Growing up on the East Coast, I knew about Ellis Island, where my great-grandmother arrived alone in 1907 as a nineteen-year old Polish immigrant, but I had never even heard of its West Coast equivalent, Angel Island. When I moved to San Francisco with my family nine years ago, however, Angel Island soon burst onto my radar screen. A hilly, green mound rising out of the San Francisco Bay just north of Alcatraz, we looked down on it from the Golden Gate Bridge and wondered what was there.
Although we visited a couple times to walk around and play on the beach when our girls were little, I didn’t learn about Angel Island’s role as a western entry point for immigrants to the United States until my older daughter studied it in third grade. And finally, last week, I had the opportunity to visit the Angel Island Immigration Station on a school field trip with my younger daughter’s third grade class.
After fighting our way through San Francisco morning rush hour traffic for the better part of an hour, the school bus finally deposited us at Pier 39 on the Embarcadero, just in time for our 9:45am ferry. The ferry ride alone was an adventure, the kids scurrying in and out and up and down through the boat’s various decks and seating areas, we chaperones trying in vain to keep track of them.
Fortunately, all sixty-six kids were accounted for upon our arrival and promptly slathered in sun screen. We proceeded en masse to the Immigration Station, trudging up a flight of about 140 stairs from the ferry landing and then a mile and a half north along a paved road that circumnavigates the island. Morning clouds gave way to warm sunshine and dazzling views of Tiburon, the air scented by the eucalyptus trees lining the road.
Our tour of the Immigration Station began outside at the site of the former administration building, which burned down in 1940. There we met our docent, Marian, whose mother came to Angel Island from China at the age of seventeen. Marian was a wealth of information on the history of the Immigration Station and the people who passed through it during its thirty years of operation from 1910 to 1940.
In contrast to Ellis Island, most of the people processed here were from Asia, the facility operating mainly as a detention center for Chinese immigrants, who had been banned from the United States by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Since Marian’s great grandfather already lived in the United States and was able to prove he was a citizen, her mother was also considered a citizen and allowed entry to the United States. Chinese immigrants who could not prove citizenship in this way were denied entry and sent back to China.
Proving your right to be in the United States, however, was not easy and many Chinese immigrants spent months and in some cases years on Angel Island before finally being allowed to leave the island and begin their new lives on the mainland.
To show the kids what it would have been like for Chinese immigrants on Angel Island, Marian separated my daughter and me and then asked us both a series of very specific questions about our family and home, like how many steps there are to the front door of our house and which direction our beds face in. These are the sorts of confusing and detailed questions new arrivals from China would have been asked to determine whether they really were the sons and daughters of the Chinese-Americans they claimed as parents. Based on our conflicting answers — my daughter and I answered only one question the same way — my daughter most definitely would have been sent back!
Marian then took us into the barracks, where adult male immigrants were housed; women and children stayed in separate quarters in the administration building. Apart from the hospital, which is currently under renovation, this is the only Immigration Station building that remains, and serves as a museum of day-to-day life on Angel Island. Here we saw the bunk rooms where immigrants, grouped according to their ethnicity, slept on narrow, metal beds that looked barely big enough for our third graders. Displayed on the beds were clothes and other personal belongings the people who stayed here would have brought with them from their home countries: photos of relatives, shoes, hats, books, mysterious glass vials and other trinkets.
In the room where the Chinese slept, laundry hung from clotheslines rigged up between the bunks; an illustration of the fact that most Chinese, unlike people from other countries, typically stayed here long enough that they needed to wash their clothes. Surrounded by barbed wire and watched over by armed guards, the barracks building was more of a prison than a dormitory in its day.
Another very interesting thing that we learned about were the poems inscribed by Chinese immigrants on the walls of the barracks. Considered graffiti by the Immigration Station officials who covered them in layer upon layer of paint and putty, the poems were not discovered until the 1970s. It was then, just before the abandoned and deteriorated barracks were due to be torn down, that they were found by a park ranger. As a result, the building was rescued from destruction and it and its poems preserved. Written in the form of classical Chinese poetry, the poems record the experiences and emotions of their authors, mostly feelings of loneliness, anger, sadness and frustration.
On the return walk to catch our ferry back to San Francisco, I looked out at the beautiful human rainbow that is my daughter’s third grade class. From Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Russian, Middle-Eastern, African and European backgrounds, among others, the kids skipped, sang and laughed along together, oblivious to the color of each other’s skin. Americans, every one of them, and each an important ingredient in the melting pot that makes our country so rich, vibrant and wonderfully diverse.