Date: 2009/10/12
Subject: 孙中山美国国籍档案图片
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Seperate Lives, Broken Dreams
Immigration Documents

No Such Sun Yat-sen
An Archival Success Story
By Neil L. Thomsen

The National Archives-Pacific Sierra Region hold almost 250,000 immigration case files created by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and its predecessor agencies for the Districts of San Francisco and Hawaii. The great majority of these files are for Chinese immigrants to San Francisco and Hawaii during the period of the Chinese Exclusion laws, from 1882 to 1943. Because of the exclusionary policies of the government, Chinese immigrants to the United States were subjected to what have often been described as humiliating interrogations designed to prevent the admission of Chinese to this country. Now most of these files, except for instances in which the privacy of living persons must be protected, are open to the public. Nearly every day, people come to the archives seeking the files of their ancestors. Their searches are often crowned with success.

This is the story of a search that began for me more than five years ago for the immigration file of "the father of modern China," Dr. Sun Yat-sen.


During recent years, a significant part of my job at the National Archives-Pacific Sierra Region has been devoted to working with our INS Asian immigration and travel records collection, and helping those who come to use the records.

One day in 1991 I was shown a copy of a letter, written in 1978, from a researcher who was visiting the National Archives in Washington. He was writing to tell a friend about the INS file of Sun Yat-sen, which he had been studying. I decided to call the National Archives in Washington and see if they could locate the file. I was asked if I had a file number. At that time, unfortunately, I did not. After several days they called to tell me that without a file number the file could not be found.

My interest remained high, and I tried several other avenues to locate the file, but without the case number, each led to a dead end. As the years passed I often wondered what could have happened to the Sun Yat-sen file.

One day in November 1995 I was working on a project to create a database index of our Chinese exclusion case files. I had reached the box containing the files of people arriving at the Port of San Francisco on the Ship SS Korea on April 6, 1904. Halfway through the box I pulled out a folder containing just a file jacket and lacking any documentary contents. For a variety of reasons, this is not an unusual occurrence within INS case files. What was unusual was the name on the file. In faded pencil I read, "No Such Sun Yat-sen."

I am still not sure how I knew this was the right file jacket, but having looked for files over the years, I realized instinctively this could be none other than part of the missing file of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. At last I had some numbers that could be used to trace the file contents. The oldest number, "9995," refers to the San Francisco District arrival number for the ship SS Korea. The number was not really a help, but there was something else written on the file in longhand" "Consul W/A20341575 at SFR 1/26/78." I now had something with which to continue my hunt for the file.

"Consul W/A20341575 at SFR 1/26/78" is actually a shorthand code that means the file was consolidated at the San Francisco Federal Records Center under INS "A" file number A20341575, on January 26, 1978. The "A files" are the large modern series of Alien Registration files created by INS beginning in the 1950s.

I had expected that the main period for INS investigations into Sun Yat-sen would have been in the decades around the turn of the century, since his fund-raising activities in the United States had occurred during the 1896-1911 period. But for some reason Sun Yat-sen’s file had been removed from its original location and placed with the modern files. In terms of original context, his file should have been included among the other exclusion case files transferred to the National Archives-Pacific Sierra Region. Instead it had been placed with the more modern "A files," which are still in the custody of the INS and currently designated not for permanent retention or transfer to the archives, but for disposal when seventy-five years old.

To learn the reason for the file’s removal, I enlisted the willing cooperation of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, San Francisco District Office. The INS maintains a database of immigration Alien Registration case files. When I am desperate and cannot locate a file, I call this office, which has helped me find more files than I can remember, and it is to the INS records office staff that much of the credit for locating Dr. Sun’s file should go.

I called the records officer and gave her the new file information. It took a while, but after considerable research she called to tell me that the file had been sent to the INS office in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1978 at the request of a scholarly researcher. Possibly because the Atlanta INS office was not familiar with Sun Yat-sen’s role in history, the file had not been returned to San Francisco, but instead in the spring of 1995 was retired with other "A files" to the Federal Records Center (FRC) in Atlanta. Part of the National Archives and Records Administration, the FRCs offer low-cost storage for relatively recent records in the custody of various federal agencies, including INS. Where the file sat between 1978 and 1995 remains a mystery. We were able to locate the file because it had recently been transferred to the Atlanta FRC, which necessitated updating the entry in the INS database.

