As the Chinese immigrants awaited their fate on Angel Island, they expressed their anxiety and frustrations through poetry they left on the same walls they were confined in. Many served as a warning of their detention for other travelers who may come with the same false optimistic hope. Leaving friends and family behind at home, they came abroad in search of a better life and their resentment at the treatment the Americans granted them.
Interrogations could take a long time to complete, especially if witnesses for the immigrants lived in the eastern United States. Some detainees expressed their feelings in poetry that they carved into the wooden walls of the detention center. Others simply waited, hoping for a favorable response to their appeals, but fearing deportation.
Journey, Homesick, Detainment, Interrogations, Hope, Americans
When the Angel Island Immigration Station officially opened in 1910, it was considered ideal because of its isolation. The objective was to exclude new immigrants from entering the country. Once used for military occupation, the buildings were not a welcoming facility. On the shores where immigrants first stepped foot in America, there once stood a pier and administration building until a fire destroyed much of the facility in 1940. The Pier bell still stands on the beach where immigrants arrived. This is where our tour begins.
The new station would prevent Chinese immigrants from communicating with those in San Francisco, isolate immigrants with communicable diseases, and, like the prison on nearby Alcatraz Island, be escape proof.
Administration Building, Warf
The pier was the primary entrance for the Immigration Station. It led straight out from the Administration Building with a slanted T-bar dock crossing at the end of it. The dock contained a light and a fog bell. When arriving at the pier, Chinese men were immediately separated from women and children. Europeans travelers would have already had their papers processed and been allowed to disembark on the mainland. Asians and other immigrants, including Russians, Mexicans, and others, as well as those who needed to be quarantined for health reasons, would be ferried to Angel Island for processing.
The hospital was located on the hillside to the northeast side of the station. This facility was used for medical examinations, medical care, and detention quarters when needed. Here, they would also be tested for parasitic infections. Consequences could be severe for failing this test, including hospitalization at their own expense or deportation. There were also some poems that were found on the walls here, but much fewer than in the barracks.
If a detainee needed a medical examination, a humiliating experience for Asians, whose medical practice does not include disrobing before strangers or being probed and measured by metal calipers.
After new arrivals examinations, the Immigrants were assigned a bunk in the Barracks, where they would await their interrogations to begin. The barracks is where most spent their days and nights. It was a two-story wooden building situated on a hillside above the Administration Building. A fence enclosed the barracks, a recreation yard, and a guard tower. It had been deemed by public health officials to be a firetrap, the smell from the bathrooms was unbearable, and at times there were prisoners being kept there. Under such conditions, some demanded to be returned to China on the next boat out.
The main building at the station was the two-story Administration Building. It contained rooms for examinations, registration, the Chief Inspector, doctors, detentions, baggage, and employee dorms.
Here, new arrivals would be tested for parasitic infections before entering the grounds. Consequences could be severe for failing this test, including hospitalization at their own expense or deportation. The building in the back right is the barracks and the one on the left is the hospital. In 1940, a fire destroyed the Administration Building and hastened the government decision to permanently abandon the Immigration Station on Angel Island.
Immigrants from southern China began arriving in San Francisco during the 1850’s, fleeing from a natural disasters and a falling economy. When the California economy took a downturn in the 1870s, many economic problems were blamed on the highly visible Chinese minority by newspapers and politicians. After a series of anti-Chinese laws were passed at state levels, soon attracting the attention of politicians where both parties in Congress supported the first of several acts targeting immigration from Asia.
1851, 25,000 Chinese immigrants had left their homes and moved to California, a land some came to call gam saan, or “gold mountain”.
1862, California passes a “police tax” of $2.50 a month on every Chinese
1869, the final spike was driven into the rails of the Transcontinental Railroad, after a record-breaking five years of construction. Hundreds or Chinese lost their lives during construction.
1870, the Sidewalk Ordinance of banned the Chinese method of carrying vegetables and carrying laundry on a pole
1873, Queue Ordinance outlawed the wearing of long braids by men, a Chinese custom.
1888, Scott Act renders 20,000 Chinese reentry certificates null and void.
1892, Geary Law entends Chinese exclusion for another 10 years and requires all Cihnese to registers.
1902, Chinese exclusion extended for another ten years and requires all Chinese to register.
1906, San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed municipal records. This created an opportunity for the city’s Chinese to claim children on return visits to their ancestral villages. These events, in turn, gave birth to the “paper son” and “paper daughter” industry.
