Angel Island: alive with more than nature

Sam Louie not only focused on the history of Angel Island but also on his family's personal experience. Photo by Nihal Passanha

SAN FRANCISCO — “This place really is a work of art … It has so many little stories that it’s just … amazing,” said Sam Louie, pausing to find the right words. At the U.S. Immigration Station here at Angel Island, in the San Francisco Bay, there is more than just textbook history; the personal stories of the people who passed through this station, such as Louie’s family, make the place come to life. Created in 1906 to “screen out real sons entitled to be here from Paper Sons who claimed to be related to natives,” said Louie, the immigration station was the Ellis Island of the West Coast. Here, families from China, Russia, Africa, India and Korea had to undergo a harsh and intensive interrogation process, where if all the family members’ answers didn’t match, they would be deported back to their homeland.

Although the immigration station closed nearly 60 years ago, its history remains alive among the inhabitants of the island. According to Jack Duggan, a park ranger at Angel Island, “it is quite inspiring to be aware of the history of this place,” he said, “being able to meet families and people who actually passed through the immigration station…seeing their reactions and their personal stories.” History is even alive in the walls of the station itself, as several of the immigrants carved poems as a means of expressing their sorrow. “If only these walls could talk…here, they do talk, and they talk in many different languages,” said Louie.

Yet living on Angel Island goes beyond the history of the immigration station. “It’s wonderful and an absolute pain in the neck,” said Duggan. The island is but a ferry-ride away off the coast of San Francisco, yet many of its inhabitants are faced with having to go out of their way in order to buy basic necessities, including food. “If  we want to get groceries, we have to go by the boat schedule: get on the boat, walk four blocks, go to the market, walk four blocks back, get on the boat and come back,” said Duggan.

Angel Island residents not only face setbacks when buying food, but they also have noise problems. Duggan, who lived on the island for three and a half years, said, “It gets really noisy at night,” referring to the large number of hooting owls and barking seals. One night, Duggan genuinely believed that people were in a heated argument down by the bay. “As a park ranger I went down to the bay to see what had happened and see if I could fix the problem, but they were actually barking seals!” he said, laughing.  Although the state park is concerned with “preserving culture, nature and the history of California,” said Duggan, the personality of the inhabitants of the island and the people personally affected by its history, make it truly come to life.