Prologue Magazine

An Alleged Wife, Part 2

One Immigrant in the Chinese Exclusion Era

Spring 2004, Vol. 36, No. 1

By Robert Barde

© 2004 by Robert Barde

Chew Hoy Quong Chew Hoy Quong, the "alleged husband" of Quok Shee. (Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, RG 85, NARA Pacific Region [San Francisco])

Ordered Deported

Rather than accept defeat, Chew turned to the courts to free his wife. To do so, he somehow brought in additional legal firepower: Dion Holm, a young, brilliant lawyer whose family had been in business in San Francisco since the gold rush.

Holm resorted to a widely recognized remedy in the Anglo-American legal system for violations of personal liberty: the writ of habeas corpus. The most important version of this writ directs someone who holds another in custody to produce the body of that person before the court in order that the court may rule on the legality of the detention. In other words: "produce the body of the person you hold, and charge that person with a crime or release him." Or her.

Chinese in the United States had long experience with writs of habeas corpus, with their American lawyers using it from the inception of the Exclusion Act to prevent the Immigration Service from denying entry to Chinese women. According to Vincent Tang, those with the most success were the Chinese criminal gangs (tong) who brought in prostitutes. With ample financial resources to hire lawyers, file writs, appeal deportations, and "grease the wheels" where needed, tong members were able to secure the entry of many prostitutes. So many, in fact, that gaining entry via a writ of habeas corpus practically labeled a woman a prostitute. In 1890, Mrs. S. L. Baldwin complained that

Cargoes of such women are landed here without certificates while wives of respectable Chinese . . . cannot land. It is maddening to think of the writ of habeas corpus, that sacred birth right of Anglo Saxons, and the safeguard of our liberties, being turned into a slave chain to drag these women down to hell.

Petitioning the court for a writ of habeas corpus was thus a necessary last resort. On November 24, the day before Quok Shee was to be deported, Dion Holm went to the Federal District Court for Northern California on behalf of Chew and filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

Judge Dooling of the U.S. District Court was known for being more favorably disposed toward immigrants (and opposed to administrators denying immigrants "ordinary fairness") than most judges. He immediately issued a court order for the commissioner of immigration to appear on November 29. The delay was a brief one. On December 15 Judge Dooling ruled in favor of the government and denied the petition of a writ of habeas corpus. Four days later, Immigration Commissioner White issued another order regarding Quok Shee to the inspector in charge, Deportation and Detention Division, Angel Island Station: "You will see that she is deported on the next available steamer of the line that brought her unless this office is in the meantime served with an order of Court staying such deportation."

The last document for 1916 in Quok Shee's case file is lawyer Holm's letter of December 22 to the Immigration Service: "You were served with an Order staying all proceedings in this matter and also a Citation to show cause why the judgment in the case as rendered by the District Court should not be corrected. These two papers constitute sufficient notice to you to stay deportation." Quok Shee's case would now go to the court of appeals, and Quok Shee would remain on Angel Island.

The Long Wait

Compared with the speed with which administrative appeals had been acted upon, the progress of Quok Shee's court case was interminably slow. Not until August 1917 would the court of appeals rule on her case. In the meantime she remained in limbo—neither charged with any crime nor free to enter the United States—and in detention on Angel Island.

Many detainees have told of the lamentable conditions of incarceration on Angel Island, of their isolation and emotional exhaustion. Told to oral historians or written on the walls of the barracks, their words speak of a desolate period in their lives. For women, the effects of incarceration were even worse. Chinese women of that period were much more likely to be uneducated and less worldly than male detainees. Their social support networks, too, were weaker. Their numbers were perhaps but one-tenth that of the men, making it less likely that they would have the companionship of someone who spoke their own dialect. Quok Shee's fate was this, and more.

Early in 1917, smallpox broke out in the female quarters on Angel Island. Quok Shee was held for observation at the Public Health Service's quarantine station on the opposite side of the island, then released on March 20. One can only imagine how the threat of smallpox and subsequent removal to the station must have compounded her sense of isolation and despair.

Her desperation did not escape notice by the Immigration Service. Less than a week after being released from quarantine, Quok Shee was interviewed by Inspector Charles Mayer and badgered to drop her appeals:

Is it true that you want your case in the courts abandoned and that you desire to be deported on the "Sib. Maru" on April 3?

