Vale of Tears

Angel Island is a jewel set in the middle of San Francisco Bay offering up matchless views and all kinds of recreational opportunities. It also has a darker side. Here was the “Ellis Island of the West”, but the Ellis Island of New York is remembered fondly by the immigrants it served. Not so with Angel Island. It was here that Asian-Americans were processed by the hundreds of thousands under racist laws that exploited them as cheap labor to build the railroads while denying them any semblance of dignity or human rights. The shame continues, in the form of inexcusably delayed plans for a memorial.

Angel Island’s Immigration Station, “Ellis Island of the West”, a Neglected Shrine

By Nancy Salcedo 
Published: May, 2002

For those familiar with New York, the nickname “Ellis Island of the West” conjures an image of a thriving, renovated historic site - a bustling tourist destination capable of handling millions of visitors annually. In reality, the Angel Island Immigration Station is nothing like that. This “Ellis Island” represents a different chapter in U.S. history - that of the Chinese immigrants who came to this country before 1940. “Gateway to Gold 

Mountain” and “Guardian of the Western Gate” are other names for this National Historic Landmark off the coast of Tiburon on Angel Island - a historic military base / turned state park in the middle of San Francisco Bay.

About 200,000 people visit Angel Island annually to hike its trails or view historic sites, many with docent-led tours touching on every phase of California’s history, from Civil War to Cold War. Of those visitors, about 50,000 visit the Immigration Station; the majority are class field trips.

One of the Bay Area’s most intriguing tales begins here, in the 1800s, with the passage of the “Chinese Exclusion Acts”. These laws changed the course of the country’s history as well as the cultural history for immigrants passing through the station.

While the memory of racial profiling lingers, kept alive by docents like Dale Cheng - a detainee at the station in 1937, the only tangible reminder of this period in the history of West Coast immigration is the deteriorating Immigration Station on Angel Island. Referred to by some in the Asian American community as “our Plymouth Rock,” the walls of the detention barracks contain poems carved in Chinese characters by detainees some eighty years ago.

The Immigration Station is a touchstone for many - a “reclamation of the past” according to Felicia Lowe, a board member for more than 20 years of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. Felicia is a filmmaker whose father passed through the station as an immigrant. She created “Carved in Silence” to tell the story of these immigrants, complete with National Archive transcripts of her father’s interrogations there. You can see a shortened version of “Carved in Silence” on the island. This film was an integral part of a traveling exhibit called “Gateway to Gold Mountain”, held at the Smithsonian and other museums nationwide in an effort to get

the word out about Angel Island. The exhibit is currently in New York at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, where it will remain through May, 2002 until proceeding to Ellis Island later this year. Felicia is a key player in a larger partnership including California State Parks, the National Park Service, and the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation - all working together to teach mainstream society about the site and what happened here.

What were they thinking?

Concerned about harbor defense, the army constructed gun batteries and a quarantine station on the island to isolate troops exposed to diseases in foreign wars. It declared the entire island “Fort McDowell”. With the Gold Rush came decades of unprecedented immigration. Boats from around the world flowed into San Francisco Bay, loaded with people hoping to strike it rich in the gold fields. The quiet days of cattle ranching were gone.

The Panama Canal was supposed to open a new immigration path from Europe, delivering many to west coast points of entry, rather than to Ellis Island in New York harbor, as in the past. People fleeing the Russian Revolution crossed Siberia into Hong Kong and boarded steamships for San Francisco. Immigration from China was also at a high, spurred in part by difficult economic times in imperial China and the new hope for prosperity on the “Gold Mountain of California”. The first Chinese immigrants arrived in 1848. Over the years, thousands more followed. The Bay Area’s already swollen population was socio-economically unbalanced. Competition within the newly forged economy grew intense, and resulting discriminatory legislation forced Chinese immigrants out of the gold fields and into lower paying jobs. Many laid tracks for the expanding railroads, filled marshland in the Sacramento Delta, or developed abalone and shrimp fisheries around the bay. They provided labor where no other group would toil, until an economic downturn in the 1870s resulted in intense unemployment, which manifested itself in an intolerance of Asian immigrants who would work hard for low wages.

The “Chinese Exclusion Acts”, adopted in the 1880s, took unprecedented aim at restricting immigration and remain the only immigration legislation that limited a specific group by name in the country’s history. For the Chinese in their homeland, the new laws allowed entry into the United States only to those who were born here, or those with husbands or fathers that were U.S. citizens. Many vital records were destroyed in the fire resulting from the 1906 earthquake, so the Bureau of Immigration resorted to interrogation as their means of determining paternal kinship. Because of the masses claiming to meet the entry requirements, they needed a detention center to house people waiting to be questioned. Because of its seclusion from the rest of the Bay Area population, Angel Island provided the ideal setting.

Intended as the “Ellis Island of the West,” the Immigration Station was completed in 1910 on the northeast corner of the island in Winslow Cove. It remained active until 1940. The ultimate flow of arrivals at Angel Island’s Immigration Station was below expectations because W.W.I and the restrictive immigration laws reduced immigration. Although most people passing through the station were Chinese, other groups included “picture brides” from Japan, who passed through channels more easily, simply because they carried the diplomatic influence of the Japanese government.

Controversial from the beginning, the Immigration Station was ultimately a means for exclusion, in contrast to its New York counterpart, Ellis Island, where immigrants were officially welcomed and screening focused on 

medical issues. Upon arrival, Angel Island’s immigrants were sent through the hospital, segregated with separate entrances for Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans. They surrendered their belongings to a warehouse on the docks and passed through the chain-link and barbed wire fencing to the barrack’s sole entry for an indefinite time period. Unlike Ellis Island, returning visitors to Angel Island’s Immigration Station lack fond memories.

