The Purpose of the Station
Surrounded by public controversy from its inception, the station was finally put into
operation in 1910. Anticipated as the "Ellis Island of the West", it was
through within hours or days; on Angel Island, they spent weeks or months.
This facility was primarily a detention center. Beginning with the Chinese Exclusion
nationalities and social classes of Asians. Although all Asians were affected, the
detained on Angel Island were Chinese.
The first Chinese entered California in 1848, and within a few years, thousands more
tracks for the Central Pacific Railroad, reclaimed swamp land in the Sacramento delta,
no other group wanted or needed.
immigration laws were passed that allowed entry only to those who had been born in the
Paper Sons and Daughters
There was a loophole in the exclusion law. Any Chinese who could prove citizenship
through paternal lineage would not be denied entry. Those without true fathers in the
were often non-existent, an interrogation process was created to determine if the
immigrants were related as they claimed.
Questions could include details of the immigrant’s home and village as well as specific
knowledge of his or her ancestors. Interrogations could take a long time to complete,
especially if witnesses for the immigrants lived in the eastern United States.
When it opened in 1910, the new detention facility on Angel Island was considered ideal
entry for most of the approximately 175,000 Chinese immigrants who came to the United
States. Most of them were detained on Angel Island for as little as two weeks or as much
as six months. A few however, were forced to remain on the island for as much as two
response to their appeals, but fearing deportation. Many of the poems that were carved
into the walls of the center are still legible today. Others were documented through the
efforts of two detainees, Smiley Jann and Tet Yee in 1931-32, who copied down the poetry
the Immigration Station on Angel Island. Their decision was hastened by a fire that
destroyed the administration building in August of that year. On November 5, the last
to temporary quarters in San Francisco. The so-called "Chinese Exclusion Acts",
which were adopted in the early 1880s, were repealed by federal action in 1943, because by
that time, China was an ally of the U.S. in World War II.
World War II
station property was turned back to the Army, and it became the North Garrison of Fort
sent to permanent camps in the interior. The first prisoner taken by American forces in
Pacific. In 1942, the North Garrison was greatly expanded, with the construction of
several barracks, a mess hall and a recreation building, making North Garrison a post in
By 1920, an estimated 19,000 Japanese "picture brides" were processed through
Philippines, and Japan, were detained here. During World War I, "enemy aliens"
(most of them German citizens who had been arrested on board ships in West Coast harbors)
were held at the Immigration Station. These men were later transferred to permanent
detention quarters in North Carolina.
Some U.S. federal prisoners were held on the second floor of the barracks.
held at the Immigration Station.
Creation of the Immigration Museum
After the war, the Immigration Station was abandoned and fell into disrepair. Like many
other unused buildings on Angel Island, the detention barracks was scheduled for
with flashlight in hand and noted the calligraphy carved in the walls. Through his efforts
granting $250,000 to preserve and restore the barracks. A museum has been established in
the old barracks building. It includes a re-creation of one of the dormitories, and
features some of the poems that were carved into the station’s walls. The Angel Island
Immigration Station Foundation is an all-volunteer non-profit organization dedicated to
raising funds to educate, preserve, restore, and improve the site. The long-term goal is
to develop a premier west coast center for the study of Pacific Rim immigration from the
Copyright ? 1995-1999 Angel Island AssociationLife on Angel Island
from The Angel Island Home
One of the more important buildings on Angel Island was the large
administration building which was used as detention quarters at first only for Europeans,
but later to house women when the was overcrowding of Asians. Conditions often crowded,
ie. 100 women in 30 x 30 foot room.
of the men were housed, with the top floor used for the Chinese and the bottom for the
Japanese at first. Barbed wire surrounded the area around the building and armed guards
were posted in towers, ordered to shoot if there were any attempts of escape. The
environment was that of imprisonment.
The island also had a hospital/infirmary, power plant, wharf. Those
infirmary. Many also were there due to the poor conditions and sanitation in the living
quarters. The dining quarters were separate for Europeans and Chinese, another example of
the how the Chinese were treated differently. In fact, the immigration station on Angel
Island was not, at first, not open because there was barely enough money to complete it.