Why do you want to go back and not wait for the court's decision in your case?
Well I don't know how long that is going to be and I have been here 7 months already.

Do you want to be landed in the U.S.?
Within this few days, if I can be landed, if not I will go back on the "Siberia."

Why do you want to go back on the "Siberia" rather than any other vessel?
Because I understand there are some others going on the same boat and I wanted to go.

If none of those others go back on the "Siberia" do you want to go on the "Siberia" anyway?

At around the same time, an anonymous handwritten note on Department of Labor paper appears in her file:

Kwok Shee has had no money for seven months—is wearing shoes and stockings that have been given to her by American friends. She doesn't know what has been done about her case and desires earnestly to be sent back to China. She feels very much neglected because she is clinging to the idea that she is really married and gets no response either from her Chinese friends or her lawyer. She has sent word to her lawyer on an average of once in six weeks. She owes about $8 which has been borrowed from girls.

Drawing on emotional resources we can only imagine, Quok Shee resisted the pressures to have her return to China.

Trouble on Angel Island

Any artificial scarcity—such as entry into the United States—inevitably leads to a black market. In immigration it takes the form of forged papers, sale of genuine papers, smuggling, and bribes. The various Chinese Exclusion Acts had made legal entry a scarce commodity. Chinese women were even scarcer: the first act had driven the ratio of Chinese men to women to over 26 to 1. That ratio improved over time, but in 1916 there were still more than ten Chinese men for every Chinese woman in the United States. In that year, only 300 Chinese women entered the United States, of whom 111 were of the category that Chew hoped to use: "merchants' wives."

This black market was a multiracial enterprise, and those in it profited handsomely. With many willing to pay, many others were willing to be paid—kitchen help smuggled in coaching materials, watchmen looked the other way, inspectors changed their recommendations, file clerks helped files disappear temporarily while photographs were switched. Corruption flourished. It was no wonder that the Immigration Service was skeptical of Chew Hoy Quong and his "alleged wife."


On August 6, 1917—nearly a year after Quok Shee had arrived in San Francisco, after more than eleven months of detention on Angel Island—the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled on Quok Shee's case. Or, more precisely, on Chew v. White, Immigration Com'r, Case Number 2926.

Surprisingly, while the courts upheld the exclusion acts in general, individual Chinese had fared rather well when seeking individual relief. Of the 2,288 Chinese petitions for habeas corpus filed between 1891 and 1905, well over half had been decided in favor of the petitioners. It seemed that many judges—even avowedly exclusionist ones—had an allegiance to the rule of law: the notion that even the Chinese, as alien and unassimilable as they might be, deserved some elemental constitutional protections and due process.

Holm based his appeal of the district court's ruling on the only arguments possible under the law: that the Immigration Service had not correctly followed its own procedures and that Holm should have been allowed to present new evidence to explain the discrepancies in his clients' testimony. His arguments were completely rejected by the court of appeals. This decision again gave the Immigration Service authority to deport Quok Shee. Other developments in the courts, however, bode ill for the government.

On August 22, 1917, Commissioner White noted that "while this decision can only be viewed with satisfaction, it seems probable that a petition for rehearing will be filed by the appellant, based on the recent decision in the case of Mah Shee, Bureau No. 54176/56." In that case, the court of appeals ruled against the government because immigration authorities had refused the request of Mah Shee's lawyers that they and Mah Shee's husband be allowed to interview her jointly—without advising the lawyers that they would have granted permission to him alone. And who were the attorneys for Mah Shee? None other than McGowan and Worley, Quok Shee's original lawyers. Commissioner White was certain that Dion Holm would hear of this ruling and "present the point to the Court in an application for a rehearing." And he did.

Holm and Chew went back to the district court, launching another petition for a writ of habeas corpus, this time arguing that Quok Shee's lawyers (at the time, McGowan and Worley) had been prevented from interviewing her. The government still found a sympathetic ear in the person of Judge William C. Van Fleet, and the petition was quickly denied. Holm immediately went to the circuit court of appeals, on November 19, again petitioning for a writ of habeas corpus.

