Angel Island: caught in the middle

SAN FRANCISCO — At first glance, it’s only an old building with chipped paint and warped floorboards. The grates over the windows are slightly rusted, and a subtle scent from a nearby floral arrangement mingles with the mustiness of the original wood. A second look, at the inner walls, though, reveals an outpouring of emotion that transcends language.

Tour guide Sam Louie's family was one of many who passed through the Angel Island Immigration Station, which detained some immigrants for up to two years. Photo by Emmett McKinney

Covering nearly every wall of the Angel Island Immigration Station’s barracks, now a museum, are more than 200 meticulous Chinese poems carved by detained immigrants whose first experience of America was one of immense frustration. Most of these poems are now covered  by layers of paint, leaving only silhouettes. “You’ve heard the expression, ‘If only the walls could talk.’ Here, they really do,” said tour guide Sam Louie, 72, a Chinese-American whose own family was in detention at Angel Island.

When prospectors struck gold in California in 1848, the news of the find and a promise of a better life in America quickly made its way around the world. Many Chinese gold-seekers came to America, which they dubbed “gum sam” meaning “golden mountains,” in 1849, and many more came in the 1860s, seeking work on the Transcontinental Railroad. Instead, they found discrimination and prejudice because of their foreign appearance, different language and willingness to work in dangerous conditions, said Louie, adding, “They were willing to do anything,” to stay.

But the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred all Chinese except those who were diplomats, wealthy merchants, students or teachers, or those considered, “native,” born in America, from entering the country, Louie said. Then the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed all records, allowing all Chinese workers, native or not, to declare themselves American-born.

Many of these workers tried to bring their families as well, and immigration officials became suspicious when every man declared having a son (at least on paper), who needed to come to the United States. Angel Island was established in 1910 as an immigration checkpoint to weed out these “paper sons,” he said, and in the 101 years since then, visitors can still witness the sacrifice and hardship endured by families from more than 80 nations.

Different colors of paint reveal that the emotional carved Chinese poems at Angel Island have been puttied and painted over multiple times. Photo by Emmett McKinney

At the front of the Angel Island barracks, where detainees stayed while they were interrogated to confirm their family’s claims, there are six words in stone: sacrifice, confinement, frustration, courage, bravery and segregation. These words lie at the core of the immigrants’ experiences in the barracks, where some prisoners stayed as long as two years. People were separated by sex, and further separated by race. Europeans, Chinese and all other Asians were divided into three different groups. The Chinese men’s barracks, a room that struggled to fit our tour group of 30 comfortably, was the residence for up to 200 people. Most of the objects that the detainees brought with them were inaccessible during their time on Angel Island, leaving only the walls as a notebook for their frustration. Many of these poems, which were first written, then painted onto the wall, and finally carved out, have been translated into English, including this one:

America has power but not justice.
In prison, we were victimized as if we were guilty.
Given no opportunity to explain, it was really brutal.
I bow my head in reflection but there is nothing I can do.

To the officials overseeing Angel Island, though, this poetry was little more than graffiti, and paint removal has revealed that these poems were puttied and painted over at least seven or eight times, in an attempt to smother their expressions. Their feelings of helplessness also came as a result of the relentless interrogations, which often lasted for three or four days. To ensure that each member of a family answered the questions the same way, detainees would write “coaching books” with answers to questions they anticipated would be asked. The questions often revolved around minute details, such as, “Which way did you door face at your home in China?” and “On which side of the room was your bed?”

Fear of deportation mingled with other fears that pushed the immigrants even further out of their comfort zones, especially in the hospital, said Louie.

In America, doctors wear white to respresent sanitation and cleanliness. In China, however, white is the color of mourning, so when the detainees were taken into the hospital building to ensure that they wouldn’t bring any infectious diseases into the U.S., the doctor immediately represented death to them. Addtionally, American doctors tend to touch the patients with their stethoscopes and hands, checking for disease or medical problems. Doctors in China simply prescribe herbs to cure most sicknesses. To the Chinese immigrants, it was like being touched by the bad omen of “Doctor Death,” Louie said.

Louie only discovered his own family history at Angel Island through a tip from one of his five siblings and extensive research into San Francisco records. “Angel Island is never, ever talked about in Chinese families,” he said. The memories of families being separated, of deportation back to China and of close quarters with no privacy are too painful, he said, and his parents never talked about their days in the barracks.

The frustrations and heartbreak of Angel island served to be too much for some, such as  Soto Shee, who arrived at the island with a 7-month-old boy. A few months later, her baby died and was taken to San Francisco for burial. Soto Shee, however, had not been cleared to leave the island and enter the United States yet. Officials at Angel Island denied her plea to attend her own son’s funeral, and Shee, overwhelmed with sorrow, tried to hang herself in the shower. She was discovered by an Angel Island worker, though, and was rescued. (Shee lived to 92 years old.)

In 1940, an electrical fire destroyed the entire administration building at the Angel Island Immigration Station, putting an end to Angel Island’s days as the Western gateway for immigrants to the United States. The immigrants’ experience of discrimination, segregation, frustration and heartbreak, though, lives on in the walls.