The Immigrant Experience at Angel Island, The Ellis Island of the American West


Dwelling in the wooden building, I give vent to despair

Searching for a living while perching on a mountain -- it's hard to earn glory

Letters do not arrive, my thoughts in vain

In bitterness and sadness, I watch for my early release.

-Poem found on the walls of the Angel Island Men’s Detention Barracks


In 1935, a brilliant 18-year-old student named I.M. Pei left China to study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. On the last night of his 18-day ocean voyage aboard the SS President Coolidge, Pei was so excited to see the nation many of his fellow countrymen called “Gum Saan” (Gold Mountain) that he could not sleep. “I was on the deck watching, watching for the San Francisco Bay. And when it appeared, it’s a moment, I tell you, I have never experienced again, a moment of great joy, expectation and excitement,” he recalled. But instead of the San Francisco mainland, Pei and his fellow passengers were taken to a small mountainous island just off the coast, called Angel Island, to be processed and deemed worthy of admittance to America.

“It could have been the ‘Devil’s Island’ and my reaction would have been the same,” Pei recounted. “A sense of joy was unbelievable and difficult to describe.” Due to his student visa and wealthy background, Pei was held at Angel Island for only a day, a blip on his way to becoming one of the most celebrated architects of the modern era. But for many thousands of others, Angel Island would be a disheartening -- at times devastating -- introduction to the land of the free.

The Angel Island Immigration Station opened on January 21, 1910. It was to serve as the Pacific gateway to the American Dream for the next thirty years. The compound would grow to include a men’s barracks, a hospital, and other buildings -- but the main hub of the station was the imposing Administration Building. According to Erika Lee and Judy Yung, authors of the informative and insightful "Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America:"

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Arrivals at Angel Island | Courtesy of California Department of Parks and Recreation
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Medical examinations on Angel Island | National Archive

After an oftentimes invasive medical exam, detainees were questioned, and then either processed or held for varying lengths of time. A day after the station’s official opening, a wealthy, young Chinese merchant named Wong Chung Hong became the “first person admitted into the country after being interviewed and detained on Angel Island.” By February 3rd, there were around 566 aliens, mostly Chinese, detained on the island.

Although Angel Island was often called “The Ellis Island of the West,” Yung and Lee explain that most ethnicities entering through Angel Island had vastly different experiences than their European counterparts at Ellis Island. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had essentially banned all non-wealthy Chinese people from migrating to America, and the 1907 “Gentleman’s Agreement” did the same with the Japanese. “Most European immigrants processed through Ellis Island spent only a few hours or at most a few days there,” Yung and Lee write, “while the processing time for Asian, especially Chinese, immigrants on Angel Island was measured in days or weeks.” As historian Maria Sakovich wrote, “penniless Russians at this time were acceptable; penniless Asians or Indians were not.”

Asian detainees often had to undergo weeks of brutal, ridiculously detailed interrogations about their life and family by an assortment of interpreters and government officials. "They asked me where did I live, and then they have a diagram of the house," recalled Don Lee, who arrived in 1939. "Who's the closest neighbor? Who are your relatives? It's designed to trip you up. The whole aim of the immigration system there was to reject. Instead of Ellis Island, which was to welcome you, it was really designed to discourage you."

When not being questioned, detainees, who usually numbered in the hundreds, were split into barracks, segregated by race and sex. The barracks were utilitarian, sparse, and crowded. According to Yung and Lee:

“I had never seen such a prison-like place as Angel Island,” recalled Kamechiyo Takahashi, who came from Japan as a young bride in 1917.  She remembered asking herself “why I had to be kept in a prison?”

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For those kept more than a few days, the uncertainty and boredom were crushing. “Day in day out, eat and sleep,” former detainee Lee Puey recalled. “Many people cried. I must have cried a bowlful of tears at Angel Island.” Many also scratched poems on the walls. The 200 or so which survive today are a living testament to the shattered dreams of many once hopeful immigrants:

Imprisoned in the wooden building day after day.

My freedom withheld; how can I bear to talk about it?

I look to see who is happy but they only sit quietly.

I am anxious and depressed and cannot fall asleep.

The days are long, and the bottle constantly empty; my sad mood,

Even so, is not dispelled.

Nights are long and the pillow cold; who can pity my loneliness?

After experiencing such loneliness and sorrow.

Why not just return home and learn to plow the fields?

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Detained Chinese immigrants carved poems into the wooden walls of the immigration station | Frank Schulenburg/CC BY-SA 4.0

There was some relief. Men set up poetry clubs, gambled, and organized events. Women were allowed to walk the grounds, sew, and often set up makeshift classrooms to learn English and other subjects. Missionaries like Katharine Maurer, the “angel of Ellis Island”, attempted to ease detainees’ suffering. Although separated, there were always “different sounds of voices from the next room; “Chinese, Russian, Mexican, Greek and Italian” to inspire. And, of course, children were always breaking barriers, running through the hallways, laughing and playing. “It was a beautiful island with beautiful scenery,” a one-time detainee named Mr. Wong recalled.” Most of us kids had a good time and were not a bit scared. Even the food tasted good to me because I had never tasted such things before. It was just the way they confined you, like in a prison, that made us feel deranged.”

According to Yung and Lee, it is estimated that over its thirty-year history, Angel Island processed half a million people either arriving or leaving the country. Although the longest stay on the island was close to two years, a great majority of those applying for entry were eventually let into America. We do not know the exact figures, because the records were lost in a devastating fire that destroyed the Administration Building on August 12, 1940.

The fire signaled the end of Angel Island. The Immigration Station was relocated on a base in San Francisco. After years of neglect, the remaining restored buildings of the Angel Island Immigration Station are now part of the Angel Island State Park. Visitors can tour the cold, gray men’s detention barracks, and see the poems on the walls that detainees left behind, which are being restored by ongoing preservation efforts. In June, the new California budget was signed, and it includes 2.95 million to finish the renovation of the stations hospital. 

Leaving Angel Island, one gets a sense of the relief Li Keng Wong recalled experiencing upon her departure in 1933. “I'm so happy to leave this jail,” she remembered telling her mother. “Angel Island is terrible. It is no place to put newcomers to Gum Saan (Gold Mountain)."


Top Image: Angel Island/Franco Folini/Flickr/Creative Commons

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