Although another six months of waiting were in store for Quok Shee while the appeal was under consideration, this one would have a very different outcome. Holm had learned that the Immigration Service had a dirty little secret: it had been withholding information.

The Informer

Unknown to Quok Shee, Chew, or her lawyers, W. H. Wilkinson of the Immigration Service had secretly talked with an informer shortly after the couple arrived on Angel Island. A "confidential" memo found in Quok Shee's case file recounted the interview:

detail of confidential memo re Quok Shee
A confidential memo reported an unidentified informant's allegation that Quok Shee had been brought to the United States for "immoral purposes." (Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, RG 85, NARA Pacific Region [San Francisco]) image

Said informant stated that a friend of hers had told her of a confession made to her by the alleged husband wherein he admitted that the applicant is not his wife but that he is bringing her to this country for immoral purposes for which action he will receive the sum of $3,000, and that said applicant had formerly been a prostitute in Hong Kong.

Commissioner White in San Francisco was convinced that Chew was attempting to bring in Quok Shee as part of "a concerted move to import Chinese prostitutes" by men from Chew's village of Nom Moon. Immigration officials were persuaded by a few minor discrepancies in testimony, buttressed by the word of an unnamed informer. One day that same testimony would be used against the Immigration Service.

A Test of Wills

If Chew was tenacious in pursuing appeals on behalf of Quok Shee, the Immigration Service was just as determined to assert its authority and prevent her entry. On November 9, 1917, and again on November 20, and yet again on December 13, Immigration Inspector Mayer interviewed Quok Shee. He did not need to threaten her—the possibility of deportation always hung above her head—but he did attempt to manipulate her isolation and vulnerability to get her to return to China voluntarily.

Quok Shee, the highest court in San Francisco has recently decided that we had a right to deport you and we would have deported you today if your alleged husband had not taken your case to the courts again. As it is you may have to wait some time until the court again decides your case. Are you willing to wait awhile for the court now to decide your case or do you still wish to be sent to China as soon as possible?
How much longer will it take to know about my case?

It is impossible to state; it may be decided within a week or two and it may not be decided for months. Did your alleged husband or your attorney or anyone else consult you about having this new case brought before the court?
No I was not consulted.

If you had been consulted about it would you have agreed to the bringing of the new case before the court?
No I would not. I would like to have my husband not bring this case in court I would rather be sent back.

How long is it since you last saw your husband?
I haven't seen him for about 8 months. He has not been to see me at the Island.

Has he sent any word to you within the last 8 months?
No. My lawyer brought me over $10 one day.

Did you ever get any money from your husband or from anyone else since you have been at the station here up until the time you received that $10 last?
No nothing. . . . I would like to have you tell my husband to send me back to China.

Do you still maintain that you are the lawful wife of your alleged husband?
I was married to him in China.

Have you any reason to think it was not a legal marriage?
Yes I think it was a legal marriage my mother had me married.

How do you explain the indifference that your husband has shown towards you since you have been here?
He is in the city. I don't know why he didn't come.

On December 13, Inspector Mayer again tried to persuade Quok Shee to demand that her lawyer drop her petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

It will probably take three or four months for your case to be decided in court.
I am not willing to wait that long, since I have waited so long already.

Would you be willing to wait two months for the Court to decide your case?
My lawyer has already promised me in two weeks, so I am not willing to wait any longer than that.

With due deference to your lawyer, I can state that your case cannot possibly be decided for two or three months at the very least.
I have already asked him to ask my friends not to appeal my case any longer. . . . I am determined to go back.

[To the interpreter]: Mrs. Wisner, please explain to her that we have no right to urge upon the Court that she be deported day after tomorrow, irrespective of the wishes of her husband unless she herself absolutely demands it of us. (Interpreter complies).
(by Applicant) I have nothing else in my mind now, except to return on the Nippon Maru on Saturday the 15th. I have nothing else to say about it; I insist upon going.
(Statement by Mrs. Wisner, the interpreter): During the last month, every time I have seen this woman, I have been asked to take a note to Mr. Hayes or the Commissioner or Mr. Mayer, begging them to use their utmost endeavors to send her back on the first Japanese boat. I have explained this statement to the applicant, and she says it is correct.

