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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I 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.