SAN FRANCISCO — Angel Island is often referred to as the “Ellis Island of the West.” It sits in the San Francisco Bay and was used by the U.S. government between 1910 and 1940 to detain and interrogate immigrants, mostly Chinese, upon arrival. Passed by Congress in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first piece of legislation to specifically ban one race from the United States. The law also carried exceptions, including that “natives,” those born in the country, could remain.
This resulted in the creation of the term “paper sons,” which meant to claim someone as one’s son on an official document in order to transport them to the United States legally. Creating paper sons allowed legal Chinese-Americans to provide better lives for their families who lived in China by claiming that they were blood-related.
In 1906, the San Francisco earthquake resulted in fire, which led to many immigration records being lost or destroyed, making it easier for Chinese immigrants to deceive the system and gain legal access to the United States by asserting that they were native-born.
But once immigrants arrived at the processing center on Angel Island, they encountered a new institution and new fears, said tour guide Sam Louie: the medical checkup. Unlike Chinese medical checkups, American medical checkups were more thorough and invasive. Chinese detainees feared the doctors, too, because they wore white lab coats; white is a symbol of mourning in China. Additionally, Chinese men would be forced to strip in front of the doctors as well as all of the other subjects. This was not only extremely embarrassing for the detainees, but also highly dishonorable in their culture, Louie said.
After enduring the medical examination, the detainees were sent back to their living quarters, which were less than sanitary. Dorm-like rooms with bunk beds were overcrowded and sometimes slept 200 men. Chinese slept in bunk beds stacks three beds high and, for the first two years of the center’s use as an immigration facility, only on the metal frame rather than on mattresses.
If surviving the medical examination and enduring the harsh coniditions of the overcrowded living quarters wasn’t difficult enough, the Chinese also had to brave the rigorous interrogation process, said Louie.
The detainees feared this process, although they had prepared for it through countless hours of memorization in some of the Chinese “coaching books” that were created. In order to ultimately gain access into the U.S., the Chinese’ stories would have to exactly match the story of the person whom they had claimed to be related to. The Chinese spent hour after hour coordinating stories and answers because they knew that they would be thoroughly interrogated about even the most minute details, which only a true relative would know.
The future for a Chinese immigrant was held in the results of their medical examination and answers given during the rigorous interrogation. As Louie, whose own parents and siblings endured detention at Angel Island, said, “If even one small detail was off, then it was ‘bye-bye baby!’ ”