1920 newspaper article. The year before I left for Taiwan, I went looking for my grandmother Anna’s birth certificate in New York City’s historical records. I thought, sure, Anna never told her children about what happened. But maybe there were documents out there that could show us what happened, like her birth certificate or adoption records [before she was taken in by Miss Banta, a missionary].
Finally, I got access to one of the newspaper databases that had a full text search available from 1865 on, a gift in these early days of digitized news archives. Since Miss Banta was a public figure for working for social justice and welfare, I searched for “Mary Banta” and “True Light Lutheran Church” (which she helped to establish) in the old newspaper archives, and printed every article that came up....
These articles, when read all together, detailed an alarming phenomenon in Chinatown in the early 1900s: ‘parents’ or guardians of Chinese girls selling children into foster homes and subjecting them to other forms of abuse. Miss Banta’s work saving children—literally wrenching them out of the grips of exploitation and abuse—was there, in front of me, in well-documented newspaper articles.
Then I looked at the next page in the stack of printouts. “Annul Marriage of Girl, 12: Youthful Chinese Bride Freed From Ties She Was Forced Into.” The New York Times, Nov. 13, 1920.
Anna was either 11 or 12 in 1920. Her official maiden name, which I would later learn from a Social Security Number application filed in the 1950s, was Anna Faith Lee—Faith given to her as a middle name by Miss Banta. Could Lee have been the Kee in this article? Apparently, the Romanized English spelling of Chinese names was very easily confused at this time by everyone, not just the press. Could Kee and Lee have been confused in the translation from Cantonese to English? Or could it have been a typo?
Where did Miss Banta find Anna? How did Anna come to live with Miss Banta? Later I would learn that Anna reported on her social security application that she had been orphaned and taken in by the New York Foundling Home. But what if that foster parent had sold her, as these other girls had been sold? In one of the 1909 articles, I learned that “it was a common practice for Chinamen to buy girls in China for $50 or $60, bring them to this country, keep them until they were fourteen or fifteen years old, and then sell them for $800 to $900.”
In the margins of the article about Anna Wong Kee’s annulled marriage, I scrawled in pencil: “Could this be Anna???”
—Kim Liao, from The Cost of Freedom: A Family Memoir of Taiwanese Independence