The Slow Boat to China – Travel & Immigration Law

After a couple of research trips to Los Angeles and New York, I’m back in Hawaii recovering from jet lag and contemplating the old style of travel that Juanita Sheridan and Li Ling-Ai used – the ocean liner.

1930s Matson cruise ship departs Honolulu for San Francisco

I’ve never been on a cruise ship, so this type of travel has a romantic attraction for me.  I imagine chugging slowly across the ocean gives you time to adjust to the date line changes in a civilized manner, not to mention allowing for shipboard romances to commence and intriguing crimes to be solved.

First class dining room on 1930's Matson ship

Dance floor of Veranda Cafe on 1930's Matson liner

Since both Li Ling-Ai and Juanita Sheridan traveled extensively by boat in the 1930s and 40s, I’ve been able to learn fascinating things about them by examining ship records available on and at the National Archives Regional Center in San Bruno.  The ship records are a boon to researchers and genealogists, but how did the ship passengers of the time feel about them?  The careful details kept on all ship passengers was a result of  US Immigration Law.  Chinese ship passengers were put under even greater scrutiny due to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act that wasn’t repealed until WWII.  It was one of the earliest restrictive US Immigration Laws and reflects the extreme anti Asian attitudes that existed in the United States at the time.

On my NYC trip, I viewed some of the “Yellow Peril” memorabilia on display at the Museum of the Chinese in America.

1892 Anti-Chinese poster exhibited at MOCA

"Chinese Must Go" cap pistol exhibited at MOCA. When the trigger is pulled, the man kicks the "Chinaman" in the rear

The anti-Chinese posters and objects seem almost campy these days, but they are solid reminders of  the racial ignorance and prejudice that still existed in the 1930s and 40s and that Sheridan captures so well in her Lily Wu books.  Today, it’s hard to conceive of all the barriers that Li Ling-Ai faced as a Chinese career woman in 1930’s New York.  A detail  from a 1937  ship record provides a clue.   Along with the usual age and occupation, a physical description of Ling-Ai was recorded that included small ID marks that could only have been gathered during a close (and probably humiliating) physical inspection.  The detailed ID marks noted were  “small mole rear left corner of mouth and sear on back of left wrist.”

Of course having to submit to close personal inspections and questioning has not gone away for travelers  in today’s jet age.   Like filling out the ship logs in the 1930s, taking off your shoes, being patted down at x-ray machine, and giving the airlines your address and phone number can be seen as the necessary evils of traveling.  I tend to go numb during the process in hopes that it will go by faster if I don’t think about it.  It’s only when I’m back at home, recovering from the speed of my travels  that I have time to dwell on what all that screening actually means.

About nestedegg

Robin Lung is a documentary filmmaker currently producing a film about the first American feature length documentary to win an Academy Award.
This entry was posted in 1930s Hawaii, 1930s Matson liners, Chinese American History, Chinese Exclusion Act, Juanita Sheridan, Li Ling-Ai, Mystery Novels, The Chinese Chop, Yellow Peril. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Slow Boat to China – Travel & Immigration Law

  1. Pingback: Tearing down Chesterton’s fence: the bigotry of border controls | Open Borders: The Case

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