Angel Island: The Guardian of the Western Gate

They huddled together on large steamboats, “eating wind and tasting waves” for nearly three weeks, before they finally saw land. They had scraped and borrowed funds to get on those boats to escape economic and political economic instability and to make a better life for their families back home. Many of them dreamed of Gam Saan, or Gold Mountain, thinking that this new land was filled with golden fields and rivers. But most would end up on a goldless, small island off the San Francisco Bay – Angel Island.

Angel Island used to be a Native American encampment, federal military reserve and World War II POW camp. It is best known, though, for having been used as a former immigration station. Roughly 200,000 Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Mexicans, Central and South Americans, Russians, Indians and East Asians were processed at the station after it first opened in 1910. Most immigrants were Chinese, mainly from the then impoverished and unstable southern Canton (Guangdong) province.

Unlike the process at Ellis Island, where immigrants only stayed at for several hours, the Chinese and other Asian immigrants were usually detained on Angel Island for weeks, sometimes even years. Because of virulent xenophobia, the United States passed many immigration laws after 1870 to limit Chinese immigration and exclude incoming Chinese from attaining American citizenship. By 1900, the only people of Chinese decent that were allowed to enter were certain exempt classes, American citizens (by having been born in the United States) and their children. Since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed most immigration documentation, many immigrants tried to get around the Exclusion Act by buying fake paperwork to pass as children of an exempt class member or American citizen, making them “paper sons or daughters.”

Because of the paper son practice, officials interrogated potential immigrants over the course of several hours or days to verify their statuses. Immigrants were asked about minute details of their lives. The potential immigrant’s family members were called to corroborate the answers, which often took days or weeks. While the officials corroborated their answers, the potential immigrant remained in detention for weeks. If an immigrant appealed the officials’ decision, then his stay would extend to months, even years.

Recreation of the Angel Island barracks

Conditions at Angel Island were poor. Public health officials considered the barracks to be a firetrap, as were always locked, surrounded by armed wire and armed guards. The barracks had been converted from a two-story shed and housed roughly 200 people at a time. Men and women lived in separate communal rooms where there was much filth and little privacy. To prevent coaching, potential immigrants’ mail was inspected. Additionally, they could not interact with members of the opposite gender nor receive visitors until after their cases were judged.

Without much to do, many detained immigrants took to carving poems on the dormitory walls, which still remain today. Most are unsigned and scholars believe that they were often written by several authors working in succession. The authors were most likely highly educated, since the poems are written in classical Chinese poetry styles and contain references to literary and folk heroes, particularly those who have suffered.

These works express the immigrants’ perspective on their detainment – hopes for a new life, frustration and resentment at the immigration process, advice to future immigrants, sadness and isolation. For examples:

Departing/Jade Cage
"Disillusionment" poem

Angel Island’s use as an immigration station ended when the Chinese immigration laws were relaxed. It burnt down in 1940, three years before the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed.  Restrictive quotas against immigrants of Asian descent would remain until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished the national origins quota system.

After the immigration center moved to San Francisco, the barracks fell into disrepair and were scheduled to be destroyed in 1970. However, a California State Park Ranger discovered the poems on the barrack walls. The Asian American community managed to convince the California government and private parties to restore and preserve the site. After years of restoration work, the Angel Island Immigration Station reopened in February 2009. It is currently a federally designated National Historic Landmark. Restoration is now being done on the hospital where immigrants who became ill were treated.


Featured image, all others courtesy of Roger Wagner

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