1914, Some Chinese Americans served in the U.S. Armed Forces in World War I and became heroes.
1919, A riot breaks out in the cafeteria due to the quality of food. Federal troops were called in to restore order.
1925, The Immigration Exclusion Act was passed and continued to discriminate against Asian immigrants by denying entry to virtually all Asian.
1930, Restrictions against Chinese immigrants began to ease. Congress passed an act providing the admission of Chinese wives who were married to American citizens.
1932, 92 poems are collected into manuscripts by Smiley Jann and Tet Yee.
1943, Congress repeals all Chinese exclusion laws and grants right of naturalization and a small immigration quota to Chinese.
1960- Chinese immigration explodes, and brought a new, and very different, group of immigrants to America’s shores.
1965- Immigration and Naturalization Act of, eliminated the old quota system that gave preference to western Europeans. As a result, the Chinese American population in the U.S. almost doubled within ten years.
Students on strike at San Francisco State University to demand establishment of ethnic studies programs.
- Students at the University of California, Berkeley, go on strike for establishment of ethnic studies programs.
1980s- Many more people from China, including university students, joined the migration to the U.S., and many settled here permanently.
At the beginning of the 20th century, millions of immigrants flooded America in search of a better life. On the west coast, most were greeted by the wooden buildings of Angel Island. Turmoil in China forced entire villages to pull their resources into sending their most intelligent scholar to America to send money home, However, their hopes were often destroyed by their detainment on Angel Island. This sections hears their voice.
Mr. Lowe, age 16 , page 75
I had nothing to do there. During the day, we stared at the scenery beyond the barbed wires – the sea and the sky and the clouds that were separated from us. Besides listening to the birds outside the fence, we could listen to records and talk to old-timers in the barracks. Some, due to faulty responses during the interrogation and lengthy appeal procedures, had been there for a few years. They poured out their sorrow unceasingly. Their greatest misery stemmed from the fact that most of them had had to borrow money for their trips to America. Some mortgaged their houses; some sold their land’ some had to borrow at such high interest rates that their family had to sacrifice. A few committed suicide in the detention barracks.
Mr. Yip, age 26, page 136
I really didn’t want to come, but my father bought me a paper. I figured I’d come and stay for three months or so and go back. My father and three uncles were already here in the United States. The man who claimed me as his son came from Mexico. There were some contradictions in our testimonies, so we hired an attorney. It was no use. They deported me, along with the old-timers who had gone back home and come back but were found to be infected by hookworm. I left my home on the sixth day of the sixth moon and I returned on the sixth day of the sixth moon the following year. It was exactly one year.
Mr. Dea, age 26, page 137
“In general, the feelings were: one, an eagerness to leave and go on to San Francisco, and two, to get the interrogation over with. Until then, no one was very happy. At the time, we did no understand America’s immigration laws. We were told that we had to come through Angel Island. Most did not think to protest. If the food was bad, we put up with it. Out treatment wasn’t cruel, so we just endured the period and hoped for it to pass. Only those who were detained and separated from relatives for a long time and who were going through the appeal process after spending a lot of money to come in the first place suffered. They were the ones who wrote the angry and bitter poems. But looking back now at how the United States treated Chinese and Asian Immigrants, we can see how unequal and unfair the treatment was.”
Mr. Tong, age 20, page 96
When I was there, we were treated very poorly. For example, other people, such as Italians and Japanese, were provided with toilet paper and soap; just the Chinese didn’t have it. We had to have it sent down to us from San Francisco. Because I had been there for six-months, I was elected President of the Self-Governing Organization. We thought this was not very fair, so with some other officers of the Organization, I went and successfully negotiated for toilet paper and soap.”
There were local Americans who visited the Immigration Station, the most helpful and famous being Deaconess Katherine Maurer. Known as the “Angel of Angel Island,” she was appointed by the Women’s Home Missionary Society to do welfare work on the island in 1912. She worked full-time until 1940, when the station closed. Her main duty was to give English lesions, but she also eased the fear of the detainees buy bringing items such as soap, toothbrushes, and stationery. She also brought games and dolls for the children. The district director stated, “Much credit is due to the fine welfare work carried on by Miss Maurer at this immigration station.”
A journey across the Pacific Ocean has many stops including Honolulu, Manila, Yokohama, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Many passengers could barely afford their travel tickets alone and needed help of relatives and neighbors. They all believed one thing: that they could make that money back quickly in America. Other immigrants came from the Punjab, Russia, the Philippines, Portugal, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and Latin America.