By this time, Quok Shee had been held on Angel Island for nearly fifteen months. The cycle of appeal and denial, hope and disappointment, had taken its toll. Her lawyer wrote to Commissioner White that he had applied for Quok Shee to be released on bail, and he implored the commissioner not to oppose that request:

Quok Shee is in a highly nervous state and I really believe that she will undergo great physical suffering, as well as mental if confined at Angel Island any longer. I have been told that she has on many occasions threatened to commit suicide if not released.

Even the Immigration Service was becoming concerned about Quok Shee: it would not do to have a suicide on their hands:

This woman is in a wrought up condition over the matter and it would be a great relief to her and to this office if a dismissal of the [appeal] could be secured.

Bail was denied. The appeals were not dropped. And Quok Shee did not commit suicide. Instead, she continued to bear the tedium and anxiety of confinement. It would be another four months until the court rendered its verdict.

Issue the Writ

On March 6, 1918, Dion Holm went before the circuit court of appeals in San Francisco to argue his side of Chew v. White, Immigration Com'r, Case No. 3088. His brief, printed and formally presented, is part of Quok Shee's court file. He accused the Immigration Service of refusing him an opportunity to confer with Quok Shee and of withholding information about the informer.

After nearly four weeks, the Circuit Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, issued its ruling on April 1, 1918. The case had been heard by Judges Gilbert, Ross, and Hunt, the same trio who had heard Chew's first appeal. In his opinion, Judge Gilbert this time expressed his clear opposition to the behavior of the Immigration Service.

The denial of the right of the applicant's attorneys to interview her . . . was, we think, in itself sufficient ground for holding that the hearing was unfair. . . . Aside from that, we hold that the fact that the immigration authorities received a confidential communication concerning the applicant's right to admission, upon which they acted, and which was forwarded to the Department of Labor for its consideration, was sufficient to constitute the hearing unfair. However far the hearing on the application of alien for admission into the United States may depart from what in judicial proceedings is deemed necessary to constitute due process of law, there clearly is no warrant for basing a decision, in whole or in part, on confidential communications, the source, motive, or contents of which are not disclosed to the applicant or her counsel and where no opportunity is afforded them to cross-examine, or to offer testimony in rebuttal thereof, or even to know that such communication has been received.

The judgment is reversed, and the cause is remanded, with instruction to issue the writ.

There is something majestic in witnessing the delivery of justice, even from a vantage point of more than eighty years after the fact. Quok Shee's case had been building for so long, and the documentation already so voluminous, that I was unprepared for the effect of unfolding yet another document. This one was dated May 2, 1918, printed on a stiff, heavy paper, embossed and weighty in its official-ness: the actual order from the court of appeals, commanding that a writ of habeas corpus be issued for Quok Shee. Invoking the awesome power of the country's highest official, it left no doubt that the judicial system was now working for Quok Shee and her liberty.

References to "alleged husband" and "alleged wife" disappeared. The order recognized "Chew, as Petitioner for and on Behalf of His Wife, Quok Shee." In the name of "the Honorable Edward Douglas White, Chief Justice of the United States," the district court was told to issue the writ "as according to right and justice and the laws of the United States." That same day, the actual writ of habeas corpus issued by the district court commanded that Commissioner White bring Quok Shee, "the said person by you imprisoned and detained," before the court on May 11 to be released. Quok Shee would be free to enter the United States of America.


At first blush, this case is both a powerful example of the harsh treatment often afforded Asian immigrants during the period of the exclusion acts and an indictment of how the Immigration Service abused the broad powers given to it.

Yet there are reasons why one might not want to write about Quok Shee's case. Hers was not "typical," being the longest known detention at Angel Island and turning out reasonably well in the end. Did "the system" work? Is this proof that immigrants could and did receive fair treatment?

Many questions remain unanswered: Who was the unnamed informant? Why did the Immigration Service decide to contact her about Quok Shee? How did Chew decide on engaging first McGowan and Worley, then Dion Holm, as his lawyers? Why, really, did the Immigration Service come down so hard on Quok Shee and Chew even before talking to the informer?

