Thursday, August 14, 2008

Fae Myenne Ng

From a Q & A with Fae Myenne Ng, author of Steer Toward Rock:

Q: What was your starting point for Steer Toward Rock?

A: My main character, Jack Moon Szeto, chooses love over the law. Steer Toward Rock is inspired about the devastating consequences of The Chinese Confession Program. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is another point of inspiration. Before 1882, America had an open door policy that admitted everyone except “lepers, prostitutes and morons.” The Chinese were added to that list with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The Act was repealed in 1942 at which point a paltry 105 Chinese were allowed entry each year. No quota existed for any other group.

By 1940, 80% of Chinese in America were men. Married men left their wives in China, unmarried men remained so and a bachelor society was created. In America, antimiscegenation laws prohibited marriage not only between whites and blacks, but also between whites and Asians, Mexicans and Filipinos; this was not ruled unconstitutional until 1967. This legacy of transcontinental marriages and fractured families has had a profound effect on our security as families and on our intimate views of love and sexuality, themes which I explore in Steer Toward Rock.

Q: What was the Chinese Confession Program?

A: The Chinese Confession Program (1956 to 1965) was set up to prevent communists from entering the US fraudulently. Posters were tacked onto lampposts, and community and civic leaders asked Chinese Americans with derivative citizenship (called ‘paper sons’ because of their fraudulent papers) to come forward. The Confession Program wasn’t officially an amnesty program. Confessing to the authorities offered immunity from prosecution and deportation, but the confessor had to surrender his passport and be ‘amenable to deportation.’

One confession could implicate an entire clan as the confessor was required to name his paper and blood families. If you hadn’t confessed and then were stopped by FBI agents, you could be deported. My mother remembered it as a terrifying time. She said agents came into our store and asked men for their ID and once took a man straight to SFO (the San Francisco airport). As I dramatize in the last chapter of the book, deport was a powerful word, maybe our collective ‘first’ English word.

When a man confessed, he was required to name his entire family, paper and blood. If a man didn’t confess, he could still be named by his neighbor. Anyone could inform
anonymously and accuse another of communist affiliation (sending a letter or money to your mother in Red China was cavorting with the enemy!) Paranoia and conflict set into Chinatown. Trust was a huge issue. Suspicion was rampant as friends and brothers were forced to look at each other with fear and distrust. Everyone wondered who was confessing and who was being named.

At the program’s conclusion, 13,895 people confessed, 22,083 were exposed and 11,294 potential paper son slots were closed. The 1950 census listed 117,629 Chinese in America (without counting Hawaii); this had tremendous impact on the Chinese
American community.

I call it the Confusion Program. It took many drafts to figure out a structure and narrative that combined the elements of political fear, personal desire, family loyalty and community obligation. It was the love story that finally brought all the themes together.
Read the complete Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue