Angel Island’s wooden house of paper sons

We still don’t know how many immigrant families this administration has ripped apart, or if they’ll ever be reunited. It’s not the first time our government has wielded policy against people based on their ethnicity and home countries. A century ago, instead of barring Mexicans and other Latinos, America was determined to exclude Chinese people.

Their story starts in San Francisco Bay, not far from Alcatraz, America’s most notorious prison, now a popular tourist destination.  Tucked around the bay, stands a less celebrated place of history, Angel Island.

Named by a Spanish explorer, this idyllic spot became an American immigration detention center designed to discriminate against Asians. An Immigration Service brochure notes plainly, “Dubbed the ‘Guardian of the Western Gate,’ by its staff, this facility was built to help keep Chinese and eventually other Asian immigrants out of the country.

Today, Angel Island welcomes all visitors. On a pleasant May morning, I mush aboard a ferry from San Francisco with a raucous bunch of high schoolers. Twenty minutes later, I’m first ashore, ready to speed hike up to the immigrant station, before the shuttle arrives with the teenage thrum. I climb 140 steep wooden steps then stride a mile along a paved road. To my left, far below, the bay’s turquoise waters sparkle. Tall grasses, willowy trees and reddish tan cliffs rise to my right.

Walking the curving uphill road, I pass postcard views of sailboats at play, then come to a wood and wire fence by three worn buildings on a sloping hillside. A small marker on the ground confirms that this is Angel Island Immigration Station.   

From 1910 to 1940, more than 300,000 immigrants, mostly Chinese, were detained here. Many were held two weeks, some for six months, and at least one immigrant was kept here for over two years.  To them, Angel Island was a prison.

Where barbed wire fences and gun towers once stood, today, the remains of a rickety wooden tower slump near a rutted driveway. I walk hesitantly down the drive, unsure if this is the public entrance. A sign notes that when the Army took over the island in 1941, it built two new guard towers around the detention barracks, which were used to house WWII German and Japanese prisoners of war.

At a bell tower overlooking the bay, Sam Louie, a cheerful native Californian, welcomes the high school and elementary students and the few adults for the daily tour.  He tells us that his father, mother, and siblings all came through Angel Island. He casually points to an immigrant’s quote on a stone tablet: “It was a tough trip. I was only twelve and I was living with the rest of people, hundreds of them in the freight hole. The beds were stacked up two high…”  “That’s my brother,” Sam says, eyeing John F. Louie’s name. 

Sam says his parents never talked about Angel Island. Now, the retired educator does his part to share the story of this somber place, a chapter of history many Americans never learned or choose to ignore.


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Sam’s weathered face crinkles as he tells the school kids on the tour he’s recruited a substitute tour guide — his father, Louie Share Kim. Turning his back, Sam dons a black Chinese jacket, and in a flash, becomes his father. We learn that Share Kim was 14 years old when his father told him to leave their poor rice farm in Guangdong Province, China and travel to “Gam Saan,” Gold Mountain, what Chinese people called America.  

When Share Kim arrived in 1916, thousands of Chinese immigrants were already here, many working in mines or building railroads. As the economy soured, America’s anti-Chinese sentiments exploded.  Chinese immigrants and new citizens faced racism and violence, ranging from special taxes aimed at Chinese miners to numerous towns that forced out hundreds of Chinese residents. Dozens of Chinese were lynched.

In 1882, Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to bar Chinese immigrant laborers. Senators, including John. F. Miller of California, the bill’s sponsor, called Chinese a “degraded and inferior race.” Other senators voiced fears that Chinese immigrants’ “muscles of iron” would overwhelm American workers.

IMAG2498 (1)It was the first time America used race to keep out one immigrant group. One senator, George Frisbee Hoar of Massachusetts, lamented  “old race prejudice,” and called the Exclusion Act “a crime committed against the Declaration of Independence.” The Exclusion Act did allow some Chinese into America — including scholars, diplomats, merchants and children of U.S. citizens. That last category became a loophole for many immigrants.

