A brief look at the work of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance

May 11, 2020
Alyssa Tou
Letter to Pittsburgh Lodge from Grand Lodge about applications

Prior to the institution of shelter-in-place, I had been working on processing the records for the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, a national organization founded in 1895 in California to promote Chinese American rights and community. Physical work has been put on hold during this time.

The CACA was originally founded under the name “Native Sons of the Golden State” as a fraternal group by a group of young Chinese-American men in San Francisco, California. This has since expanded to include 19 additional local chapters spread across the continental United States. The organization’s goals were both to lobby for Chinese-American rights as well as to promote community building, social enrichment, and improved living conditions in Chinese-American neighborhoods. They are still active in the pursuit of these goals, though the focus naturally shifts over time depending on prevailing sentiments and needs. A more detailed history and statement of purpose can be found on the CACA National website.

Immigration facilitation

As an extension of their advocacy for Chinese-Americans, the CACA involved itself with the immigration procedures of its members. Many of the documents in this collection are letters between the CACA and their members, the CACA and the Immigration Service, and affidavits relating to the confirmation of citizenship and relation of a potential immigrant or a person planning to take a trip abroad. It was entirely possible that a person of Chinese ancestry who was a citizen of the United States might go abroad but, in the event of some misfortune that might befall the documents that would authorize him to return, would find himself stranded. The CACA in such cases, having appropriate documentation affirming that one of their members was indeed a lawful resident of the United States, might be able to help facilitate his travel. In addition, they often provided statements in favor of their members who sought to bring their wives and children over from China.

Letter in Chinese written to the CACA National Lodge about facing discrimination at the Immigration Office in Hawaii

A letter sent to the CACA National Lodge regarding discrimination faced by Chinese at the Immigration Office in Hawaii.

Identification documents

This collection contains thousands of documents relating to membership applications and World War II era identification certificates. Since the headquarters of the CACA is in San Francisco, these files contains applications to join not only the local chapter but also those outside of the city and the state. Most also have a picture of the individual attached. Membership to the Chinese American Citizens Alliance in the early years brought a number of benefits including legal support for immigration and access to a death benefit fund. WIth the lifting of legislation that restricted the immigration of Chinese to America and increased liberalization of insurance regulations, these once vital functions became less important in the mission of the organization. Comparing membership applications over the years, one can see shifts in the format, marked most notably by the change in language from Chinese-only to bilingual to English-only. Through them, one can observe the shifting trends in the Chinese-American community in areas such as occupation.

A 1916 application for membership to the Los Angeles Lodge of the Chinese American Citizenlication for membership to the San Francisco Lodge of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance by Tom Gee

A 1916 application for membership to the Los Angeles branch of the CACA made by Tom Gee. The application shows where and when he was born, his residence at the time, the names of his parents and wife and the number of children he had. There is also a spot to indicate occupation, though the answer for this man is not visible in this image.

Political involvement

There are quite a few letters to politicians expressing endorsement to candidacy - these encompass both local and national positions. The organization was often in communication with government representatives in support or in opposition to various bills affecting Chinese and would work to keep the local community updated. In order to increase their ability to influence government, the CACA might publish updates to current events and other information relevant to the American Chinese, but they also encouraged the community to vote with notices such as the below and by producing a list of recommended candidates that the organization had endorsed.  

 A notice printed in Chinese released by the CACA to the community to encourage people to vote

In the Chinese-American community

In addition to larger scale advocacy for Chinese Americans, the CACA was also heavily involved in local and community activities, among them the publication of  Chinese-language newspaper, The Chinese Times, organization of the yearly Miss Chinatown pageant and managing of various scholarship programs for students. Helping the community wasn’t just about making sure laws were passed or blocked that could help the Chinese in America, but also about getting involved in events that could give opportunities to those who were interested and allow those around them to enjoy them. The collection also holds such files as the entries submitted by students participating in the CACA-supported essay competitions. 

There is of course much more work to be done before processing of this collection is completed, so look forward to more about the CACA and their documents in the future.

For a follow-up post about the collection when processing was completed, see Part Two.