Angel Island: The harsh introduction to America

An example of the cramped quarters where the detainees were held for up to two years at a time. Photo by Jack Muldoon

SAN FRANCISCO — Imagine hearing of a place worlds away, a place your people call “Gum San,” or “Golden Mountain.” Imagine having to sell all your possessions to afford passage, make the month-long journey with the hope of arriving to a better life, a new beginning. Instead, you find yourself facing prejudice, hate and discrimination. This is what happened to the 175,000 Chinese immigrants who came to the United States, and docked at the Angel Island Immigration Station.

They faced many hardships during the immigration process, including tightly packed living spaces, unhygenic conditions, and worst of all, a three- to four-day interrogation process that, if failed, could get them  deported back to China. But if there was one thing that the detainees despised just as much, if not more than the interrogation process, it was the medical examination. They would be stripped of their clothing, poked and prodded by American doctors, and screened for contagious diseases such as tuberculosis and tracheoma. “One of the most humiliating things was having to deliver a stool sample, so that the doctors could screen for hookworms or parasites,” said volunteer tour guide Sam Louie.  If an immigrant was diagnosed with a treatable illness, he or she was allowed to stay in the hospital until cured. However, if they were found to have a contagious, incurable disease, they were often deported back to China.

The Chinese felt abused and violated. Coming from a culture with conservative morals, they were a superstitious group, Louie said. He said being touched by the American doctors was a bad omen, especially since the doctors wore white, a symbol of mourning in China. “He immediately became ‘Doctor Death,’ ” said Louie.

If an immigrant was suspected of carrying a disease, he or she could also be sent to the Quarantine Station at Ayala Cove .  While there, they would stay in isolation. They were checked by doctors, and their possessions would be disinfected. They would stay in the barracks until they were allowed to interact with other detainees.  The station was also a place where foreign ships that carried the passengers could be fumigated. After some time, the station was no longer necessary, as advances in technology, better medical examinations and improved medical practices made it unnecessary for people to stay under quarantine. It was also a lot easier for them to maintain it on the mainland, so the U.S. Public Health Service moved to San Francisco.