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.