It was because anti-Chinese factions were angered that Angel Island was not yet open that
forced Congress to appropriate funds.
"I went back to visit and it was all pretty
like a paradise. Back then it was a prison"–anonymous
Some immigrants that went through Angel Island have gone back, some before
the island was made a park in 1970, and were deeply saddened when told by an ignorant park
ranger that there was no immigratoin here. It was as if the immigrants’ experiences never
One of the most traumatic experiences the Chinese immigrants went through,
white doctors. Deportation on account of having certain diseases such as tracheoma and
parasites (hookworm) was common. An interesting note about the differential treatment of
the Chinese, was that the hookworm regulation later abolished – after 1920. In fact, the
Japanese were not examined because the Japanese government threatened to do similar checks
to U.S. citizens coming into Japan. There was also differential treatment depending what
excempt class an immigrant belonged to. For instance, some wives of merchants not
As mentioned earlier, there was a separation of sexes, because there was a
fear of collusion, or exchange of information. Husbands and wives would call out to each
other to let their partners know they were doing ok. The detention barracks were
"dirty," with few toilets working, and bunks stacked 3 high. In fact, many
formers Angel Island residents have blocked out their memories of the bathrooms and others
say they never used them. Most residents did laundry (without soap often) inside the
barracks, handing them from the bunks’ poles. Stealing was common since many of their
belongings were kept locked up in storage areas and not allowed into the already crowded
The meal times followed a strict schedules, as was the rest of their
activities while at Angel Island. The food was described as terrible and there being no
variety. The mess halls were compared to the cleanliness of the bathrooms.
Breakfast and snacks usually consisted of saltine crackers, bread, jam,
rice. "Food was edible but not tasty" and "food thrown together like pig
Connection to outside
Chinese cooks sometimes smuggled papers or messages in "special
dishes." Residents at Angel Island could write letters, but the letters were always
examined as well as received packages. These packages usually included food and newspapers
from relatives. At times, the cooks were white as well and so the only Chinese staff on
the island were interpretors.
Women were allowed for walks around island once a week. The men had to
remain in the fenced in yard. Some played ball if one was available, while others
gamble–few had much money however. Women often knitted, read whatever was available
or cried. No radio was available and usually no visitors either, except for missionaries.
The restrictions on visitors was, naturally, so that no outside sources could coach the
immigrants before their interrogations.
Some women became prostitutes, espeically those that had been on the
island for over a year. Sometimes there were weekly Cantonese operas, meetings where the
writings of Sun Yat-sen were read, in the open space in barracks (15′ x 20′). Also,
the walls about why they had come and how they felt about the conditions they faced.
To verify their status or prove they were children of residents, the main
reason for the existence of the immigration station was the interrogration. That is
then, had to prove innocence. One island official admitted that his own children would not
have passed the exam given. An interpretor said "I used to think it was easier for a
camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a Chinaman to pass through the Golden
Gate" Women were scrutinized because there was a push to limit any sort of
were worried about, guarded, and cared for.
Decisions on status could be appealled and were often successful, but
attorneys were expensive. Lengthy stays existed because of the scheduling and repeated
scheduling of the interrogations. For some immigrants, after a single one hour interview
they could go, while others had multiple interrogations, over the course of months.
Chinese on the mainland and leaders on Angel Island formed the Angel Island Liberty
Assoication to try to make conditions more bearable. For example, the created lessons for
children, pooled money to buy newspapers.
Some Chinese immigrants were detained up to 3 years only to be refused
entry and deported. Some tried again, using purchased papers. Others scheduled for
deportation never left, deciding to hang themselves in shower stalls, rather than facing
the humiliation and shame of returning to their village in China. There were many stories
of ghosts in the bathrooms where immigrants hung themselves.
One story tells about how a women who had come to Angel Island with two
this story, boths sons were landed and united with their father.)
Many sons or daughters who have brought their fathers back to visit Angel
Island saw their fathers cry for the first time, after having suppressed the memories and
emotions for so long.