Sam explains that after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed government records, many Chinese immigrants arrived, claiming to be the children of Chinese already living here. They were paper sons, not blood relatives of Chinese already here.  

Sam tells us his dad was a paper son. Share Kim, like countless other desperate immigrants, lied to get into America. “I knew as a child growing up that I was never to reveal to others that my father was a paper son for fear that we might all get deported,” he said. For decades, Sam kept his family’s secret.

IMAG2540 (1)One scholar estimates that during the half century the Exclusion Act was law, some ninety to ninety-five percent of all Chinese who came to America with false papers. “The first to be restricted, Chinese became the first ‘illegal immigrants,’” writes University of Minnesota Professor Erika Lee, director of the Immigration History Research Center. Another estimate notes that now, one in three Chinese Americans are themselves paper sons or daughters are or their descendants.

Sam herds our group up to the detention barracks, where his father and other immigrants stayed. Sam explains that officials here interrogated immigrants to weed out the paper sons and daughters. The interrogations often lasted two or three days, with hundreds or sometime a thousand questions. “What was the distance between your house in China and your neighbors?” “To which clan did your next-door neighbor belong?”

Sam’s father passed his interrogation and was admitted to the U.S, as the son of a native. Share Kim got a job at a San Francisco noodle factory, then periodically returned home to China, where he married and had children. When he tried to bring his family here in 1936, he and his wife gave different answers about what the flooring in their bedroom was. The family was only admitted only after Share Kim convinced immigration officials that his wife tiled the dirt-floored room while he was in America.

This cramped detention barracks at Angel Island housed 300 immigrant men at a time.

The questioning was nerve-wracking. Then came the waiting. Sam gestures around the men’s restored barracks, sparsely furnished with exhibit displays and replica cots, asking us to imagine spending weeks or months or years here. In this big, drafty room, some 300 men crammed in skinny triple-level bunk beds. Women and children stayed in a nearby barracks.

Gesturing to the wooden slat walls, Sam tells us that Chinese people called this place “mook ook”– wooden house. In China, he explains, only animals, like chickens and pigs, lived in wooden structures. “They thought they were being treated like animals,” Sam says. A multitude of trees still shape the island’s landscape; when explorers first visited, they named it “Wood Island” for its ready supply of trees.

IMAG2606I look out the barracks window and see two palms trees, through a geometric grid of chain link and barbed wire fences. Between the trees, an American flag flaps in the wind, neatly framed within a diamond of the fences.  How many immigrants stood by this window, looking out to freedom?

“The sad person sits alone, leaning by a window.”

Sam reads those words, the last lines of one of the many poems inscribed on these wood walls. Scholars have uncovered more than two hundred poems, many hidden under decades of paint. Sam translates a few lines from varied poems.

“I used to admire the land of the Flowery Flag as a country of abundance…”

“I thoroughly hate the barbarians because they do not respect justice…”

“I am anxious and depressed and cannot fall asleep…”

“Even if it is built of jade, it has turned into a cage.”



Those poems saved this wooden barracks. Back in the 1970s, a state park ranger spotted calligraphy inside the decaying building. That discovery stopped the planned demolition and spurred historic renovations. Today, this old immigration station is part of a California state park.  Angel Island attracts visitors who come to camp, hike, bike, Segway, picnic, and explore the island’s forts, as well as the immigration station.

Less than 20,000 people tour Angel Island each year, a fraction of the million who tour nearby Alcatraz or the three million people who visit America’s most famous immigration station, Ellis Island. Still, the stories, poems and grief embedded in these walls reverberate today.

Angel Island was part of what one scholar called “The Great Wall Against China,” an echo the White House conjures with its fantasy wall against Mexico. Our country’s fear of Chinese immigrants, who accounted for less than five percent of all our newcomers, plays out again with this administration’s racism against Mexicans, Syrians, Muslims, and other immigrants.

