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Angel Island: Immigrant Journeys of the Chinese-Americans

Angel Island: Chinese Immigration History



An Island Full of Angels?

A view of Angel Island from San Francisco
It's a bright sunny day. Neda and I have spent the last hour kayaking across the San Francisco Bay to reach beautiful Angel Island. As we pull our boats up on the shore, we are met by Ranger Ken who has agreed to give us a private tour of the Immigration Station. We peel off our wet gear and layer up our warm fuzzies. There is a chill in the air and the sun is intense… the day could not be more perfect.

China Cove, the beach where many new immigrants first stepped onto American soil
Imagine now, not even 100 years earlier, a very different landing on this same beach. You are fourteen years old and have just spent the last month on a steam ship traveling from China to the west coast of the United States. As you disembark, you are met by a strange looking man whose skin is white and who speaks a strange language. He leads you up to a bright yellow building where all of your things are taken from you except the clothes on your back. You are placed in a room with 90 or so bunk beds filled with women and their children. This is where you will spend the next week, next month, and possibly even the next year, before being admitted into the golden land you came to find.

This image describes what many Chinese people experienced as they tried to immigrate to The United States. To understand why the Immigration Center is on Angel Island and the plight of the 175,000 Chinese immigrants who passed through these doors, let's start at the beginning of this story.

Neda checks out the Immigration Station
In the mid to late 1800's Chinese workers began immigrating to the US to escape the political and economic hardships of their own country. They were lured here by the promise of Gam Sann (Gold Mountain). However, they were discriminated against and were forced out of gold mining and into menial labor, hard work with little pay that no one else would take. The first transcontinental railroad was built from the hard work of these early Chinese immigrants. By 1870, the American economy was having difficulties, which led to widespread discrimination against the Chinese for "taking" American jobs away from American citizens. Immigration laws were changed so that entry would only be allowed to those born in the US or to those who had husbands or fathers who were citizens.

A monument dedicated to all who passed through the doors of the Immigration Station
Here is where Angel Island comes into the story. The Immigration Station was built in 1905 not as a detainment center, but as a west coast answer to Ellis Island where the Statue of Liberty welcomes newcomers into the east coast of The States. With the completion of the Panama Canal, many expected a large influx of European immigrants to the West Coast. Unfortunately, World War I created a different scenario. Instead of Europeans, the majority of immigrants who entered the US from the west side were from Asia.

Jen tries to get Neda's ears ringing
In 1924, Congress passed the Origin Act, which further kept down the number of immigrants, especially those from Asia. The act put a quota on the number of immigrants that would be allowed to enter, based on the number of people from a particular country who were already here in 1890. At this time, fewer Asians had arrived than Europeans, which furthered the discrimination against Asians. People from Japan were denied entrance at all. It seemed that the "golden door" of California had been slammed shut due to racism and discrimination.

Ranger Ken shows the beds where the detained women slept
All right, enough with the dates and laws. The most interesting and tragic facts about the Immigration Center were the actions that took place inside. As families arrived on the docks, they were immediately separated. Children who were under 14 went with their mother, except for males older than 14, who were put with the men. Everyone was given a number. (Imagine losing your identity so quickly and being called by a number!) After being taken through the administration building where people had left all of their belongings, they were brought to the bunkhouses.

The women wore paper bags over their heads for privacy
The women's side had a small living room and the bedroom, which housed over 90 women plus their children. The bunk beds were stacked three high and it is in these beds that the women washed their clothes, their children and themselves. There was very little privacy. In fact, the bathroom consisted of a row of toilets with no walls between them at all. To maintain some dignity, the women would put paper bags over their heads when they went to the toilet so that they would not look at one another.

A replica of the interrogation process
The men had a similar setting except that they also had access to the outdoors for recreation and exercise. In contrast, the women were only allowed to leave the building for their three daily meals. Confined to these small quarters, many would sew or knit.


Paddling Across the Bay...

The last stage in the process of entry was the interrogation. Because of all of the Immigration Laws, people had to prove they were actually related to someone who was already a citizen of the US. New immigrants were grilled through a set of questions that had already been asked of their relative:

What did your village look like?
How many windows does your house have?

Jen chills out before kayaking back across the bay
Some of the immigrants were not truthfully related to those in the US, but had bought false papers claiming so. These people are now referred to as "paper sons and daughters." Others did in fact have relatives, but it had been many years since they had seen one another and certainly, the villages and homes could have changed. All this made it very difficult to answer the questions correctly. On top of that, all of the questioning was done through an interpreter, so the answers could have been altered or the meaning could have been misrepresented. Personally, I know that if I were nervous and my entry depended on answering these questions correctly, I would be scared out of my mind. Those who failed the interrogation could appeal to Washington in the hopes of still gaining entrance. However, oftentimes it would take years before they heard anything, causing them to be detained in the prison-like Immigration Station.

By 1943, the Origin Act was repealed because China had become an ally during World War II. The Station has been used for other purposes during the war, and is now open to visitors, like us trekkers, interested in learning about the history of the area.

From now on, I am departing far from this building.
All of my fellow villagers are rejoicing with me.
Don't say that everything within is Western Styled.
Even if it is built of jade,
It has turned into a cage.

-Poem translated from a wall in the
Angel Island Immigration Center

Jen checks out the Chinese poetry forever embedded in the walls of the Immigration Station
As we leave the Immigration Station, one of the most striking visual images that stays with me is the Chinese characters still engraved on the walls, some covered over with paint. Almost everywhere you look, you can see the work of someone's hand, the ideas of someone's mind imprinted in the walls of these buildings. Have you ever heard the expression, "If these walls could talk…?" Well, these walls can.


Please email me at: jennifer@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - Building a better human - in the 1920's?!
Jennifer - Evolution's gonna make a monkey's uncle out of you!
Stephanie - The KKK: breaking the cycle of hate
Irene - Making a run for the border
MAD - TV: A giant slushie for your brain