Messages from Angel Island: Powerful Personal Histories at a Former U.S. Immigration Station
Around December of 1923, Mrs. Lee (born Jeong Hing Tong) boarded a steamship in Hong Kong, bound for San Francisco. She must have been apprehensive about the future: Her husband had recently died, and the 40-year-old widow was traveling with her six children, the youngest of whom was 4 years old. Lee Yoke Suey, her late husband, was a second-generation Chinese American; his father had come from Guangdong Province to California in 1866 to work on the transcontinental railroad.
Lee had been a successful merchant who brought American goods from Levi Strauss and Haas Brothers, including women’s underwear, cheese, and playing cards, to the Chinese market. The Lees had lived in San Francisco for seven years before moving back to China, and some of their children had been born in the city. So it must have been a shock to Mrs. Lee when, upon her return to the United States, she was refused entry as an “alien ineligible to citizenship.” She would be separated from her children, who went to stay with relatives in San Francisco’s Chinatown, for well over a year.
Mrs. Lee was one of an estimated 300,000 people who were detained on Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay, where an isolated immigration station was built in 1910 in part to screen out people of Chinese ancestry. This overtly racist chapter of U.S. immigration history, which was legally enshrined for decades and eventually included the restriction of people from all Asian countries, could easily have been relegated to a historical footnote. But the local Asian American community mobilized to rescue the Angel Island Immigration Station’s remaining buildings, several of which were slated for demolition.
Today, the 14.3-acre site is one of the country’s more unusual museums, bearing physical witness to a painful side of immigration and anti-Asian racism. In 2017, the National Trust, which had named the station one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 1999, identified it as a preservation success. (The Trust also teamed with American Express to give the site an $84,000 grant in 2006.) And now, after a seven-year, $14.8 million rehabilitation, the property’s old hospital serves as a museum that tells the overarching story of U.S. immigration, showing how scapegoating immigrants for political advantage is nothing new.
“Angel Island is radically underappreciated for its ability to talk about the Chinese American immigration experience and the Asian American experience, and why the fabric of the nation emerged the way it did,” says Samuel J. Redman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies the history of museums. “It’s important because it allows us to tell the whole American story—it’s an amazing opportunity to have difficult conversations and honestly present a history that includes the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
At the time of Mrs. Lee’s journey back to San Francisco, anti-Asian bias in the U.S. ran particularly high. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was a political response to an economic recession. Politicians channeled fears that Chinese immigrants, who came to California to work in the gold mines and build the transcontinental railroad as well as to flee a civil war in Southern China, were taking jobs away from white citizens. The act was the first U.S. law to widely restrict immigration by race or ethnic identity. The Immigration Act of 1924, which passed four months after Mrs. Lee arrived on Angel Island in January, similarly reflected the economic anxiety of the post-World War I recession. Building on previous laws and excepting a small number of people, it effectively banned immigration from all Asian countries and parts of the larger Asia-Pacific region. It also reinforced the idea of an America that was predominantly white, setting immigration quotas based on nationality.
When ships arrived in San Francisco, most Europeans and first-class passengers were generally able to disembark freely; Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian immigrants, as well as those from countries such as Russia and Mexico, were ferried to Angel Island and detained for questioning and medical examinations. At the hospital, most immigrants were required to undress and line up in groups to be physically examined and screened for disease, a humiliating process. These screenings were administered unevenly, depending on race.
To circumvent the law, young Chinese men attempted to enter with false papers, posing as children of U.S. citizens; to try to weed out “paper sons,” immigration officials conducted lengthy interrogations about the applicants’ homes and relatives. (I am the child of a paper son—my father came to the U.S. from Guangdong in 1952, masquerading as the child of an uncle who lived in Washington, D.C.)
When Mrs. Lee tried to return in 1924, an immigration officer initially determined that because she was a widow, she no longer had the status of the spouse of a U.S. citizen, and that she should be deported immediately because of a liver fluke infection, an easily treatable and noncontagious condition. An estimated 10 percent of Chinese immigrants at Angel Island, who made up roughly one-third of the total number of detainees, were deported, while only about 1 to 2 percent of all Ellis Island arrivals failed to gain entry.