We are doomed to repeat the history we ignore. We need to see and understand what happened in this wooden house of paper sons, a secluded lockup just around the bay from America’s most celebrated prison.




Why I blocked a freeway

Your honor, I respect how you have listened to all of us protesters. You have said freeways aren’t safe places to protest. I went on Interstate 94 not to put my life in danger but because other people’s lives are in danger. I don’t think freeways, roads, really anyplace in America, are safe for people of color. Philando Castile was not safe here, in Ramsey County.

The prosecutor has said we protesters destroyed “the peace and tranquility of the interstate.” What kind of peace and tranquility did Philando have while driving? It’s likely he felt fear, rather than peace and tranquility, during the more than four dozen traffic stops he endured.

Last July, Officer Jeronimo Yanez panicked and killed a compliant driver. This June, Yanez was acquitted by a legal system that respects people who wear blue more than they protect people who are black.

We who have power– because of the color of our skin or the authority of our jobs—allow separate and unequal law enforcement and separate and unequal courts.

We allow officers to pull over people of color for unnecessary traffic stops. We allow cops who kill civilians to walk free.

Philando’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds live-streamed racial injustice as vivid and painful to see as civil rights protesters being attacked by dogs and water cannons.

We watched a man bleeding, dying. What did we do?

Philando shrine BIGGER

Many of us rose up. We went to the Governor’s Mansion, an urgent and spontaneous vigil, using our bodies more than our voices to demand justice.

Your honor, you have spoken of police mistakes. When we repeat actions hundreds of times, they can no longer be considered mistakes. Police shootings of civilians are not mistakes. Police shootings are racial injustice which we who have power allow to continue. We need to change laws. We need to change ourselves. We who have power, because of the color of our skin color or the authority of our jobs– judges, prosecutors, lawmakers— we need to accept our responsibility for allowing racism.

Until Philando’s killing, I had been silent about racial injustice. I watched Philando’s blood seeping across his body. I cannot unsee it. I cannot unsee the racism seeping across our history, staining America, for longer than we have been a nation.

Philando died because we who have power did not demand justice for all.  I will stand with and behind people of color. They have spoken out for centuries against the injustices by my people.

John Lewis calls protest “necessary trouble.”  We need to stand up, sit in, kneel on a sideline, block a freeway. Civil disobedience is as serious, as patriotic, and as necessary as voting.

I cast my ballot for justice standing outside the Governor’s Mansion. I cast my ballot for justice blocking Interstate 94. I cast my ballot for justice this morning in court.

We watched a man bleeding, dying. We need to make necessary trouble.


Poster by Leon Wang

Hearing the sirens

Talking about the weather, and race

Next Wednesday, July 5th, at noon, sirens will blare, piercing Minnesota skies with sharp warnings of impending danger, severe storms and all manner of natural and unnatural disasters, from toxic leaks to power plant failures.

Minnesotans know the drill, literally, about extreme weather. We can handle droughts, floods, straight-line winds, sub-zero and triple-digit temps. We’ve got basements for shelter from tornadoes, cold weather rules blocking utilities from shutting off heat and community cooling centers so people won’t overheat. Our phones beep updates about volatile storms.

We know what to do about weather.

We don’t know what to do about race.

Philando shrineNext Thursday, July 6th, marks one year since Philando Castile was killed. To many white people like me, the killing seemed shockingly out of the blue, a sudden squall that couldn’t be predicted. The jury’s verdict almost two weeks ago seemed nearly as stunning. The dash cam video shows Saint Anthony Park Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez shooting seven shots into a parked car with a 4-year-old in the backseat. Diamond Reynolds’ livestreamed Facebook video shows her boyfriend, Philando Castile, bleeding out. We watched a man dying in his car, and the man who shot him walked free.

