An only child raised by a single mother, Chin always yearned to know her father. Puzzled by his absence, and craving to put his story into words, she asked herself, “How do you write about someone so important, but whom you know nothing about? Not even what they truly look like, except in a single photograph that you saw for a few seconds?” Propelled by negative space—or, as James Joyce says in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “absence, the highest form of presence”—this question led her to write about what remained: the objects and stories left behind. In her new book Mott Street: A Chinese American Family’s Story of Exclusion and Homecoming (2023), Chin probes the plight of four generations of her ancestors with the tenacity of a historian, the fine brush of an accomplished artist, and the sensitivity of one who openly communicates with the dead.
Chin’s interest in family lore began when she was a child. She paid rapt attention to the adult conversations taking place in her orbit. In her twenties, she began researching her father and immediate family from afar via newspaper databases. She interviewed the family she knew and studied their genealogy. As she got older, her quest to excavate the truth about the effect of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 on her family intensified. Guided by curiosity and courage, Chin widened her scope. She traveled extensively within the United States to interview those who were close to her subjects about this federal law that barred Chinese immigrants from American citizenship until 1943. She pored through newspaper databases, immigration and other institutional files, images, written documents, and film footage. The result is a sweeping memoir that novelist Celeste Ng refers to as “an astonishing feat.” And while this is the story of her ancestors, one of the unexpected gifts is that we hear Chin’s voice throughout, in the italicized dialogue she fabricates to add texture to her story, in her personal responses to what her family endured, and in her spine-tingling interactions with the spirits of those who have passed.
At first, Chin resisted inserting her own voice, thinking this was not her story. But in 2015, after a lunch with Vivian Gornick, who impressed upon her the need for the reader to know who the narrator is and why they are speaking, Chin realized not only that the reader needed a narrator who could distill the meaning of the long history of Chinese Exclusion but also that she needed to bear witness to her own reactions. “Ultimately, this story was not only theirs, but mine as well—really, all of ours,” she told me. And it is this us-ness that enlivens the story of Mott Street and the building where four generations of her family, the Chins and Ng-Doshims, lived.
In her mid-twenties, Chin met her father for the first time, wishing to resolve what she referred to as “thorny family issues.” Eighteen years later, when her daughter was four years old, Chin set up a writing studio in their old building and, nestled among the ghosts of her ancestors, began to restore the history of her father’s side of the family, hoping her narrative would ultimately aid her daughter’s understanding of herself, her mother, and their family legacy as Chinese Americans with long roots in this country. In Mott Street’s opening chapter, Chin reflects that historians view the written record as “the gold standard,” while family stories are seen as “long on twisted falsehoods, embellishments, and tall tales.” She points out that “when you’re Chinese in the United States, with roots that stretch back to the Exclusion era, it is the historical record that is a fabulist fabrication, and the oral stories, passed down from generation to generation, like rare, evolving heirlooms, that ultimately hold the keys to the truth.”
Chin’s memoir is divided into four sections—Part I, “1970s–Present”; Part II, “1880–1906”; Part III, “1906–1914”; and Part IV, “1915–Present.” In each, she offsets historical data and the tumbling events of time with moments of reflection that include interactions with deceased ancestors. The opening chapter invokes the magic and sentimental significance of the apartment building on Mott Street in New York’s Chinatown that had been inhabited by multiple generations of her family, establishing it as a character. In Parts II and III, the memoir travels back to the period when her ancestors left the Pearl River Delta and crossed the ocean to San Francisco; were detained for months at Angel Island; became “paper son” refugees; endured racism, hatred, and quotas; and eventually found their way to Mott Street—where, according to Chin’s calculations, 49 of her ancestors lived. By the end of Part IV, Chin returns to the same apartment building, where Dorothy Allison’s words in her essay “Place” come to life: “I want a story that is happening in a real place, which means a place that has meaning and that evokes emotions in the person who’s telling me the story. Place is emotion.”