While Angel Island arrivals were under assessment, they lived in cramped barracks, sleeping on metal-framed cots stacked three high. Men and women were housed separately, as well as racially segregated according to three categories: “European,” “Asian,” and “Chinese.” Mrs. Lee spent an unusually long time in detention, but the average stay was still three weeks.
One way that detainees passed the time was by composing poems and carving them into (or writing them on) the buildings’ walls. Over the 30-year period that the Angel Island Immigration Station operated, detainees created hundreds of poems—usually anonymously—that documented their frustration, anger, sadness, and hope. In 1916, Frank Hays, the head of the Deportation and Detention Division of the U.S. Bureau of Immigration, asked the station commissioner to put a stop to this practice: “I notice the walls of the rooms in the general quarters have been considerably marred by the aliens writing on them,” he wrote. Of the more than 200 poems that have been documented, one reads:
The young children do not yet know worry
Arriving at [San Francisco], they were imprisoned in the wooden building
Not understanding the sad and miserable situation before their eyes
They still want to play all day like calves
“That one hits me really hard,” says Casey Dexter-Lee, a California State Parks interpreter who has worked here for more than 20 years. “You can see the children playing in the yard, locked behind a barbed wire fence. But the adults know the full weight of the situation—this is a moment that will potentially change the shape of your whole life.”
From the time it opened, the immigration station was frequently cited by officials for substandard facilities and appalling sanitary conditions. A fire that destroyed the Administration Building in 1940 hastened its closure, and immigration processing moved to the mainland. The U.S. military continued to use Angel Island as a base during World War II and held Japanese and German prisoners of war here before sending them to camps elsewhere. (Seven hundred of the POWs were Japanese immigrants living in Hawaii and on the West Coast who fell victim to anti-Japanese bias. Their ordeal is now acknowledged in a new exhibit located in the rehabilitated mess hall on the property.) After the war, the Army sold Angel Island to the state of California for the purpose of developing a park. The state took title in 1963, and park officials began demolishing the dilapidated buildings of the immigration station, following plans to turn the area into a campground.
But in 1970, Alexander Weiss, a California State Parks ranger, ventured inside the barracks and was thrilled by the sense of discovery. “I … found that almost every square inch of every room I went into had something carved into the walls … There was a whole story to be told here; it was like ghosts were in there,” said Weiss, now deceased, in a 2010 KQED documentary. Weiss was taking a biology course at San Francisco State University and told his professor, George Araki, about the find; Araki, in turn, reached out to a photographer friend, Mak Takahashi, to help document the poems before the building was destroyed. The rediscovery of the poems catalyzed a larger effort to save the barracks and eventually the station itself. Christopher Chow, a young journalist, marshaled leaders in the Asian American community. One of them was Connie Young Yu, an activist who has made it her life’s work to document Chinese American history. She is also the granddaughter of Mrs. Lee.
As a member of a state-supported advisory committee, Yu helped make the case for the barracks’ historical significance, interviewing former detainees and doing research for a report to the state. “It was very hard in the beginning for a lot of the former immigrants to come forward because of the paranoia [about deportation] and the effect of the Exclusion Law,” she says. In 1976, in response to the report, the state issued a resolution that effectively stopped demolition efforts at the site. It would become the first milestone in a decades-long journey to formally commemorate Angel Island’s past.
The priority was to stabilize the deteriorating barracks, which had been further damaged by vandalism, water, erosion, and invading plants. Restored to its bare-bones state, the first floor of the Detention Barracks Museum opened to visitors in 1983. A more comprehensive restoration in 2009 opened up the upper level and made it easier to see the poems. Ironically, the paint that immigration station officials had used to cover up the “graffiti” turned out to be a great preservative. Rather than strip off the lead paint and remove the wood putty filler, Daniel Quan Design, working in tandem with Architectural Resources Group (ARG), came up with a lighting scheme that skimmed the walls, revealing the poems that had been mostly hidden. (Weiss was able to see the poems because he shone a flashlight on the walls.)
For more than 25 years, the barracks museum was the sole public-facing representative of the immigration station. Meanwhile, efforts to save the entire station gained momentum, in tune with the national movement to preserve historical landscapes rather than try to boil history down into a single building. The community-led nonprofit Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) garnered National Historic Landmark status for the site in 1997. AIISF, California State Parks, and the National Park Service worked with ARG to develop a master plan in 2003 that considered the remaining buildings on the property and the kinds of programs they could house.