I immediately called the National Archives-Southeast Region in Atlanta, but unfortunately, I was not quick enough. I was told that owing to a space shortage in the Atlanta Federal Records Center, the box containing the file had recently been included in a shipment of "A files" for long-term storage to the new FRC in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It was late ona Friday afternoon when I told my boss, the director of the National Archives-Pacific Sierra Region, what I had learned. She immediately contacted the FRC Appraisal and Disposition Branch chief in Pittsfield, who agreed to mount a search for the box in question. Shortly thereafter, with excitement in his voice, he called back: Yes! Sun Yat-sen’s file was there; he was holding it in his hand. An agreement was struck with the INS San Francisco office to have the file shipped directly to the National Archives-Pacific Sierra Region in San Bruno.

So ended the hunt for Sun Yat-sen’s archival file, which now rests in its proper place among our other historical INS arrival case files.

SOURCE: Thomsen, Neil L. "No Such Sun Yat-sen–An Archival Success Story." ChineseAmerica: History and Perspectives (1997): 16-26.


The historical INS case file for Sun Yat-sen does not contain a complete record of his arrivals in Honolulu and the mainland United States. It documents mainly his arrival on a crucial trip during 1904, though there are also documents of interest dated as late as 1925.

This priceless file appears remarkably similar to the thousands of other immigration case files generated by the Chinese Exclusion laws. Even though Sun Yat-sen became the first president of the Chinese Republic, he evidently fared no better in his dealings with immigration officials than many other Chinese immigrants coming into San Francisco or Honolulu. Particularly of interest in the file are details on how, during his crucial 1904 visit, he successfully outwitted immigration officials and gained entry to the United States in a manner similar to many other Chinese immigrants – through the use of fake information. In this instance, he claimed and presented documentation of his birth not in Choy Hung village, Chungshan District, China, but in Hawaii. Contained in the case file is a "birth certificate" issued by the Secretary of the Territory of Hawaii on March 14, 1904, and certifying that the applicant was born in Ewa, Oahu, on November 24, 1870 (Dr. Sun is known to have been born in 1866).

According to the case file, on April 6, 1904, Sun Yat-sen landed in San Francisco, where, like other Chinese immigrants not included in the "exempt class" of government officials, teachers, merchants, and students, he was detained for investigation by the Bureau of Immigration. Among the three photographs of him included in the file is a typical "initial arrival" photograph of the applicant holding a "chalkboard" on which is recorded his original Hawaiian case file number, C-140. Also included is a Hawaiian territorial passport documenting Dr. Sun’s status as a U.S. citizen.

However, within a few days of his arrival, Sun Yat-sen was informed "that after due consideration of your case the Honorable Commissioner of Immigration has refused you admission to the United States." Dr. Sun was requested to sign the decision document, issued on April 16, 1904, and was advised that he could appeal the denial to the secretary of the Department of Commerce and Labor if the appeal were filed within two days. He was refused admission on the grounds that he had waived his rights as a citizen of the United States and become a subject of China. This reasoning is found in a letter of April 15, 1904, from the Office of the Commissioner, Immigration Service, to the Chinese Inspector in Charge, San Francisco. The letter also summarizes the testimony, found in the file, of Dr. Sun during his interrogation by the Bureau of Immigration.

The testimony of applicant is found on pages 3, 4, 7, and 8 of the record. He states in brief that he was born in the Hawaiian Islands 34 years ago, at a place called Ewa; that when he was very young, to wit 3 or 4 years of age, with his parents he went to China, where his father died; that when about 10 years of age he returned to Honolulu, accompanied by his mother and remained there in school until he was between 16 or 17 years of age, when he again went to China, remaining there for 7 or 8 years, and for a second time went back to the Hawaiian islands, that he again went to Hong Kong and studied medicine, and in fact has visited Hong Kong a number of times; that in 1896 he came to this port and was landed on Section 6 papers issued to him in Shanghai in 1895 or 1896, as a Chinese subject, the same being in form of a traveler’s Section 6 Certificate; that upon his admission here in 1896 he went to London, England by way of New York, and from there finally back to Honolulu, where he was landed in February, 1901, as a native born citizen, and without any papers; that since that time he has done nothing to again become a citizen of the United States, excepting to swear allegiance to the United States before receiving the passport heretofore mentioned. Further, that both his parents were full blooded Chinese subjects.

The commissioner goes on to say that "from his own statement he waived his right to American citizenship and was in 1895 or 1896 a subject of China, and was landed here upon a Section 6 traveler’s Shanghai certificate, which, according to my understanding of the law, could only be issued to a Chinese subject."