Chin’s book is the result of decades of research, as exemplified by the extraordinary level of detail it manifests. Take, for example, the portrayal of her great-grandfather Shim, who arrived in the United States as a student at the turn of the last century. Because Chin tracked down his medical examination record in his application for the Moody School at Mount Hermon (today’s Northfield Mount Hermon) in Massachusetts, she was able to present a meticulous depiction that included “a slight weakness of the eyes” and a pulse rate of “90 beats per minute.”
It was fortuitous that family members and their organizations were referred to in English-language newspapers and books, in addition to the oral histories, wills, and personal essays left behind. Her grandfather Lung and his brother Jack preserved their stories of life in San Francisco for future generations. Chin, grateful for the foresight of friends and oral historians who conscientiously saved material, says that she never would have been able to write certain sections of the book with this level of specificity. “Some of the greatest moments were when I obtained the oral histories and personal papers of my grandfather,” she told me. “My great-grandfather talked to his children—my grandfather and his brothers—about surviving the great earthquake, and they each in turn wrote about it for their descendants in separate essays.”
Chin said that perhaps the oddest moment in her research occurred when she encountered a reference to herself in an institutional file, back when she was a young writer, inquiring about her grandfather’s oral history. At the time, she was a writer for The Village Voice and had yet to meet her father. Twenty years later, Chin found her own name included in that same file. By the time she acquired that oral history, she was a tenured professor and the mother of a grade schooler.
In 2017, Chin lived in China with her family as a Fulbright fellow. She had been to China before but only for month-long stints; this was her first time living there for any real length of time. During her five-month stay, she conducted research and interviewed residents in her ancestors’ villages of origin, gaining invaluable insight into the family experience. Although her relatives had lived in the United States for decades, they still sent money back to support elders, built buildings, and even donated military planes during World War II, when China and the United States were allies. An added bonus was that this trip helped her daughter experience a deeper connection to her heritage.
When I asked Chin about the intersection between her activism and her art, she responded, “So many of our stories have been suppressed or erased from the national rhetoric, and I have a bit of that desire to ‘set the record straight.’” She described her book as an act of illumination so that readers can understand where we were as a country in the mid-19th century, and how that led us on the path to where we are today. She referenced Saidiya Hartman’s concept of “critical fabulations,” a way of using storytelling to imagine not only what was but also what could be. Storytelling “gives the writer, after years of wrestling with archives that are thorny, violent, obliterating, and filled with absences and biases from the period in which they were created, the opportunity to redress these willful omissions,” according to Chin, “or, as in the case of Chinese Exclusion, total fiction in the historical record, in order to tell a different version of the truth.” In Hartman’s words, “beauty as both a practice and a method might enable some kind of redress […] That might be a possible antidote to the violence that is a part of the everyday.”
One of the enduring life lessons Chin shared is that we are all interconnected—to those who came before us, to the next generation, and to each other. Her accounts of her ancestors’ survival through plague, flu, and diphtheria epidemics—as well as stories of how they immigrated, built the railroad, and ultimately navigated hostile and punishing systems—have sustained her throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and the hours of researching and writing her book. She sees herself as part of the long braid of humanity—an image used by Russell Baker in his 1982 memoir Growing Up that has always resonated with her. “When you start asking questions about the people who came before you,” Chin said to me, “and pay attention, truly pay attention, you may receive gifts as I did—gifts of family genealogies, and all sorts of stories that folks remember, including family tales and stories of our foremothers, which are almost always told orally and never written down.”
Even though Chin felt quite lonely as an only child being raised by a single mother, she was encircled by the echoes of her ancestors. Though she no longer forages in the wild, she visits the local fruit and vegetable ladies in Chinatown, where she shares stories of the past while looking to the future.
Megan Vered is an essayist and literary hostess. Her essays and interviews have been published in The Linden Review, High Country News, Shondaland.com, Brevity, The Writer’s Chronicle, The Rumpus, Hippocampus Magazine, The Maine Review, and The Coachella Review.