Collection Highlight: Gin Dock Sue vs. United States

Immigration has long been a contentious issue in the American West. The Chinese Exclusion Acts of the early 1880s created a complicated system of classification, registration, and restriction on Chinese people living in the West, which many documents from the 9th Circuit Court can reveal in vivid detail. The story of Gin Dock Sue, one Chinese man in California, illuminates some of the difficulties and tensions created by this system.

Gin Dock Sue, a Chinese man, came to the United States in 1881 and lived as a pawn broker in the Los Angeles area. When legislation required him to register with authorities as a Chinese person, he did so, later needing a duplicate copy of his registration certificate because the first one was lost. He was married and owned property.

The trouble started when he wanted to visit China. American law made different rules for Chinese laborers and Chinese merchants about the ability to return to China temporarily. Gin Dock Sue sought to go back to China under the laborer category, but American officials denied his request because a pawn broker was a "merchant" rather than a "laborer" in their eyes. Gin Dock Sue reapplied to leave, this time as a merchant, and successfully left America in 1907, staying in China almost a year. When he returned to San Francisco in 1908, however, his application for re-entry was denied and he was placed in a detention facility.

After three months in detention at a dock in San Francisco, Gin Dock Sue escaped. He fled to San Luis Obispo and became a merchant, then after a couple of years, moved to San Francisco to work as a merchant there. In San Francisco, he was involved with the Chinese mercantile organizations and was well-connected within the Chinese community.

Then things got complex. In early 1913, he was arrested (under a different name) for being an unregistered Chinese laborer. Eventually officials figured out he was not a laborer and had in fact been registered, so a different charge was filed in early 1914. In the meantime, Gin Dock Sue was elected Secretary of the Ning Yung Association, one of the major Chinese mercantile companies. Crucially, this position carried an appointment as a minor official of the Chinese government, helping the consul when requested. So by the time the authorities came for him again, Gin Dock Sue had a different layer of legal protection, as Chinese government officials were not subject to the laborer and merchant laws.

This case highlights the complexity of turn-of-the-century immigration in the West. The Chinese community in America had by then evolved a range of responses to the laws, using loopholes and regulations to gain advantage. Gin Dock Sue was convinced that his initial detention, upon his return from China, was initiated by his enemies. When the authorities came for him in 1913, his friends in the community tried to place him in a legal status where he would be beyond the reach of deportation proceedings. Gin Dock Sue might have been a respected person in the community by 1913, but the twists and turns of his particular situation reveal in broader form the resistance and adaptation by the Chinese community in America to punitive restrictions.

Documents relating to the trial of Gin Dock Sue