Thus, Dr. Sun’s application to land was denied, and he was "ordered deported to the port whence he came upon the departure of the next vessel of the line bringing him here." The 1904 landing records are significant because they support other documentation concerning the now-famous incident in which, pending future action, Dr. Sun was held incommunicado in the wooden immigration shed. He was able to "smuggle out" a note via an American newsboy, which resulted in assistance from pioneer publisher Ng Poon Chew and the Chee Kung Tong. It is also interesting that nothing is noted in the case file documents regarding a portrayal of Dr. Sun as a bandit by his enemies, which, according to historians citing revolutionary accounts, may have been furnished to the INS at this time.

Fortunately for the history of China, Sun Yat-sen, represented by the Washington, D.C., law firm of Ralston and Siddons, filed an appeal with the Commissioner-General of Immigration n April 26, 1904. On April 28, 1904, the acting secretary of the Department of Commerce and Labor, in a four-page decision contained in the case file, set aside the order of deportation and ordered the Commissioner of Immigration in San Francisco to "permit the said Sun Yat-sen to land." The reasoning in this document is that since San Francisco District had not disputed Dr. Sun’s claim to Hawaiian birth in 1896 when he reached San Francisco from Hawaii (strangely, the birthplace is cited in this document as Maui), U.S. citizenship must be conferred upon him under the act of April 30, 1900 (31 Stat 141) by virtue of his status as a Hawaiian citizen. He must therefore be allowed to land. Thus, rather than facing deportation and certain death in China, Dr. Sun was freed to embark on his second famous fund-raising tour of the United States.

The case file is silent about Sun Yat-sen’s activities in the United States between 1909 and 1911, including the fateful 1911 trip that started with arrival in San Francisco. Later in Denver he learned of the outbreak of the revolution and in St. Louis, of his appointment as president of the Provisional Republic of China.

The remainder of the case file sheds light on the post-1911 period. It contains information on U.S. and official Peking policies and attitudes toward Sun Yat-sen and on options considered by Sun Yat-sen, rather than confirmation of any subsequent visits.

For instance, in a letter of June 27, 1912, Richard L. Halsey, inspector in charge at the Honolulu Immigration Station, sought the advice of the Commissioner-General of Immigration in Washington about a proposed visit of the former first president of the Chinese Republic to Honolulu. Halsey asked "whether by assuming that office he forfeited his American citizenship, and as to whether it is incumbent upon us to demand the papers that are necessary in the case of alien Chinese."

The Commissioner-General advised Halsey on July 16, 1912, that even though Sun "fully established his status as a Chinese citizen by becoming the provisional president of the new republic, so clearly is he a person whose exclusion from the United States was never contemplated by the treaty, laws, and regulations, that it is deemed that official cognizance should be taken of his
generally recognized status and standing." Halsey was ordered to "admit Sun Yat-sen immediately on arrival." There is no record in the file of an actual landing.

Dr. Sun’s recognized status perplexed immigration officials further in 1914. On January 23, the Honolulu District received the following telegram from Washington: "Sun Yat-sen subject department decision twenty arrives Honolulu, twenty-fourth, traveling and holding passport as Japanese. Department understands he now claims Chinese birth. Examine under exclusion laws but observe care in identifying him not to cause annoyance to other Japanese passengers."

Immigration officials were not amused that the former and first provisional president of the Chinese Republic was now traveling with a Japanese passport. That he was no longer viewed with esteem by the government in Peking is evident in a letter found in Dr. Sun’s file. On January 7, 1914, G. L. Harding, correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph, wrote to the Commissioner of Immigration in Washington that he had "been commissioned by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, ex-president of the Republic of China, to submit to you a proposal whereby he and a number of his friends might secure a temporary asylum in the United States." He was making this request because he believed Sun Yat-sen’s life was in danger.

Harding noted that "the time has come in China, as it has often come in European countries, when an enlightened minority standing by the principles of liberty and progress which have made this nation great, are being ruthlessly hunted down and persecuted by the reactionary elements which at present hold the reins of government. Whatever may have been the faults of the determined group of men who planned the Chinese Revolution and founded the Chinese Republic, no one ever so slightly acquainted with the present crisis in China can claim that they or their cause deserve the policy of extermination which is being relentlessly pursued against them."

On January 20, 1914, the secretary of labor received a letter from the Department of State. This letter, also contained in the file, paraphrased a telegram from the American Legation in Peking reporting that Sun was "enroute to Honolulu, bearing a Japanese passport." The Legation requested that some action be taken by the government "either to exclude him from the country or to restrict his political activities if admitted." The secretary was also informed that the Chinese Legation in Washington had been instructed by the Chinese government to lay before the American government the following view:

Sun Wen (Sun Yat-sen) is expected to arrive at Honolulu on the 24th instant or the 25th proximo on his way to the United States under assumed Japanese name and to land at that port on the strength of a Japanese passport. The purpose of Sun Wen’s visit is not to seek refuge in the United States from arrest by china but to incite the Chinese residing in the United States to rebellious attempts with a view to the subversion of the Republic. His case is widely different from that of a political offender. The American Minister has been requested to cable the American Government not to allow him to land.

