Memorandum by Miss Ruth E. Bacon of the Division of Far Eastern Affairs

Treatment of Chinese Seamen in American Ports

Recently two incidents have occurred in New York harbor involving the killing or serious injury of members of Chinese crews on board foreign vessels who were attempting to land, allegedly in contravention of American immigration regulations.

On April 11, 1942, according to press reports, the Chinese crew on board a foreign vessel in New York harbor threatened the captain of the vessel because of his refusal to permit the crew to land and the captain fired, killing one of the Chinese crew. The vessel in question had left Singapore in September and had been lying in New York harbor since November, the crew being permitted one shore leave apiece in the interval. The captain reportedly stated that immigration regulations forbade the crew from going ashore and that the steamship company would be heavily fined if the Chinese crew were permitted to land.

On June 4, 1942, according to press reports, two Chinese seamen from a freighter in New York harbor were shot and seriously wounded by a steamship company guard, when they, with other members of the crew, attempted to force their way ashore after permission to leave the pier had been refused. After the shooting, the crew was forced back to its ship at pistol point.

The following comment upon these incidents is offered:

1. According to information from IN,1 there is no legal provision barring the landing for shore leave of properly documented, bona fide Chinese seamen, and there is no discrimination by American authorities against such seamen. According to the regulations of November 19, 1941, as amended on January 14, 1942 regarding aliens entering the United States (Section 58.54), “in addition to all other requirements, no non-resident alien seaman employed on any vessel [Page 789] arriving in the United States from any place outside thereof shall be granted shore leave or be permitted to go ashore in the United States except with the approval of the master and in the discretion of the immigration officials at the port of arrival acting under authority of the Attorney-General …”2 It therefore appears that wide discretion in the matter is left with the masters and the immigration officials and it is probable, according to IN, that the documents of Chinese seamen might be more carefully scrutinized by immigration officials than are the documents of seamen of non-Oriental races.

2. Although from a strictly technical point of view there may be no discrimination against Chinese crews on vessels in American ports, it is evident, from the circumstances of the two incidents referred to and from press comment that Chinese crews on one basis or another are denied over long periods the right to land even for shore leave and that the opinion is prevalent that practical discrimination against Chinese crews does exist on a wide scale.

Such a situation is evidently undesirable for humanitarian reasons; for political reasons, because China is a United Nation and because the Axis is seeking for material to create the impression in the Far East that the “four freedoms” are meaningless and that the United States is racially prejudiced against all Oriental peoples; and for strategic reasons because an adequate supply of loyal seamen who are willing to take the risks of shipping on freighters and tankers is vital to the maintenance of our supply lines and to the success of the war.

3. It is recognized that any efforts to ameliorate this situation must take into account several important factors, including the following:

Chinese crews have more reason to desire to jump ship in American ports than crews of non-Oriental race because Chinese seamen as a group are paid lower wages and given less endurable living conditions than are other crews. Moreover, under existing conditions, Chinese seamen can have little present hope of returning to their homeland.
Chinese seamen who do attempt to jump ship are more difficult to locate and deport than are non-Oriental seamen.
As Chinese seamen belong to an “excluded” race under the immigration laws, the immigration authorities might not unnaturally feel a special responsibility for preventing the landing of such persons if there is any reason to believe that the seamen may jump ship.

4. The president of the Chinese Association of Labor, Mr. Chu Hsueh-fan, has stated, according to the press, “that ship desertions by all nationalities had assumed grave proportions”, that there were about 10,000 deserting seamen at large in the United States, and that statistics for New York harbor for March showed that Chinese desertions represented only 16% of the total desertions for the period.

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Recently an agreement was reportedly signed between the British and Chinese authorities concerned making provision for an improvement of the situation of Chinese seamen serving on British vessels, including an increase in wages and arrangements with regard to a temporary stay in England after the completion of the term of a seaman’s contract.

5. In the light of all these considerations, it is suggested that if a serious study of the situation of Chinese seamen in American ports has not already been begun, it should be urgently undertaken with a view to establishing fully the facts and considering what steps might reasonably be taken toward improvement. Question is raised:

Whether a more adequate procedure for the documentation of Chinese seamen under existing war conditions might not be worked out so that they might be permitted in all cases reasonable shore leave if the vessels are unavoidably detained for long periods in American ports.
Whether any steps might usefully be taken analogous to those recently taken between the British and Chinese authorities for working out an agreement upon conditions governing Chinese crews landing temporarily in American ports.
Whether the existing situation might advisedly be brought to the attention of the immigration authorities in this country with a view to liberalizing wherever feasible the procedure in connection with Chinese seamen.
Whether any steps could be taken toward providing more adequate welfare facilities in American ports for dealing with Chinese seamen.

It is suggested, also, that possibly this question is one which might usefully be brought before the Inter-Departmental Committee on Merchant Seamen, of which it is understood Mr. Saugstad of IN is a member.

  1. Division of International Communications.
  2. Omission indicated in the original.