Life at the Immigration Station was rustic, cramped and uncomfortable in the barracks later used to detain German, Italian and Japanese prisoners of war. People were locked in the barracks each day and not allowed to leave until after interrogation. Those with legitimate claims could proceed to the mainland. Along with legitimate claims of kinship, however, came “paper” relatives - people attempting to enter the country by false claims of family relations with U.S. citizens. Many hired brokers and obtained names of U.S. citizens along with study materials to familiarize themselves with questions asked by the Bureau of Immigration to determine the legitimacy of kinship claims. Detainees might spend from several weeks to more than a year awaiting interrogation, including 

questions about village details in their homeland and their ancestry. If their answers did not match that of the citizen claimed as kin, the detainees would be sent back to China.

It was during this uncertain waiting period that many people carved poems of their experience in the barracks walls – faded images that can still be seen under layers of chipping paint. One unknown author wrote: “Four days after the Qiquao Festival I boarded the steamship for America Time flew like a shooting arrow. Already a cool autumn has passed. Counting on my fingers, several months have elapsed. Still I am at the beginning of the road. My heart is nervous with anticipation”.

The detainees never signed their work. Interestingly, many in imperial China at that time were illiterate. Those capable of this work were most likely tutored in their homeland since there were no public schools. Writings are carved in the classic woodblock artisan style; scholars believe one person composed while another carved. Some of the composition and penmanship excels. However Katherine Toy, Executive Director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, finds the poems’ true value lies in their voice for those who might come to a place like this, look to a wall and say “I wish this wall could talk.”

It is these poems that led to the preservation of the barracks. By the time the government abandoned it in 1940, the Immigration Station had been the point of entry for 175,000 Chinese Immigrants. In 1943, the government repealed the Chinese Exclusionary Acts in favor of alliance with China in World War II. The abandoned station fell into disrepair. By the 1960s it was slated for demolition, but had attracted the attention of Paul Chow, whose father passed through the Immigration Station on his journey to America. The poems attracted the attention of others, including state park ranger Alexander Weiss, who discovered some wall poems by the light of a flashlight while walking through the building. Preservation efforts began. The barracks were spared demolition and special legislation allocated money to preserve and restore the building. In the late 1980s, Paul Chow founded the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation - a 25 year-old organization that until recently was an all-volunteer effort run much like a “pop store.” When Mr. Chow passed away, the legacy of the organization shifted to a new Board of Directors that took giant steps towards preservation in the mid-nineties.

The Foundation helped procure “National Historic Landmark” status, the first step toward the successful preservation of any historic site. The Immigration Station Detention Barracks Museum was dedicated in the old barracks with the recreation of one of the dormitories featuring the carved “wall” poems. Preservation efforts focus on protecting the carvings. Restoration proceeds with intent to not make it too shiny a place, because that wouldn’t be realistic. Public education remains crucial, as many don’t know about the site or what occurred there. Unlike Ellis Island, the Angel Island Immigration Station represents a generation of immigrants who, fearing deportation, internalized the hardships they faced upon their arrival in this country. Over 20 million people passed through Ellis Island, receiving promise of sanctuary and opportunity that has since been elevated into the country’s mythology. In contrast, less than 1 million people came through Angel Island. Their story, along with that of the Immigration Station, was “swept under the rug”.

Now things are changing. In 2000, California voters approved a bond measure that earmarked $15 million for the preservation of the Immigration Station on Angel Island, a project now anticipated to be completed within the next 8 years. The Foundation is to obtain federal 

appropriations, followed by a capital campaign of private donors. Together, the partnership between State Parks, the National Parks Service and the Foundation is raising funds while simultaneously educating people about the place. Darci Moore, a state park education specialist for the Immigration Station, notes that even in the Asian American community, most people do not realize that many of the Immigration Station-era Chinese Immigrants weren’t granted amnesty until the 1960s. Those who arrived after this turning point are unaware of the history of the Exclusion Acts, and thus the Immigration Station altogether. The National Park Service is working to establish a Pacific Coast Immigration Museum; the Immigration Station is a likely centerpiece for that project.

A visit to the barracks today is a profound experience. Though the building is now dilapidated, it was not at the time of operation. Preservation includes studying the architectural history here in order to bring the building back to its historical period. As is, it retains the feel and smell of its bygone era. The place is dark and dismal. You can sense how one might feel, upon entering the building, that they had involuntarily relinquished their comfort, freedom of movement, and personal space. The book “Island” by Him Mark Visiting the Island,, Genny Lim and Judy Yung depicts life here, through photographs and translated poems. The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation is collecting an oral history by former detainees, immigrants and families of those who lived and worked at the Immigration Station, providing an invaluable record. Through the foundation’s efforts and those of the State and National Park Services, the Immigration Station has become a National Historic Landmark worthy of future fame. As Dale Cheng says on his tours, “Come back in 8 years, and you might see how the placed used to look.”

Visiting the Island, Immigration Station

There are lots of hiking and bike trails. Visitors can rent a bike or kayak on the island at Ayala Cove, which also offers a beautiful beach. The Angel Island Association runs a gift shop at the ferry dock. The state park runs a visitor center and picnic grounds, and the Angel Island Company manages the “Cove Café” and offers motorized tram tours weekends in March through November, and daily beginning April 7 through October. Call (925) 426-3058.

For more information about Angel Island:
Angel Island Ferry 415-435-2131,
Angel Island Company
Angel Island State Park
Angel Island Association
Angel Island Immigration Station Detention Barracks Museum 415-435-3522
Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation 415-561-2160,
Sea Trek Sea Kayak Rental 415-488-1000

Chetin, Helen, Angel Island Prisoner, New Seed Press, Berkeley, 1982
Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, Jund Yung, Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940. History of Chinese Detainees on Island (HOC DOI), San Francisco, 1980.