Angel Island: The arduous path to America

The process of earning a Certificate of Identity could last months for detainees. | Photo by Emmett McKinney

SAN FRANCISCO — For people in the 19th and 20th centuries who faced harsh conditions within their own countries, the United States of America seemed like a ticket to a better life. With events such as the California Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, America began to look more and more appealing to outsiders. Immigrants poured in from all over the world, but when they reached the shores of the U.S., they did not find immediate success, but rather hardship and discrimination. Many came through Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay, and 97 percent of those immigrants were of Chinese descent. In 1940, Angel Island ceased operation as an immigration station, but today as a California State Park, it offers an inside look into the suffering of immigrants.

The Angel Island immigration station was established in 1910 to prevent the practice of “paper sons.” After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire destroyed birth records, many Chinese who had immigrated to America could now claim to be natives and return to China to bring back family. These “natives” also brought back people posing as family, thus creating relationships that only existed on paper. The officials at Angel Island would question immigrating families to confirm their legitimacy.

The process of becoming “landed” for the Chinese could last for months, and during that time, the immigrants were detained on Angel Island, with men and women occupying different quarters. Up to 200 people may have been crammed into one room. Bunk beds had little space, leaving people unable to sit up. At one point, the beds didn’t have mattresses, and the Chinese were forced to sleep on the bare metal mesh. The immigrants, plagued by loneliness and despair, often carved poetry into the wooden walls to express their hopes and fears.

Interrogation, along with the possibility of deportation, was one of the most dreaded events of the Angel Island detainment. Three officials, along with an interpreter, would sit down with the alleged father, then afterward the alleged son, asking them the same questions. The answers had to match, or else the false son would be deported. The questions started out simply and concerned topics such as the relatives and neighbors of the immigrant. Later ones grew complicated, such as, “What direction did your front door face?” or “How many windows were in your home?” Often, paper relatives used “coaching books” to train themselves for questions. Immigrants who successfully survived the interrogation received a Certificate of Identity.

Families who were processed on Angel Island never discussed their experiences on the island afterward.  For volunteer tour guide Sam Louie, a man whose family was processed at Angel Island, it took years to get answers. Louie never even knew his family came through Angel Island until he began his own research into his family’s history. “I found a lot of information, but that also led to a lot of questions,” said Louie. Unfortunately, like many who experienced Angel Island as adults, those ancestors of Louie who could answer these questions have died. For many, the memory was too painful to revisit. “They never ever talked about being on Angel Island,” said Louie. “It’s such a bad emotional memory, that they want to wipe it out.”

The wooden walls of the Angel Island detainment quarters are living relics that tell of a grim period in America’s history, when Chinese immigrants were treated with contempt. This was a bridge between America and the rest of the world, but Angel Island was a painful chapter in the lives of many Chinese hoping for a better future.