system, and physical description. There is a strong relationship between these documentation approaches and the nature and scale of the government bureaucracy: “As immigration regulators experimented with more sophisticated methods for the interrogation and analysis of Chinese entries, a bureaucracy that could sustain its administration concurrently developed” (p. 103). In modern day news media parlance, bureaucracy is associated with paperwork, and Lau’s assessment provides a historical understanding why this is not just a pejorative characterization.

As an ever more elaborate system of interrogation developed, the Chinese developed equally elaborate fictions, in terms of false identities and communities, ensuring that they would be able to gain entry to the United States. They “crafted and maintained their personal stories and family narratives carefully” (p. 47), developing coaching papers (some of which turned up in the immigration service records). As immigration officials asked increasingly more detailed questions, the Chinese generated more detailed responses, and the result was a change in the nature of their family structure and identity, altering family histories and creating new fictions of individual and community memory. Lau argues, “The creation of paper families . . . has impacted not only how Chinese perceive their history in the United States but it has also directly impacted their history, structuring Chinese family, economic, and social relations by forcing the Chinese o accept a fiction at the heart of their community” (p. 132). The result of Lau’s study is a useful understanding of the meaning of records, however routine they may appear at initial examination, one that will spur on other similar studies in my estimation.