The case file contains information confirming Sun Yat-sen’s sojourn in Japan during 1914 and 1915. In an interesting letter to President Woodrow Wilson dated September 22, 1915, U.S. citizen Austin P. Brown noted receipt of a letter from Dr. Sun requesting "special passports for one hundred persons to visit the United States and its possessions." He went on to say: "I surely hope there can be no obstacle to granting this small favor and that orders will be quickly issued to our Consuls in China and the United States in order to facilitate the matter."

Mr. Brown, described by INS as "a representative in this country of the Sun Yat-sen faction," received a terse response to his letter from the State Department on September 28, 1915. He was advised as follows: "There is enclosed for your information a copy of the "Treaty, Laws and Rules Governing the Admission of Chinese," containing full particulars for the guidance of Chinese persons of the exempt class who desire to gain entry to this country." In a memorandum to the secretary of labor of October 7, 1915, officials averred: "The Bureau is inclined to think that Mr. Brown should be informed of what the law requires, and that certificates obtained in any other than the statutorily specified manner cannot legally be accepted by immigration officials." As noted in the documents, however, Sun Yat-sen could not obtain the required certificates from the Chinese government because they regarded him and his followers as "mischievous agitators."

The file also provides evidence that the American government was not prepared to grant him even temporary asylum during this period. On October 29, 1915, Secretary of State Robert Lansing wrote to the secretary of labor: "If consent should be given now to the admission of one hundred Chinese, unprovided with the certificates require by law, a precedent would be set which might be embarrassing hereafter to disregard."

The final documents in the file form an ironic epilogue. On May 22, 1925, after the death of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the American consul general in Canton, China, sent the following message to the secretary of state: "I have the honor to report that I am in receipt of a dispatch from the Civil Governor of Kwangtung Province stating that the Chung Shan Garden Preparatory Committee of Chung Shan District proposes to send three delegates (Chinese) to the United States to solicit funds for the development of a garden in honor of the late Dr. Sun Yat-sen and asking that this Consulate General visa the necessary Section 6 certificates." The consul general requested an "expression of views" regarding this request. On July 21, 1925, the secretary of labor answered: "I have the honor to inform you that, so far as the Department is aware, there are no federal statutes that would prevent aliens, legally admitted to this country, from soliciting funds for legitimate purposes."

So ends the only known INS immigration case file for Sun Yat-sen. However, intriguing possibilities remain that somewhere within the "paper mountain" of INS records, there may rest other case files, perhaps under aliases, that would provide additional insight into Dr. Sun’s other visits. Possibly, another marriage of perseverance and luck will be struck during a moment’s glance at a file name or case number. For now, we are fortunate to have, after all these years, at least one Sun Yat-sen file, protected and preserved for current and future researchers, at the National Archives-Pacific Sierra Region.


The author would like to thank the following individuals who helped find the Sun Yat-sen immigration file: Waverly Lowell, Andy Potter, Maureen Auyeung, Charlie Reeves, Him Mark Lai, and Walter Hickey.

As established under the Act of May 6, 1882 (22 Stat. 58), exempted immigrants were required to have certificates issued by the Chinese Government referred to as Section 6 certificates.

Notice to Sun Yat-sen from Inspector in Charge Chinese Bureau, Arrival case file 9995, San Francisco District Office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Record Group 85, National Archives-Pacific Sierra Region, San Bruno, California (hereafter cited as INS-SF arrival file 9995, NA-SB).

Letter, Office of the Commissioner, San Francisco, to Chinese Inspector in Charge, San Francisco, INS-SF arrival file 9995, NA-SB.

Letter, Office of the Commissioner, San Francisco, to Chinese Inspector in Charge, San Francisco, INS-SF
arrival file 9995, NA-SB.

Letter, Office of the Commissioner, San Francisco, to Chinese Inspector in Charge, San Francisco, INS-SF arrival file 9995, NA-SB.

Henry Shih-Shan Tsai, The Chinese Experience in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 92

Harold Z. Schiffrin, Sun Yat-sen and the Origins of the Chinese Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976) 328.

Letter, Acting Secretary, Department of Commerce and Labor, to Commissioner of Immigration, San Francisco, INS-SF arrival file 9995, NA-SB.