Philando’s killing and the jury’s verdict weren’t fluke eruptions that came out of nowhere. Police killings and police not-guilty findings are as commonplace as summer rains. A day before Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando, two cops in Baton Rouge shot and killed Alton Sterling while they were holding him down. The day after a Minnesota jury found Officer Yanez not guilty in Philando’s killing, a Wisconsin jury found an ex-cop not guilty of killing Sylville Smith, a black man who was seen on video throwing his gun away, with his hands near his head.

How can we ignore the torrents of racism that have drenched our country? We knew about Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and so many others. The casualties mount, still many people—white people– refuse to hear the alarms. People of color can’t ignore the warnings. They live buffeted by sometimes deadly cyclones of racism while whites carry on comfortably in our bubble, shielded by invisible umbrellas, an unacknowledged wall of whiteness between us and reality.

The fact is, we own racism just as surely as we own climate change. Humans have spread greenhouse gasses along with far more toxic waves of hate and fear. Yet many of us just duck our heads, ignoring the inconvenient truth of racism. Continue reading “Hearing the sirens”

Confessions of a 55-year-old kindergartner

Donald Trump’s election and Philando Castile’s death have made me realize how little I know.

I’m 55 years old, and I feel like a kindergartener, just beginning to learn about the world I live in. So, what am I doing now? I’m starting to learn, just like a kindergartener, about the world I live in and what I can do about it.

I need to learn how to work with others, those who aren’t like me, who are a different race, ethnicity, religion, country of origin, or gender identity. The first thing I need to learn about is my own bias and racism. I’ve got a lot to learn, a lot to do.


Tonight, I’m going to hear about a new coalition in Minneapolis, United in Love & Action: A Response to Hate, Bigotry and Misogyny

Tomorrow, I’m going to an Immigrant Solidarity March March! United vs Trump, Solidarity w/Immigrants)

I’ll keep going to the periodic conversations started by community group, Falcon Heights We Can Do Better, that began after Philando Castile was fatally by a police officer in Falcon Heights. At last week’s conversation about implicit bias, moderator Dr. Nadarajan (Raj) Sethuraju got the mostly white audience to talk about our own bias.

I still haven’t gotten to a Standing Up for Racial Justice meeting, but they’re on my list.  SURJ

SURJ resources include how to talk about race at Thanksgiving

Thinking and talking to other whites about race may be the most important thing we whites can do. Whites were the single biggest group to vote for Trump. We need to talk.

Scared about talking about race? Check out Jay Smooth’s TEDX Hampshire College talk, How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race.

What else can you do? Be intentional about how you spend your money.

I’m joining the December 5th Injustice Boycott. Organized by New York Daily News senior justice writer Shaun King, this will be a nationwide consumer protest against police brutality, racial violence and systemic injustice in America.

Some people are also boycotting the Trumps’ businesses.

I’m trying to go to expand my world, to go more places where I am not in the majority, to see and understand more of the world we live in.

Check out the Somali Museum in Minneapolis, which may be the world’s only museum devoted to Somali culture.

Stop for coffee at Golden Thyme Coffee in Saint Paul

Eat lunch or dinner or order holiday catering at Breaking Bread in North Minneapolis, Afro Deli in Minneapolis or Saint Paul. Check out some of the many great Asian or Mexican restaurants along University Avenue in Saint Paul and Lake Street  and Eat Street in Minneapolis.


A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota This compilation, edited by Sun Yung Shin

MARCH, this graphic novel trilogy by Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell is absolutely worth reading. A National Book Award winner.

The Warmth of Other Suns, a National Book Critics Circle Award winner by Isabel Wilkinson

Green Card Youth Voices won a Gold Medal Award for Best Multicultural Nonfiction Chapter Book, from the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards

Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine (I’m reading this award-winning book now)

The Latecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, Kao Kalia Yang (on my list)

Anishinaabe Syndicated: A View From the Rez, Jim Northrup

Rez Life David Treuer (on my list)

Intent vs. Impact: Why Your Intentions Don’t Really Matter, Jamie Utt, Everyday Feminism

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh, The National Seed Project

The Case for Reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic

Standing Rock Syllabus

Movement for Black Lives platform

I know I’m just starting to learn to see the world as it is. I’m learning.

