The Angel Island Immigration Station operated from 1910-1940.

442: Chinese Immigrants’ Hellish Experiences on Angel Island

For those who passed through the Bay Area immigration station, its 30 years of operation are an era considered best forgotten

The Angel Island Immigration Station operated from 1910-1940.

Illustration by Vivian Lai

Words by Samantha Pak

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

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While it may have been called “the Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island in San Francisco Bay was very different from its East Coast counterpart. Unlike the reception granted immigrants arriving on the shores of New York, not all of the tired, poor and huddled masses landing on the shores of San Francisco were welcomed with open arms.

The Angel Island Immigration Station (AIIS) operated from 1910-1940, and was built with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 in mind. With facilities, including a hospital and detention building, on an island, officials could isolate immigrants with communicable diseases and prevent Chinese immigrants from communicating with anyone in San Francisco—and like nearby Alcatraz Island, it was nearly impossible to escape.

According to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, immigrants from more than 80 countries went through AIIS during its 30 years of operation. While exact numbers are unknown, it’s estimated that between 500,000 and one million immigrants came through AIIS and according to the National Park Service, 250,000 were Chinese.

Stumping immigrants

After arriving in San Francisco by ship, passengers were separated by nationality, according to the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. Paperwork for Europeans and first- and second-class passengers was processed aboard the ship, and these travelers were allowed to disembark to the mainland when they landed (while first- and second-class Chinese passengers were possible, it was unlikely as oftentimes they were poor and in some cases, an entire village would pool its resources to finance one representative’s way to the United States). Immigrants from Asia and other countries, including Russia and Mexico, were required to be quarantined for “health reasons” and ferried to Angel Island to be processed.

Once they got to the island, immigrants were subjected to medical exams and tested for parasitic infections, according to the foundation. If they failed these tests, consequences included hospitalization (at the immigrant’s expense, of course) or deportation. If they passed the medical exams, immigrants were then assigned to the detention dormitory and a bunk, where they would wait to be interrogated by the Board of Special Inquiry, which included two immigrant inspectors, a stenographer, and a translator (when needed) and whose role was to determine an immigrant’s eligibility to enter the country.

During these interrogations, officials specifically asked Chinese immigrants questions about the minute details of their life in China. From their family history, to the specifics of their home life and village, immigrants were expected to know unreasonably precise details, like how many steps led up to their home and the distance between their home and their next door neighbor’s.

Any discrepancies between the immigrant’s and witness’s answers would prolong the questioning or could throw the entire case into doubt. And not only could the applicant be deported as a result, but so too could everyone in the family connected to them.

The questions were designed to stump immigrant applicants and weed out “paper sons” and “paper daughters,” who purchased false identities to pose as children of Chinese residents already in the United States. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake played a large role in this practice because a resulting fire destroyed city records and Chinese residents used the opportunity to claim American citizenship and were thus able to bring their “children” over from China.

Regardless of their relationship to their sponsor, Chinese immigrants were aware of the Exclusion Act and the extreme measures U.S. officials were taking to keep them out of the country. They anticipated these questions and spent months preparing and memorizing these details. To corroborate the applicants’ answers, witnesses—other family members living in the United States—would be called forward. Any discrepancies between the immigrant’s and witness’s answers would prolong the questioning or could throw the entire case into doubt, according to the foundation. And not only could the applicant be deported as a result, but so too could everyone in the family connected to them.

Differences in treatment

It could take anywhere from a few weeks to several months, or even years, for officials to track down witnesses—all while the Chinese immigrants were detained. The longest detention, according to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, was about two years. In comparison, immigrants who arrived through Ellis Island in New York spent an average of two to three hours being screened—mostly for medical reasons.

In addition, according to Time, about 60 percent of immigrants who went through Angel Island were detained, while roughly 20 percent were detained at Ellis Island when it was operating from 1892 to 1954. Ellis Island processed more than 12 million immigrants and its deportation rate was between one and two percent (between 120,000 and 240,000). Meanwhile, AIIS, which processed up to one million immigrants, saw anywhere between 10 and 30 percent deported (between 100,000 and 300,000), according to multiple sources. One of the main differences between these two sites was that the majority of the immigrants who came through AIIS were Asian, while the immigrants at Ellis Island were predominantly European (read: white).

AIIS closed in August 1940 after a fire burned down the administration building. All applicants were moved to a facility on the mainland by November. Three years later, the Exclusion Act was finally repealed, but only because China was then considered an ally during World War II.

After a brief stint as a processing center for Japanese prisoners of war during WWII, AIIS was abandoned—and nearly forgotten as people who went through it rarely spoke about their experiences.

In 1963, the site became a state park and in 1970, right before the barracks were going to be destroyed, a state park ranger rediscovered the poetry and inscriptions that had been carved into the walls by detainees. According to the foundation, there are a total of 220 Chinese poems, 96 Chinese inscriptions, 33 Chinese graphic images, 89 English inscriptions, 62 Japanese inscriptions, seven Russian inscriptions, four South Asian and European inscriptions each, and two Korean inscriptions. The discovery led to Asian Americans in the Bay Area working to preserve the poems and the barracks as a state monument. The barracks opened to the public in 1983, and in 1997, AIIS was declared a national historic landmark by the National Park Service and the island is open to the public to visit and for tours.

Published on July 4, 2023

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.