Why were they pursued so doggedly—almost obsessively—when the discrepancies in their stories seemed so minor, so plausible? Were they being shaken down, the inspectors hoping for a bribe? We can't know for certain, but these are not unreasonable suspicions, especially in light of the concurrent Densmore investigation into immigration smuggling.*

Two questions, in particular, await answers:

Was Chew really the husband of Quok Shee? Or was he, as the Immigration Service claimed, bringing her to the United States for "immoral purposes"? It seems unlikely that a merchant whose entire resources amounted to less than $1,350—his stake in the Dr. Wong Him Co. plus an IOU—could pay the substantial legal bills incurred over nearly two years of administrative appeals and court cases. Perhaps his legal costs really were underwritten by a criminal element with sinister designs on Quok Shee. Might the Dr. Wong Him Co. have been a front for individual immigrant smugglers? Or, more benignly, perhaps the legal fees were paid by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, better known as the Chinese Six Companies. It is quite possible that all the above are true.

But something in the consistent, determined testimony of Quok Shee argues otherwise. Despite her isolation, her manipulation at the hands of Immigration Service inspectors, her fragile emotional and physical state, and the frequent examples of the women being deported and forced by the Immigration Service to leave the country, Quok Shee stuck to her story. She always insisted that she had been legally married, and that Chew was her husband. Even in moments of despair when she asked to be sent back to China, she never recanted or disavowed Chew as her husband. It would have been so easy to do. She did not, and one is inclined to believe her.

Most tantalizing of all: What happened to them? The court released her on $250 bond, the Immigration Service closed her case file, and this story ends. Or is it just a chapter that ends? Where the official documents leave off, perhaps a much longer story begins: Quok Shee's life in the United States.

We know only that in 1927, Chew told immigration authorities that his wife had complained he was not giving her enough money and had run off with another man. What became of her? Does she have descendants, and could they answer our questions about Chew Hoy Quong and his "alleged wife"?

An Alleged Wife: One Immigrant in the Chinese Exclusion Era, Part 1

Robert Barde is Deputy Director, Institute of Business and Economic Research at the University of California, Berkeley.

* For the origins of the Densmore investigation, see Robert Barde's forthcoming article "The Scandalous Ship Mongolia" in Steamboat Bill, published by the Steamship Historical Society of America.

Note on Sources

The author thanks Neil Thomsen and his colleagues at the National Archives and Records Administration–Pacific Region (San Francisco) in San Bruno, California, for their patient assistance in helping him piece together this story. This NARA facility houses (among much other material) microfilm copies of passenger lists for ships entering West Coast ports, immigration case files, departure records for resident Chinese, naturalization records, and Chinese business partnerships.

Quok Shee's case file is Investigation Case File no. 15530/6-29 in Arrival Investigation Case Files, 1884–1944, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Record Group 85. Chew Hoy Quong's departure file, 12017/16433, contains information about him after the Quok Shee investigation. He went back to China in 1924 and returned to San Francisco in 1927, when he was interviewed by the Immigration Service. Again, thanks to Neil Thomsen for tracking this down.

Names, ages, sex, occupation, nationality, height, literacy, destination, and amount of money carried by the Nippon Maru's passengers are from Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at San Francisco, CA, 1893–1953, National Archives and Record Administration Microfilm Publication M1410, roll 91, RG 85.

More information about using Chinese Exclusion Investigation Case Files at NARA is found at "The EARS Have It: A Web Search Tool for Investigation Case Files from the Chinese Exclusion Era," Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration 35 (Fall 2003): 40–45.

Excellent sources about life on Angel Island include the Angel Island Foundation; the Angel Island Immigration Station (, the Chinese Cultural and Historical Project (; and "Angel Island—The Ellis Island of the West." Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910–1940 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, reprint 1999) powerfully conveys the feelings of Chinese detainees on Angel Island.

Other useful works are Entry Denied: Exclusion and the Chinese Community in America, 1882–1943, ed. Sucheng Chan (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991); Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law, by Lucy Salyer (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); At America's Gates: Chinese Immigration During The Exclusion Era, 1882–1943, by Erika Lee (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); "Chinese Women Immigrants and the Two-Edged Sword of Habeas Corpus" in Genny Lim, ed., The Chinese American Experience: Papers from the Second National Conference on Chinese American Studies (San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America, 1980), pp. 48–56; and Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco, Judy Yung (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.


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