Date: February 22, 1935
Source: © Bettmann/Corbis.
About the Photographer: The Corbis Corporation is a worldwide provider of visual content materials based in Seattle, Washington. The name of the photographer is not known.
Angel Island is located in the San Francisco Bay on the west coast of the United States. At various times from about 1863 to 1910, Angel Island was used for such functions as discharge depot, infantry garrison, and military camp. Beginning in 1910, Angel Island became the headquarters of the Angel Island Immigration Station, which processed about 175,000 Asian immigrants entering into the United States from China and then later from other countries such as the Philippines, Korea, and Japan. It served in a similar capacity to Ellis Island, which was used primarily by European immigrants. Angel Island was often referred to as The Ellis Island of the West.
In the mid-1800s, the United States favored the immigration of Chinese into its western lands. They worked at many low-paying menial jobs such as clearing swampland, developing fisheries and hatcheries, and building railroads that were crisscrossing the country. By 1880, about 100,000 Chinese lived in the United States. However, when the economy failed in the 1870s, the Chinese people were widely accused of helping to degrade economic conditions by working for low wages that other groups would not accept. Anti-Chinese sentiment eventually led to a series of local, state, and national laws to restrict Asian immigration, especially from China. One such law was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which limited immigration due to nationality and race. It specifically prohibited Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States unless family members were already established in the country. Other laws followed as peoples from other Asian countries followed the Chinese into the country.
In order to control and regulate Asian immigration into the west coast of the United States, immigration officials opened an immigration facility on Angel Island in 1910. It was more like a detention center than a facilty to wlecome immigrants to the United States. Officials nicknamed it The Guardian of the Western Gate.
Passengers on ships were separated by nationality and financial status. Those with higher-class tickets, such as immigrants from Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, various countries in Central and South America, Portugal, and Russia, were quickly processed and allowed to enter the United States. The rest of the immigrants—primarily Chinese and other Asians but also people from elsewhere who did not meet financial or health requirements—were ferried to Angel Island, where they were isolated from people on the mainland. The immigrants were given medical examinations for various ailments such as communicable diseases and parasitic infections. If they failed the tests, hospitalization (at their own expense) or deportation was the result. Because laws only allowed for certain exempt classes of people (such as clergy, diplomats, merchants, students, and teachers) to enter the United States, thousands of Chinese bought false identification that described them as children of exempt classes or children of U.S. citizens. To expose such fraud, immigration officials implemented strenuous interrogations that often caused processing delays of months or years. The immigrants were forced to wait in detention facilities, a condition likened to prison with almost inedible food and unsanitary conditions.
In 1940, a fire burned down the administration building. The processing of immigrants was ended on Angel Island and transferred to San Francisco.
See primary source image.
Because the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and other anti-immigration laws involved restrictions for entrance into the country, many immigrants were detained for up to two years. Many detainees felt anger and hostility—some committed suicide—with the injustices inflicted upon them by the United States, a new country they hoped would lead them to a better life.
Complaints about the terrible conditions inside Angel Island and the discrimination imposed onto the Asian people finally forced the United States to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act in November 1943. The law was also repealed because China was now an U.S. ally in World War II. By this time, the Immigration Station was used as prisoner-of-war processing center. After the war, the facility was abandoned. Even though the processing of immigration had improved, in the 1950s only one hundred or so Chinese were allowed to legally enter the United States each year. By the 1960s, new immigration laws were in place to give Chinese and other Asian immigrants equal access to the country.
In 1963, Angel Island became a California state park. California park ranger Alexander Weiss found poetry beneath layers of paint on the walls of the barracks and dormitories. Chinese immigrants detained at Angel Island had written the poems, many of which were carved into wooden walls and contained historical references and symbolic expressions. Aspirations, anger, sadness, and other emotions filled the poems. Weiss contacted Dr. George Araki of San Francisco State College to verify the historic importance of the poems and photographer Mak Takahashi to document them. As a result, Weiss and Paul Chow (as a representative of Bay Area Asian Americans) helped to form the Angel Island Immigration Station Historical Advisory Committee (AIISHAC) to preserve the station. Money was raised to establish a museum to restore and preserve the barracks and dormitories where the poems had been written.
In the 1970s, leaders of the Chinese-American population in the United States successfully lobbied the state of California to designate the Angel Island Immigration Station as a state landmark. In 1997, the National Park Service declared Angel Island Immigration Station a National Historic Landmark. The National Trust and the White House Millennium Council, in 1999, included the Angel Island Immigration Station as one of its ongoing projects. In March 2000, bond referendum Proposition 12 allocated $15 million to restore the Immigration Station.
As of 2006, the AIISHAC hopes to develop the Angel Island Immigration Station into a research and study center for Pacific Rim immigration while preserving the history of the site for future generations. Different races, immigration laws and practices, and the history of the United States came together at Angel Island in the early twentieth century. Wrongs inflicted upon a race of people and complicated lessons learned will now be remembered due to efforts to save Angel Island.
Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung. Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910–1940. Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 1999.
Lai, Him Mark. "The Chinese Experience at Angel Island." East West Chinese American Journal (February 1976).
Angel Island Association. "Angel Island State Park." 〈http://www.angelisland.org〉 (accessed June 29, 2006).
Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF). 〈http://www.aiisf.org〉 (accessed June 29, 2006).
Lum, Lydia. Angel Island: Immigrant Journeys of Chinese-Americans. 〈http://www.angel-island.com〉 (accessed June 29, 2006).
Modern American Poetry. "Angel Island: Guardian of the Western Gate." 〈http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/angel/natale.htm〉 (accessed June 29, 2006).
PBS.org. "Online News Hour: Angel Island." September 5, 2000. 〈http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/july-dec00/Angel_8-5.html〉 (accessed June 29, 2006).