Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Certificates of Residence

Last year the California Historical Society received a small but special gift: 17 certificates of residence for Chinese laborers, dated between the years 1894 and 1897. The collection was donated to CHS in the name of the late Mr. Frank V. Piraro, who discovered the cache in his cousin’s shed in downtown San Jose.

Now a rich source of historical and genealogical significance, these certificates represented the codification of nineteenth-century sinophobia: under the provisions of the 1892 Geary Act, which amended the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, all Chinese and Chinese Americans in the United States were required to apply for, obtain, and carry a government-issued certificate of residence proving their legal presence in the United States. Any person of Chinese ethnicity discovered without such identification risked arrest and deportation. In other words, Chinese Americans were presumed guilty of an immigration offense – based solely on their ethnicity, as perceived by non-Chinese authorities – until proven innocent.

Each certificate includes the laborer’s name, local residence, and occupation; information about his height, eye color, complexion, and physical marks or peculiarities; and a photographic print. Reproduced here is the certificate for Ju Sing, contractor, age 34 years, of San Jose:


One hopes that these certificates will contribute to a greater understanding of the humanity, struggles, and contributions of Mr. Sing and other Chinese American workers in nineteenth-century California.
A complete inventory of the collection can be found on the Online Archive of California: http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/kt858038qp/

– Marie Silva, Archivist & Manuscripts Librarian
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