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Prewar America’s cold Pacific shoulder


San Francisco’s harbor is one of the most majestic in the world.  Visitor’s to the city admire the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance and wait on long lines to tour Alcatraz Island with its notorious prison, but more often than not they ignore the harbor’s centerpiece—Angel Island.  This mountainous island with an area of 640 acres is by far the largest in San Francisco Bay.  It is a wild tree-covered place that offers almost instant fresh air relief from the city only minutes away by boat.

Angel Island offers rigorous paths for hiking and bicycling, historic old military installations for the history buff and, most interesting of all, the recently restored Angel Island Immigration Station, the veritable Ellis Island of the West.  Ellis Island served as the great entrance way for several million European immigrants a century ago and most Americans with European origins harbor some Ellis Island experience.  Most of these stories have happy outcomes, but for every smile emanating from Ellis Island, there is probably a corresponding tear for every memory of Angel Island.

Ellis Island has been open as a National Monument since 1990 and is visited by large crowds every day.  It is a fascinating place that is well worth visiting, but the Imigration Station on Angel Island is also very worthy.   Ably managed by the California State Park Service, the station was completely restored before it was opened to the public on 15 February 2009.   I had a deeply personal reason to visit the site – my daughter Katie Metraux, a historic preservationist for the State Park service, was a part of the team that restored the site.  Katie personally beautifully designed the exhibits in the barracks that housed detainees.

The Angel Island Immigration Station, which was in full operation between 1910 to 1940, was the main entry point into the United States for people, most of them Chinese, Japanese or other Asians, arriving from the Pacific routes.  It is estimated that more than a million immigrants were processed at the Station.  Most of these immigrants were allowed to enter the United States immediately – their paperwork was forwarded to San Francisco and they were allowed to enter immediately, but the many Chinese and Japanese who tried to enter were routinely incarcerated on the island until a decision could be reached concerning their eligibility to enter “Gold Mountain” (Gaam Saan)–a common Chinese nickname for the United States. .  Many of them were detained for days, week, months or even years.  

What makes a visit to the Angel Island installation so fascinating, however, is the fact that so many Asians were detained here. The barracks remain a sad testimony to their suffering and frustration.  The simple fact is that they were not at all welcome to the United States – or Canada farther north.  The Chinese exclusion laws, first passed in 1882 and updated periodically until 1943, were enacted to keep Chinese immigrants out of the United States. During the twentieth century, several other Asian ethnic groups were added as well to the “excluded” list.

Late imperial China brought untold misery to its people.  Foreign invasions and wars combined with a series of deadly internal revolts and civil wars brought the nation to almost total collapse.  Desperate for enough money to feed their families and to buy a plot of land, hundreds and later thousands of young Chinese men – as well as a much smaller number of women – came to the United States hoping to make enough money to be able to return to China to support their families.  Starting in the mid- to late nineteenth century, large numbers of Chinese came to North America  drawn initially by the gold rush to California then to work as inexpensive laborers on the transcontinental railroad and in mines in the western part of the country.  Many American-born workers felt that these laborers had taken jobs away from them, and when an economic depression hit the United States in the 1870s, the anti-Chinese sentiment increased enormously. In response to public opinion, Congress passed the exclusion laws.

According to one source, “In enforcing these laws, immigration officials detained newly arrived Chinese people while they determined their eligibility to enter the United States. According to some estimates, 75 to 80 percent of the arrivals were admitted to the United States after some form of detention. Most detention periods ranged from few days or a couple of weeks to six months; a few lasted as long as nearly two years. Regardless of the length of time, detainees had little, if any, contact with friends or relatives on the mainland. For this reason, the immigration station on Angel Island was known among Immigration Service officials as the ‘Guardian of the Western Gate.’”

The recently restored barracks reflect the misery of the Chinese (and later Japanese and other Asians) detained here.   One can readily see that it was a grim existence – there was little room to store one’s goods, one had to sleep on hard cots layered in three levels, and one was not allowed outside except for supervised outings in small fenced off areas.  The food was grim and there was little to do except to sit and worry.  The city of San Francisco sat only a short distance from the island, but infinitely far for many Chinese. 

Responding to the harsh conditions of their detentions, and to the anxiety they suffered over the uncertainty of their futures, many of the detainees wrote poetry that spoke of their despair.  The writing depicts a painful picture of the solitutde and isolation these lonely young men faced as they desperately tried to enter North America.   Hundreds of poems were carved into the walls of the detention barracks, and many of them survive to this day. Chinese immigrants, like their European counterparts, came to the United States in search of new lives, prosperity, and Gam Saan, or the Gold Mountain. Instead, they were greeted with a detention center, interrogations, and uncertainty. Their poems speak of their frustration with their conditions:

Detained in this wooden house for
 several tens of days
 because of the exclusion laws.
It’s a pity heroes have no place
 to exercise their prowess.
Waiting for news of my release,
 I am ready to snap my whip and gallop.
All my kinsmen and housemates
 will be happy for me.
But don’t deny this Western grandeur,
 this imposing facade
For behind the jade carvings,
 there lies a cage.

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