Edward Bing Kan: The First Chinese-American Naturalized after Repeal of Chinese Exclusion

On December 17, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law an Act to Repeal the Chinese Exclusion Acts.[i] This repeal law overturned previous laws that had excluded the vast majority of Chinese immigrants since 1882. It also provided for a new annual quota of 105 Chinese immigrants. Additionally, the law added “Chinese persons or persons of Chinese descent" to the categories of individuals eligible for naturalization.[ii] For the first time, any qualified lawfully admitted Chinese immigrant could become a naturalized U.S. citizen.[iii]

On January 18, 1944, one month and one day after the new law went into effect, Edward Bing Kan swore the Oath of Renunciation and Allegiance in the U.S. District Court at Chicago, becoming the first Chinese-American to naturalize after repeal of Chinese Exclusion.[iv] Kan’s status as the first to naturalize was not the result of chance—for 35 years he had served as an interpreter in the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s (INS) Chicago office.

Kan, the son of a vegetable peddler, entered the U.S. as a student in 1892 at age 13 under his original name, Kan Kwong Bing.[v]He settled in Portland, Oregon and in 1900 married Katherine Wong, a U.S. born citizen of Chinese descent. Under some interpretations of U.S. nationality law at that time Edward’s noncitizen status effectively divested Katherine of her U.S. citizenship upon marriage.[vi]Edward’s status as an “alien ineligible for citizenship” prevented him from naturalizing, leaving Katherine’s citizenship status in doubt.

In 1909, Edward and Katherine moved to Chicago where Edward began his tenure as a Chinese translator for the Immigration Service. He held the position for more than 35 years. During that time he likely “witnessed the granting of citizenship to thousands,” as one report of his naturalization noted.[vii]  Though denied access to naturalization some evidence suggests that Kan remained committed to the ideal of American citizenship. For example, he and Katherine provided presentations on “the Chinese in America,” to the Chicago Woman’s City Club Citizenship Class—events which included Katherine preparing traditional Chinese dishes.[viii] When Kan finally had the opportunity to naturalize one of his INS supervisors noted that he had always “expressed a keen desire for American citizenship.”[ix]

Kan’s position at the INS undoubtedly accelerated his journey to citizenship.  As the repeal act worked its way through Congress he followed its progress closely and he filed his naturalization application the day after the president signed the repeal into law. It is unlikely that someone less familiar, or less comfortable, with INS employees and procedures would have taken such immediate action.

However, the fact that Kan could apply and naturalize in just 30 days was also due to his ability to naturalize under special provisions for spouses of U.S. citizens. Just over three years earlier, Katherine Wong Kan had sworn the Oath of Allegiance at the U.S. District Court in Chicago, affirming her status as a U.S. citizen.

Beginning in 1922, a series of laws allowed most women who had lost, or believed they had lost, their U.S. citizenship through marriage to regain it, first by naturalization and then through an expedited repatriation process.[x] Because Katherine remained married to Edward she did not qualify under these laws until 1940 when Congress finally allowed all women who had lost their citizenship through marriage to repatriate.[xi]  Katherine repatriated on December 10, 1940.[xii]

Katherine’s reaffirmed citizenship status allowed Edward to apply for Naturalization as the spouse of a U.S. citizen. This meant he could skip the Declaration of Intention (or “first papers”), as well as the associated two year waiting period, and file his Petition for Naturalization directly.[xiii] He did so on the first day possible and became a U.S. citizen a mere 30 days later.

The law required at least 30 days to pass between the date a petition was filed and the date the petitioner received a hearing.[xiv] The fact that Kan received his hearing on the first day possible suggests his colleagues at INS and the U.S. District Court expedited his application to ensure he would be admitted as soon as possible. The fact that Edward’s petition has a much higher number than those of other petitioners sworn in on January 18, 1944 also indicates that his co-workers may have moved his petition forward to minimize his wait. Perhaps they believed that 40+ years had been long enough.

In the months immediately following the repeal of Chinese Exclusion INS received around 500 applications for naturalization from Chinese immigrants.[xv] In 1945, 739 Chinese immigrants became U.S. citizens.[xvi] Congress did not remove all racial restrictions on naturalization until it passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. [xvii]


[i]Act of December 17, 1943, “An Act to Repeal the Chinese Exclusion Acts, to Establish Quotas, and for Other Purposes.” (57 Stat. 600; 8 U.S.C. 212a).

The Act of May 6, 1882 [22 Stat. 58], suspended the immigration of Chinese labors, specified the classes of Chinese persons allowed to enter the U.S., and barred Federal and state courts from admitting Chinese persons to U.S. citizenship. The 1882 Act was renewed and expanded by a series of subsequent laws which together became known as the “Chinese Exclusion Acts.” For an overview, see Timothy J. Molloy, “A Century of Chinese Immigration: A Brief Review,” INS Monthly Review, Volume 4; Number 6 (December, 1947):69-75.

[ii]The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited naturalization to “any alien, being a free white person.” After the adoption of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, Congress added “Aliens of African nativity” and “persons of African descent” to the list of those eligible for naturalization (see the Act of July 14, 1870). While there were conflicting opinions, the courts generally held that most Asian immigrants did not fall under the category of “free white persons” and were thus ineligible for naturalization. Congress explicitly barred Chinese individuals from naturalization by the Act of May 6, 1882.