When immigrants arrived on the island, the first thing they saw was the imposing two-story Neoclassical Administration Building at the end of the dock. After it burned down in 1940, its footprint remained empty. “Reconstruction would not have been appropriate for many reasons. It was important to allow the story about the evolution of the site to be told and respected,” says architect Aaron Jon Hyland, former managing principal at ARG. Instead, the master plan called for a commemorative landscape on the footprint of the building. Installed in 2009, the landscape includes a large granite slab showing the screening process for Chinese immigrants via historic photographs, including one of a boy being fingerprinted at a table surrounded by three white men.
The old hospital was the station’s second-largest remaining building, after the barracks. Although it had suffered over decades of deferred maintenance (and bats had moved in), its bones were intact, providing an opportunity to finally repurpose it into a new museum about U.S. immigration history. San Francisco–based Garavaglia Architecture rehabilitated the structure starting in 2013, transforming it into an evocative backdrop for contemporary exhibits. The Angel Island Immigration Museum opened its doors to the public on January 22, 2022. “Our hope is that whether your ancestors came through here or not, you feel a connection to the past and understand its current-day implications,” says Edward Tepporn, executive director of AIISF.
A multidisciplinary seven-person team, including historian Erika Lee (author of the 2019 book America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States), worked with design studio Second Story to create exhibits that would make the sweep of U.S. immigration history comprehensible. A large map, for instance, makes it easy to understand the impact of the 1965 Immigration Act, which did away with quotas based on nation of origin. Another graph shows how few immigrants can enter the U.S. legally today, compared to the peak in 1980, when the Refugee Act was passed. In a former ward for European men, you can hear about the lived experiences of individual immigrants such as journalist Thuy Vu, whose family fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. “[We] were just lost at sea, and not knowing where we would end up. That was an awful feeling,” she recounts in an audio recording.
The opening of the Angel Island Immigration Museum feels particularly timely, given recent attacks on members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community and the ongoing crisis on the nation’s southern border. However, visiting the station requires a certain determination. Tepporn estimates that, pre-pandemic, about 20,000 people a year (versus more than 4 million a year at Ellis Island) made the trek. Visitors have to plan their trip around the limited ferry schedule from San Francisco or nearby Tiburon, and then hike for a mile (or take a shuttle) from the ferry stop to the immigration station.
Site improvements over the years have cost a total of $43 million in mostly public funding. (AIISF raised $800,000 in private funding for the hospital building rehabilitation.) The 2003 master plan also calls for the eventual rebuilding of the wharf, which would allow visitors to get a better sense of how immigrants experienced their arrival. Currently, you arrive at the back of the station, which is confusing. “The loss of the wharf and Administration Building as well as the reversed entry sequence makes it difficult to imagine the impression that the Immigration Station would have created for arriving immigrants,” states the National Park Service’s 2002 Cultural Landscape Report.
But before the wharf can be reconstructed, the shoreline needs to be remediated, because of contamination from the station’s former power plant. A conservative cost estimate for the remediation alone is in the tens of millions. For now, needed updates to the hospital building include creating a public research room, improving the acoustics and Wi-Fi connection, and repaving the decomposing terraces outside.
After arriving on Angel Island, Mrs. Lee spent more than 15 months with the threat of deportation hanging over her. Walter Haas, a business associate of her late husband’s, connected her with a lawyer, C.M. Fickert, who stopped her deportation and asked for a hearing. “As you say, it seems most inhuman for you to be separated from your children who need your care,” he wrote to her. When the ruling went against her, the lawyer consequently filed an appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The judge there ruled that she could be released. Mrs. Lee did not record her thoughts about her time at Angel Island, but another detainee wrote:
At present, my application for admission has not yet been dismissed
As I record the cause of my situation, it really provokes my anger
Sitting here, uselessly delayed for long years and months
I am like a pigeon in a cage
Connie Young Yu recalls a former park interpreter asking her, “Why would you want to remember this unhappy history? It was so unnecessary, all this pain and struggle and detentions and deportations.” Yu responded, “That’s why we have to remember it.”
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