And I’m taking to heart what Jay Smooth said in his TEDX Hampshire College talk. Prejudice isn’t like tonsils — you can’t get your prejudice taken out once and be done with it. Instead, prejudice is like little pockets of plaque that need daily brushing and flossing. I brush my teeth every day, it’s habit, and I need to get in the habit of thinking about prejudice every day.

Want more?


13th, Ava DuVernay documentary about the 13th Amendment. Watch it!

We Should All be Feminists TEDX, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (I also loved her  The Danger of the Single Story)

Silence Isn’t Always Golden TEDX, Kat Morgan

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Loved Discussing Race TEDX , Jay Smooth

Black History Mini Docs these 90-second mini docs, will whet your appetite for more depth.


Starting with local groups–

MicroGrants offers strategic $1,000 loans to low-income people of potential in Minneapolis.

Support Louis Hunter.  More than 200 people have been arrested in the Twin Cities protesting the killing of Philando Castile. Philando’s cousin, Louis Hunter, is the only protester who has been charged with a felony. Louis is facing up to ten years in jail.

International Institute of Minnesota works with refugees and immigrants, helping them get resettled and launch their new lives in Minnesota

Green Card Voices uses digital storytelling to share immigrants’ first-hand stories

Behind the Blue Line is an interview and photography project that shares real stories of police brutality, abuse and misuse of power in Minnesota.

Standing Rock Stop the Dakota Access Pipeline


Southern Poverty Law Center


Shaun King, senior justice writer, New York Daily News

Movement for Black Lives

(Photo credit for the crayon photo:  Aaron Burden)





A month of pain

A month ago today, July 5, Philando Castile was still alive.

The cell phone video that Diamond Reynolds livestreamed on July 6 after Saint Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot her boyfriend multiple times during a traffic stop has been viewed millions of times.

It’s a been a month of pain.

July 5. Police fatally shoot Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge.

July 6. Police fatally shoot Philando Castile in Falcon Heights.

July 7. A man fatally shoots five police officers, and injures 11 others, in Dallas.

July 17.  A man fatally shoots three police officers and injures three others, in Baton Rouge.

In this month of pain, our community has come together, joining hands in prayers and protests. Our community has also come apart. We see the same video, Philando bleeding out, and yet see it so very differently. Continue reading “A month of pain”

White blindness

Books and blogs to learn more about our racial divide

Philando Castile’s death two weeks ago forced me to see how little I knew.

I was blind. White blind. I was ignorant about the racial divides, the racism, where I live. I thought the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Samuel Dubose, and Alton Sterling were tragedies that happened somewhere else. Not here.

Now I know. We are Ferguson and Cleveland and Baltimore and Baton Rouge. We are a place where a cop can fatally shoot a black man because he is black. I don’t want another Philando Castile to die because people like me are white blind.

So here’s what I’m reading and following, to see what I should have known years ago:

A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, Sun Yung Shin, ed.

Showing Up for Racial Justice Minnesota

Continue reading “White blindness”

Too much violence

We’ve seen too much violence.

We’ve seen violence against cops— twenty officers hurt during Saturday’s Interstate 94 protest; twelve officers shot in Dallas on Friday, including five killed.

We’ve seen violence by cops—Philando Castile killed on Wednesday in Falcon Heights, and Alton Sterling killed last Tuesday in Baton Rouge.

We’ve seen violence against gays—forty-nine people killed and 53 injured in Orlando in June.

We’ve seen too much violence. Too much hate. Too much fear. Too many guns.

Not enough peace.

Some have compared this bloody year with 1968, when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were killed. Continue reading “Too much violence”