[iii]This article discusses the first Chinese-American to naturalize under general naturalization laws following the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Acts. Prior to the repeal of Chinese Exclusion several hundred Chinese immigrants had naturalized under special provisions granted to soldiers serving in WWII by the Act of March 27, 1942 (56 Stat. 182-183; 8 U.S.C. 1001-1005). In 1943, for example, 483 Chinese members of the U.S. Armed Forces naturalized in the U.S. and 77 more naturalized while serving abroad. See “Table. 1: Members of armed forces naturalized under Sec. 701 and Sec. 702 of the Nationality Act of 1940, as amended, during the years ended June 30, 1942 to 1945, by nationalities or former allegiance,” in Administrative History of the Immigration and Naturalization Service during World War II [typescript], available from the USCIS History Office and Library, Washington, DC.

[iv]“Naturalization Under the New Chinese Act,” INS Monthly Review, Volume 1; Issue 10 (April, 1944): 10-12.

[v]Passenger Manifest for the Haytian Republic arriving at Astoria, Oregon, November 2, 1892. Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at Astoria, Portland, and Other Oregon Ports, Apr. 1888-Oct. 1956, and Passenger Lists of Airplanes Arriving at Portland, Oregon, Nov. 1948-Oct. 1952. NARA Microfilm publication M1777; Record Group 85. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Biographical data on Kan was also gathered from INS correspondence file 53590/92, relating to Kan Mun Goon, Edward Kan’s brother. Edward played a role in bringing Mun Goon to the U.S. and he assured the Consulate General in Hong Kong that he would personally see to Mun Goon’s education. See file 53590/92, entry 9, Record Group 85, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

[vi]Prior to March 2, 1907 no federal statute dealt with the citizenship status of a U.S. citizen woman upon her marriage to an alien. During the nineteenth and early twentieth century the courts adopted inconsistent views on the matter causing much confusion for women in such marriages. In practice this meant that U.S. born women married to noncitizen men could not count on the normal protections given to citizens. In 1884, for example, the State Department declared that a woman who married a foreign man took the nationality of her husband and began declining to grant passports to such women. Congress acted to end this confusion with the Act of March 2, 1907 (34 Stat. 1228; 8 U.S.C. 17), which clearly stated that “any American woman who marries a foreigner shall take the nationality of her husband.” Though the act was eventually deemed not to apply to women married prior to March 2, 1907, it was unlikely to reassure them of their citizenship status.

For discussion of married women’s citizenship prior to March 2, 1907 see, Luella Gettys, The Law of Citizenship in the United States (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1934), 111-119 and Frederick Van Dyne, A Treatise on the Law of Naturalization of the United States (Washington, DC: Frederick Van Dyne, 1907), 242-256.

[vii]“First Chinese is Naturalized,” AP article printed in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, January 19, 1944, page 8.

[viii]For example, see Chicago Woman's City Club bulletin, Volume 6-7 (May, 1917-April, 1919), 9.

[ix]“Naturalization Under the New Chinese Act,”10.

[x]The Married Women’s Act of 1922 (42 Stat. 1021; 8 U.S.C. 367) granted women equal nationality status, meaning that they could no longer gain or lose U.S. citizenship through marriage—with one important exception being that until 1931 women who married men ineligible for naturalization were still stripped of U.S. citizenship (see Act of March 3, 1931 [46 Stat. 1511; 8 U.S.C. 397]).  Under the Married Women’s Act, women who had previously lost their citizenship through marriage could apply for naturalization. Re-naturalization remained the only path back to citizenship for these women until 1936, when Congress granted women who had lost citizenship through married before September 22, 1922 and whose marriage had terminated through death or divorce the ability to resume citizenship through a simplified swearing-in process (see Act of June 25, 1936 [49 Stat. 1917]). Finally, with the Nationality Act of 1940 (54 Stat. 1147) Congress allowed all women who had lost their citizenship through marriage the right to repatriate regardless of marital status.

For a detailed discussion of women and naturalization see Marian L. Smith, “‘Any woman who is now or may hereafter be married…’ Women and Naturalization, ca. 1802-1940,”Prologue Volume30, Number 2 (Summer 1998), 146-153. Available online from the National Archives.

[xi]Because Katherine and Edward Kan remained married throughout this time period, she would not have been eligible to repatriate until 1940. Though it was not clear if Katherine actually lost her U.S. citizenship because she had married prior to March 2, 1907, the repatriation process provided her with clear proof of her status. This likely proved useful when Edward filed his application for naturalization as the spouse of a U.S. citizen.

[xii]“Application to Take Oath of Allegiance to the United States Under the Act of June 25, 1936, as Amended, and Form of Such Oath,” for Katherine Wong Kan, File 129/0012933.

129/ Files documenting the repatriation of women who lost U.S. citizenship by marriage to an alien prior to 1922, and who resumed U.S. citizenship under the Act of June 25, 1936 are available through the USCIS Genealogy Program.

[xiii]Nationality Act of 1940, § 311 ( 54 Stat. 1145; 8 U.S.C. 711).

[xiv]Ibid., § 334(c) (54 Stat. 1156-57; 8 U.S.C. 734).

[xv]“Naturalization Under the New Chinese Act,”10.

[xvi]“Table 39: Aliens naturalized (certificates of naturalization issued), years ended June 30, 1936 to 1945 by countries of former allegiance,” Annual Report of the Immigration and Naturalization Service for the Fiscal year Ending June 30, 1945, 97.

[xvii]The Act of December 17, 1943 ended the ban on naturalization for Chinese immigrants. U.S. citizenship law still deemed individuals from other Asian countries to be racially ineligible for naturalization. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (INA) (66 Stat. 163) removed all racial barriers to naturalization.

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