Him Mark Lai, "The Kuomintang in Chinese American Communities," in Entry Denied: Exclusion and the Chinese Community in America, 1882-1943, ed. Sucheng Chan (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), 11.

Emily Hahn, China Only Yesterday: 1850-1950, A Century of Change (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963), 311

Letter, Office of Inspector in Charge, Honolulu, Hawaii, to Commissioner-General of Immigration, Washington, D.C., INS-SF arrival file 9995, NA-SB.

Letter, Commissioner-General of Immigration, Washington, D.C., to Inspector in Charge, Honolulu, Hawaii, INS-SF arrival file 9995, NA-SB.

Telegram, Secretary, Department of Commerce and Labor, Washington, D.C., to Inspector in Charge, Honolulu Hawaii, INS-SF arrival file 9995, NA-SB.

Letter, G. L. Harding, Correspondent, London Daily Telegraph, to Commissioner of Immigration, Washington, D.C., INS-SF arrival file 9995, NA-SB.

Letter, G. L. Harding, Correspondent, London Daily Telegraph, to Commissioner of Immigration, Washington, D.C., INS-SF arrival file 9995, NA-SB.

Letter, Department of State, Washington, D.C., to Secretary of Labor, INS-SF arrival file 9995, NA-SB.

Letter, Department of State, Washington, D.C., to Secretary of Labor, INS-SF arrival file 9995, NA-SB.

Letter, Department of State, Washington, D.C., to Secretary of Labor, INS-SF arrival file 9995, NA-SB.

Letter, Department of State, Washington, D.C., to Secretary of Labor, INS-SF arrival file 9995, NA-SB.

Memorandum to the Secretary of Labor from Commissioner-General of Immigration, INS-SF arrival file 9995, NA-SB.

Letter, Department of State to Austin P. Brown, INS-SF arrival file 9995, NA-SB.

Memorandum to the Secretary of Labor from Commissioner-General of Immigration, INS-SF arrival file 9995, NA-SB.

Memorandum to the Secretary of Labor from Commissioner-General of Immigration, INS-SF arrival file 9995, NA-SB.

Letter, Secretary of State to Secretary of Labor, INS-SF arrival file 9995, NA-SB.

Letter, Consul General, Canton, China, to Secretary of State, INS-SF arrival file 9995, NA-SB.

Letter, Consul General, Canton, China, to Secretary of State, INS-SF arrival file 9995, NA-SB.


"A Hawaiian Born Native"

With the handwritten phrase, "Weller says that he gave the passport back to this Chinaman," the file of one of world's most important figures of the twentieth century begins on June 10th of 1896. As a faded newspaper clipping in the file proclaims – "A century that began with Lenin, Sun Yat-sen, Gandhi and Wilson was certain to be shaped by ideas," it's evident that this person is no typical "paper son."

Sun Yat Sen is widely known as the "founding father" of the Republic of China, which brought to an end thousands of years of dynastic rule in the largest country on earth. However, few know that Sun Yat Sen was also someone who claimed to be a "native born Hawaiian." His case file includes the handwritten, sworn and signed testimony of both a Hawaiian farmer and that of Sun Yat Sen himself, regarding his birth and early childhood on the island of Oahu. Later, immigration officials find out that his true identity is that of a famous Chinese revolutionary in search of refuge and support for his cause in America. This case file of Sun Yat Sen is certainly one of the most fascinating discoveries in recent history at the National Archives (see re-print of article "No Such Yat-Sen: An Archival Success Story" by Neil L. Thomsen on this web site).

Commentary by Historian Him Mark Lai

During Sun Yat-sen's first trip to North America in 1896 he already had a price on his head as a revolutionary. Tailed by agents of the Imperial government, he was trapped and held captive in the Chinese embassy when he reached London. He was saved only by the intervention of an English friend. Thus, when Sun came again in 1904, it was not surprising that he assumed U.S. citizenship for protection, anticipating any moves that the Imperial government may make against him. Even so, INS detained him for a lengthy period.

After the founding of the Republic, Sun's status changed in that now he was the head of state and the acknowledged leader of China. Thus, the U.S. State Department probably took a long-ranged view looking at Sun's case from the point of view of American interests in China, while INS was only interested in applying the exclusion laws. In the end, the differences within the U.S. government regarding Sun's admission did not come to a head since Sun never returned to the U.S. after the revolution.

SOURCE: Sun Yat Sen, 9995; Arrival Investigation Case Files, 1884-1944; San Francisco District Office; Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Record Group 85; National Archives and Records Administration – Pacific Region (San Francisco).

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