SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Chinese poems, roughly inscribed into cracked and peeling lead paint, adorn the walls, offering a glimpse into the lives of Chinese immigrants; bunk beds holding period pieces and speakers looping recordings of various conversations in Chinese, Japanese, Russian and other languages give the impression that downtrodden immigrant detainees are only a room away, trading stories from home and lamenting their position. Anywhere one walks in the Angel Island Immigration Station, in San Francisco Bay, one feels the memories that were created and still reside there. Since its processing days in 1910 until its closing in 1940, the Angel Island Immigration Station held immigrants from more than 80 countries fleeing their homelands and seeking a better life in the U.S. The majority of these were Chinese, who sought to escape the hardships of their country for increased economic opportunity in what they called “Gum Sans” or Golden Mountains, their name for America that perfectly exemplified their somewhat naive expectations for wealth and freedom.
First the Gold Rush drew them in, rumors of roads lined with gold nuggets compelling Chinese men to sell everything they owned in order to pay for passage across the Pacific to California, often riding in steerage, the lowest and most unsanitary level of ships. Instead of a surplus of golden nuggets, though, they arrived instead to overwhelming hostility and discrimination based on their appearance and ignorance of the English language. After the Gold Rush, the building of the transcontinental railroad attracted working-class Chinese hoping for better economic opportunity. Their eagerness and diligence in work was rewarded with the most dangerous and exhausting tasks, such as dynamiting tunnels through the Sierra Nevada mountains in the dead of winter with minimal pay. Despite these terrible circumstances, Chinese, along with many other immigrants of different nationalities, continued to arrive in the U.S., necessitating the creation of the Immigration Station. It housed and processed immigrants hoping to become citizens or rejoin families that had already immigrated.
The role of the center changed in 1910, however, after the 1906 San Francisco Fire. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had barred any Chinese from further immigrating to the U.S. with a few exceptions, one of them being direct family members of those already residing in the U.S. After the great fire, many of the city’s record were destroyed, allowing the Chinese to claim nephews, cousins, friends and others as their sons without opposition from any records that proved otherwise. These fake realtions became known as “paper sons,” and once again Chinese immigration continued unhindered. Once this practice was discovered by authorities, however, Angel Island officials turned to interrogations to determine who was and was not an actual son. It coninued to play this role until 1940, when the main administration building burned down, forcing the entire Immigration center to close down for good.
Countless immigrants were detained for between a few days and two years within the immigration station, and many left some kind of rememberance: an article of clothing, a poem or message inscribed on the wall. However, many left no trace at all, and once they were released they never spoke of their time within the center, even to their children. One such child was Sam Louie, a volunteer tour guide at Angel Island. Since he began working for the historic center, he saw photographs of his older brother and sister that revealed his family was held at the immigration center. His father had immigrated from China as a worker, returned to China for an arranged marriage to his mother, and years later, brought his wife and Louie’s three siblings to the U.S. Before they all could become residents, they spent some unknown period of time detained within the immigration center at Angel Island, enduring the harsh interrogation process and uncomfortable detention time.
By the time Louie discovered his parents had been held at the center, both had died, and his only surviving relative that had been held there, his older brother, who was only 6 at the time, had no memories of it. Though Louie is filled with unanswered questions regarding his own family’s time within the halls of the station, he continues to work with dedication to not only preserve and pass on the memories confined there but also to discover any new stories that reveal themselves.
Though much is left to be learned about the Angel Island Immigration Center, the history of the institution has been remarkably well preserved in artistic, makeshift methods. With a wry smile and knowing look on his face, Louie states “If only the walls could talk…well here, they do.”