Item No: #361652 Chinese Merchant Return Certificate from Portland, Oregon, 1896. Wah Lee.
Chinese Merchant Return Certificate from Portland, Oregon, 1896
Chinese Merchant Return Certificate from Portland, Oregon, 1896

Implementation of Exclusion Laws in Portland, Oregon, 1896

Chinese Merchant Return Certificate from Portland, Oregon, 1896

[Lee, Wah]

Notes: A rare surviving 19th century return certificate prepared for a Chinese merchant in Portland, Oregon. Under the 1894 Chinese Exclusion laws, two non-Chinese persons had to swear to the identity and employment of any Chinese national who planned to visit China and come back to the United States.

Beginning in the 1880s, the United States enacted increasingly strict immigration laws intended to block new Chinese immigrants and to make it more difficult for Chinese nationals to re-enter the country if they left. Manual laborers were allowed to return only under very limited circumstances; established merchants could visit China and come back, but they needed paperwork to do so.

The paperwork, typically called "return certificates", were initially local affairs since two white citizens who knew the Chinese person in question had to affirm that they were legally able to re-enter the country (by the 1920s, the federal government standardized the forms). This is an example from Multnomah County, Oregon, in January 1896. It consists of:

1) A notarized statement by Lee Wah that he was a merchant and a member of Hing Kee & Co. (a store selling Chinese merchandise), that he was going to China on business, and that he was not a manual laborer. His signed statement is accompanied by his photograph embossed with a notary seal.

2) A notarized statement by two residents of Portland saying they were "well acquainted with Lee Wah" and that they knew with "personal knowledge that he is a merchant and a member of the Chinese firm of Hing Kee & Co., doing a general merchandising business at No. 85 Second Street in the City of Portland." They also confirm that the attached photograph is of Lee Wah. One of the witnesses, Robert Holman was the solicitor for the Oregon Frater newspaper in 1896; in the 1900 Portland directory he is listed as a police captain. The second witness, James Fraser, was one of several men in Portland with that name in the 1890s.

Lee apparently left the United States for an 18-month visit to China. His statement is overwritten with a note from the Tacoma, Washington, Collector (the immigration official charged with determining whether Chinese nationals could enter the country), "Arrived at Tacoma, Wash. Aug 3d 1897, on St[eame]r Olympia from China, J. C. Sanders Collector."

The documents are pasted into a folded sheet, like a legal docket, with Lee Wah's name and address and the date of the certificate. It is further date stamped in 1904.

Nineteenth century items documenting the workings of the Chinese Exclusion Act are quite scarce.

Edition + Condition: Documents folded in quarters; docket wrapper splitting at the fold, which has been strengthened with Japanese tissue.

Publication: Portland, OR: 1896.

Item No: #361652

Price: $2,500