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Ellis Island of the West

A story from yesterday offers perspective on the troubles of today.



JOE CHAN WANTS to meet you. He has a story to tell.

Joe’s parents both entered the United States at Angel Island before he was born, and Joe grew up hearing their stories. He has since become an expert in the history of the Angel Island Immigration Station, and he volunteers as a docent, sharing the story of his family — and that of hundreds of thousands of other families — with visitors from around the world.

Remnants of those stories are still visible at the immigration station. The barracks display historical re-creations of immigrants’ living quarters, including a men’s game room that houses a ping-pong table, record player and mahjong tiles. With a little gentle prodding, Joe will show you his parents’ Certificates of Identity, reproduced as delicate photo-etchings on a commemorative monument that lies between the old barracks and the sea.

Known as the Ellis Island of the West, the Angel Island Immigration Station processed nearly a million immigrants from 82 countries between 1910 and 1940. But their treatment was in sharp contrast to the immigration experience implied by the famous poem that is nearly synonymous with Ellis Island:

… Give me your tired,
your poor,
Your huddled masses
yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse
of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless,
tempest-tost to me ...

For many Asian travelers entering through Angel Island, “processing” was a frightening ordeal. A high barbed-wire fence surrounded the Immigration Station, and gun towers guarded its perimeter. Families were separated — men in one section, women and children in another. At one time the Asian men’s barracks, designed to accommodate 56 people, housed more than 200.

Inside the barracks, narrow metal bunks were stacked three high, with suitcases stashed into corners and laundry hanging at all angles. The newcomers were required to strip, en masse, for physical exams and had to use the restrooms in groups and on a schedule. Many were denied mattresses to sleep on.

The average length of stay on Angel Island was three-and-a-half weeks, but some immigrants were detained for nearly two years as they waited for their entry papers to be approved. (The average processing time for the 12 million people who entered the U.S. through Ellis Island, by way of comparison, was just three-and-a-half hours.)

On the immigration station’s website, Lina Fong recounts the story of her mother’s 17-day stay at Angel Island: “Many people committed suicide in the restroom. She was scared to go. Every day there was someone crying. She felt like those were the worst times of her life.”

In part, the difficult circumstances were an understandable, if very unfortunate, result of overcrowding. But the Angel Island facility also enforced policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. As the name indicates, the policy was designed to exclude, rather than embrace, immigrants from China; Americans were afraid Chinese laborers would take their jobs. The result was that the Angel Island Immigration Station — also called “The Guardian of the Western Gate” — became a holding station for Chinese immigrants hoping to enter the country.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first law preventing a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the United States. It was followed by laws intended to limit the immigration of Japanese, Indian and Filipino people and was later strengthened by the Immigration Act of 1924, which instituted a quota system restricting immigration of Russians, Greeks, Italians, Spanish, Eastern Europeans, Africans, Arabs and East Asians in an attempt “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.” We still use the quota system today.

It was a quirk of fate — and poetry — that led to the preservation of the Angel Island Immigration Station (the station was awarded National Historic Landmark status in 1997). Closed after a fire in 1940 and slated for demolition in 1970, the detention barracks were preserved because of the discovery of Chinese poetry carved into their splintered wooden walls. Here’s one such poem:

Why should anyone complain
If he is imprisoned here?
From ancient times, heroes often were
The first ones to face adversity.

Joe points out a few of the more than 200 poems and poetry fragments that have been painstakingly restored. He reads some aloud in Chinese, remarking on the attention to rhythm and classical form, the nuanced historical references, and the calligraphers’ skill and artistry.

The poetry here helps to preserve a record of immigration history, but the museum serves an even more important purpose: it reminds us of our national struggle to accept immigrants and embrace ethnic diversity. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who signed the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, said, “We are a nation of many nationalities, many races, many religions, bound together by a single unity, the unity of freedom and equality. Whoever seeks to set one nationality against another, seeks to degrade all nationalities. Whoever seeks to set one race against another seeks to enslave all races. Whoever seeks to set one religion against another, seeks to destroy all religion.”

Whether you’re seeking to understand more about the immigrant experience, provide a civics lesson for the kids, or learn a little history on a day trip to Angel Island, the Immigration Station is worth a visit. Be sure to say hello to Joe if you see him.

If You Go

Ferries to Angel Island run from Tiburon (Angel Island Ferry), San Francisco (Blue & Gold Fleet), and Oakland/Alameda (Blue & Gold Fleet). The Immigration Station is open Wednesday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; admission is $5 for adults and $3 for youth. The station is a 1.5-mile walk from the ferry landing at Ayala Cove. Find more information and ferry schedules at parks.ca.gov.

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