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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

"The Ellis Island of the West"

Updated: May 15, 2022

Nights are long and the pillow cold; who can pity my loneliness?

After experiencing such loneliness and sorrow,

Why not just return home and learn to plow the fields?

Excerpt from Poem 43, Angel Island Barracks

Angel Island is situated in San Francisco Bay, northwest of the Golden Gate Bridge and just off Sausalito. From its highest point, on a clear day, one can look north to Sonoma and Napa and south along the bay to San Jose. It is a California state park that is home to campgrounds and hiking trails. At the beginning of the Civil War, the US army set up a military garrison on the island to protect from possible Confederate attacks. The island remained a military post through World War II, and several of the buildings remain. In 1970, a park ranger discovered writing carved into one of the remaining barracks. The writing was Chinese, and these were poems describing their experience as immigrants to the United States.

From 1910 t0 1940, Angel Island served as an immigration center for those coming from around the Pacific Rim: Chinese, Japanese, Australians, New Zealanders, Pacific Islanders, Russians, and South Americans. It has become known as the "Ellis Island of the West." Whereas European immigrants were welcomed by the Statue of Liberty and the promise of the American ideal, those arriving at Angel Island, especially the Chinese and Japanese, suffered through a much different experience. It was an experience that was borne from anti-Chinese sentiments starting in the 1870s.

Chinese immigration to the United States began in earnest after gold was discovered in California. Chinese labor was in demand during the 1850s and 1860s, first to work in the gold mines and then as workers on the transcontinental railroad. Civil unrest and a poor rural economy in southern China forced many to seek a better opportunity in America. Then came the Panic of 1873, and the United States sank into a deep economic depression. Wages fell, and many became unemployed. White laborers now had to compete with Chinese immigrants, who often were willing to work for lower wages. There was a rise in anti-Chinese resentment. The Chinese became scapegoats for the economic woes. Politicians, wanting to appease the important Western voting bloc, began enacting laws at the local and state level targeting the Chinese. This eventually drew national attention, and Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

The Chinese Exclusion Act severely limited the number of Chinese allowed into the United States. Chinese skilled and unskilled labor and Chinese who worked in mines were prohibited from entering the US for ten years. Chinese immigrants were not allowed to become US citizens. There were exceptions for non-labor groups such as merchants, travelers, diplomats, teachers, and children of US citizens. These groups needed to obtain a certificate from the Chinese government. This was the first time Congress restricted immigration based on ethnicity, and subsequent exclusionary laws were passed to reduce the number of Chinese. American businesses, seeing the supply of Chinese labor drop, turned to Japanese immigrants. Anti-immigrant resentment was transferred to the Japanese. In the so-called Gentleman's Agreement of 1907, Japan voluntarily sought to reduce the number of Japanese immigrants coming to the United States.

During the latter half of the 19th century, immigrants arrived on the West Coast at San Francisco. These new arrivals were dropped off at the docks of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, and they were processed in an old two-story shed. These facilities proved inadequate and unsanitary. In 1905, the War Department donated land on the northeastern side of Angel Island to the Department of Labor and Commerce, which oversaw immigration. The island was chosen because it was isolated from the mainland, provided greater control over who entered the country, prevented immigrants from communicating with others on the mainland, and allowed those carrying diseases to be quarantined from the general population. By 1910, a cluster of buildings had been constructed around the area later called China Cove. These buildings included an administration building, a hospital, and a fenced-in detention center with a guard tower.

Upon arriving in San Francisco, a ship was boarded by immigration officials. Those passengers with the proper documentation of their citizenship or immigration status were allowed to enter the United States. The remainder were ferried to the immigration station on Angel Island. When the new immigrants disembarked, they headed to the administration building, separated by race and sex regardless of family relationships. Children under the age of twelve were allowed to remain with their mothers. Afterward, they proceeded to a medical exam and were tested for infections. Those who failed were sent to the hospital at their own expense or deported. Those who passed were detained at the detention center and assigned a bunk. Here they waited for an immigration hearing.

Many Chinese immigrants looked for ways around the Chinese Exclusion Act, including purchasing fake identities. They presented themselves as children of citizens or one of the exempt groups. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed many municipal records, and Chinese residents then claimed to be born in the United States and were therefore citizens. They took advantage of this by "adopting" family members in ancestral villages and bringing them to the US. These became known as "paper sons" and, less frequently, "paper daughters."

Immigration inspectors became savvy at exposing fraudulent claims. By 1910, they had refined a system of grueling interrogations. The immigration hearing consisted of a Board of Special Inquiry composed of two inspectors, a stenographer, and a translator. Hearings might take a few hours, several days, or months. Interrogators grilled an applicant about details concerning family history, villages, homes, and other details that only would be known to the real person. Witnesses were called to corroborate an applicant's testimony. Any deviation might result in prolonging the hearing and risking deportation, which would include any family members involved. Details needed to be remembered for life due to return trips to China or random immigration raids.

The detention center had a prison-like atmosphere. Detainees were confined in the dormitory behind locked doors. They could only leave accompanied by an armed escort. Men read or listened to recordings in their native language. Women often knitted or sewed to pass the time. Women and children were sometimes allowed to go outside for a stroll. No visitors were allowed, and officers inspected incoming and outgoing mail and packages. Though the length of stay varied by nationality, they needed to suffer through weeks, months, and maybe years as their cases and appeals were adjudicated or if witnesses had to be found across the United States.

Within ten months of its first detainees, poems began to be carved into the unfinished wooden walls of the men's barracks. The poems have become the most visible and most durable record of the immigrant experience at Angel Island. They were not simple graffiti but espoused feelings of disillusionment, frustration, anger, and unfulfilled aspirations. They speak of hopelessness, pain, and life in detention. They allude to ancient myths and folklore. The poems were written mainly by Chinese men between the ages of 14 - 18. Most of the poems are unsigned. Perhaps a dozen have names, and a few of these provide dates and birthplaces of the writers. The Chinese poems inspired other immigrants. Japanese immigrants also left their mark. There are poems in Russian, English, and other Southeast Asian languages.

Originally, I had intended to come to America last year.

Lack of money delayed me until early autumn.

It was on the day that the Weaver Maiden met the Cowherd*

That I took passage on the President Lincoln.

I ate wind and tasted waves for more than twenty days.

Fortunately, I arrived safely on the American continent.

I thought I could land in a few days.

How was I to know I would become a prisoner suffering in the wooden building?

The barbarians' abuse is really difficult to take.

When my family's circumstances stir my emotions, a double stream of tears flows.

I only wish I can land in San Francisco soon,

Thus sparing me this additional sorrow here.

Translation of Poem 7

A fire in 1940 destroyed the administrative building at Angel Island, and the immigration station was closed down. After Pearl Harbor, hundreds of Japanese from Hawaii were sent to Angel Island before being sent to internment camps elsewhere. The island also served to process prisoners of war and received many Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis from Eastern Europe and Russia. At the end of World War II, the military closed down the island until it became a California state park in 1963.

Angel Island stands a testament to how the United States treated one group of immigrants and that not all immigrants were welcome into the country. The poems are the voices of those immigrants and provide us with a unique account of their experiences.


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