By Raymond Douglas Chong, AsAmNews Staff Writer
One Sunday this month I ferried from the Port of San Francisco to Angel Island Immigration Station (AIIS), a National Historic Landmark. After 111 years, I retraced the journey of Moi Chung, my paternal grandfather, a Chinese immigrant, to Angel Island. He arrived in America with a student visa to learn English in 1912.
Edward Tepporn, Executive Director of Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF), pointedly guided my visit. He highlighted AIISF’s four decades effort to restore this National Historic Landmark in partnership with the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation. John Clagett of Angel Island State Park vividly interpreted the complexity of AIIS and the features of the Detention Barracks.
For three decades, from 1910 to 1940, the American federal government operated a US immigration station at Angel Island. The staff there referred to the station as the “Guardian of the Western Gate.” They enforced the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement, and similar policies that deemed immigrants from Asia and the Pacific undesirables in the American xenophobia.
As a result, about 500,000 immigrants from 80 countries were processed or detained at Angel Island. Most were from China (175,000) and Japan (60,000). The Chinese on Angel Island were the prisoners of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Immigration officials enforced the segregation of detainees. Europeans were separated from non-Europeans, and the Chinese were separated from other Asians. Men and women were also kept apart.
The detainees were transferred from a steamship in San Francisco Bay to a ferry boat that docked at Angel Island’s wharf. Compared to European detainees, Asian detainees often experienced more intensive questioning, more invasive medical screenings, and more extended periods of detention.
The immigration station complex (13 acres) included the Administration Building, Detention Barracks, Hospital, Central Heating Plant, employee cottages, and other buildings. At the Administration Building, doctors conducted a brief medical screening. Those thought to have a contagious disease or a medical condition that might be grounds for exclusion were brought to the Hospital. There, they experienced more invasive examinations for deportable ailments.
Men and boys were held in the wooden Detention Barrack, while women and girls were held on the 2nd floor of the wooden Administration Building. The Detention Barracks had three tiers of bunk beds (600 beds) in the drafty rooms under crowded and barren conditions. The detainees have limited access to outdoor recreation yards. Under the dim incandescent lights, they anxiously waited for freedom or deportation.
At the Administration Building, an inspector, with a stenographer and a translator, would interrogate immigrants. They knew that many Chinese bought the identities of others claiming to be the children of American citizens in their attempts to enter the country, a practice known as “paper sons.”. Thus, they often would ask the Chinese detainees a seemingly endless list of questions for hours and sometimes even days.
While the Chinese men waited at the Detention Barracks, they miserably lamented their fates. Then, they beautifully carved over two hundred traditional poems on bare wooden walls. These poems have been preserved as a sad reminder of the American immigration experience.
Random Thoughts Deep at Night
Written by Yee of Taishan
In the quiet of the night, I heard, faintly, the whistling of the wind.
The forms and shadows saddened me; upon seeing the landscape, I composed a poem.
The floating clouds, the fog, darken the sky.
The moon shines faintly as the insects chirp.
Grief and bitterness entwined are heaven sent.
The sad person sits alone, leaning by a window.
Tyrus Wong, the accomplished artist, and illustrator of Disney’s Bambi film, remembered his detention as a nine-year-old in 1920 in this YouTube video.
In 1940, an electrical fire destroyed the Administration Building. As a result, the site stopped being used as an immigration station.
Angel Island Immigration Museum (AIIM)
Since 1983, AIISF has preserved the complex, provided on-site education, and promoted the contributions of Pacific Coast immigrants. They have raised $40 million in their effort.
In the old Hospital, the new Angel Island Immigration Museum (AIIM) “presents personal stories, immigration policies, and social issues from both historical and contemporary times.”
The immigration station’s second-floor houses three permanent exhibits that describe the immigrant experience in America.
- IN THE SHADOWS – At times, efforts to control US immigration have led to divisive laws. As a result, many people have experienced exclusion, detention, and restricted access to the Pacific Coast. Learn about some of the diverse immigrants who have endured and overcome these challenges here.
- OPENING DOORS – Some US immigration policies opened doors, offering hope and opportunities to people from around the world. Discover the many ways Pacific Coast immigrants and their descendants have built new lives and contributed to the United States. Explore their stories of resilience and accomplishment.
- UNDER THE MICROSCOPE – Medical theories and policies have affected immigration enforcement on the US Pacific Coast since the 1800s. They have been used to establish quarantine practices to enhance medical screenings for certain groups as the basis for deportation. Explore the sometimes conflicting roles of compassion, control, and safety in medical gatekeeping at this exhibit.
“The Angel Island Immigration Museum is the newest addition to the group of buildings open to the public at the former United States Immigration Station at Angel Island,” said Tepporn, the Foundation’s executive director. “Located in what was previously the site’s hospital, the museum’s exhibits connect the past and present. Combined with the former Detention Barracks exhibits, they remind us that history is repeating itself.”
Edward Tepporn – Immigrant and American
Since 2019, Tepporn has served as Executive Director of AIISF. Born in Thailand, Tepporn immigrated with his parents to America as a child. Tepporn shared, “Like many other immigrants of then and now, my parents immigrated to the United States in hopes of new opportunities. They didn’t anticipate the racism and xenophobia that they would encounter.”
Tepporn grew up in Houston, Texas, where he attended Bellaire High School.
He graduated from Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in Biology and Psychology. Before AIISF, his career focused on public health in San Francisco.
The AIIM OPENING DOORS exhibit reflects the Tepporn family’s story:
Through the skills-based provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Monty and Nancy Tepporn immigrated from Bangkok, Thailand, to Galveston, Texas, in 1970 for jobs in medical technology and nursing, respectively.
In the present times of America, Tepporn insightfully mused, “There are strong similarities between the historical exclusion and detention of Asians and Pacific Islanders and the current-day experiences of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. With the increase in anti-Asian racism and xenophobia, it’s perhaps even more critical now than ever to ensure that what happened at Angel Island is not forgotten.”
Tepporn cited the importance of AIISF now, “We will continue to protect the historic site, elevate its stories, promote learning, and celebrate the new beginnings and immigrant contributions that help define the strength of the United States. We inspire a more equitable and inclusive future that embodies how immigrants improve nations. By remembering our past, we can inspire a more equitable and inclusive future that embodies how immigrants improve the nation.”
AIISF celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2023. To recognize this milestone, the nonprofit organization plans to host its annual gala on April 29. This will be the AIISF’s first in-person fundraiser since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. And the first time this annual gala will take place on Angel Island. For more details, visit www.aiisf.org/gala2023
As AIISF looks ahead to the next 40 years, the nonprofit organization will continue to host in-person and virtual programs to ensure that more people in the United States are familiar with Angel Island and are inspired to visit in-person or virtually.
Future initiatives include expanding AIISF’s Immigrant Voices Project to include oral histories, live storytelling events, and digital videos. In addition, over the coming year, AIISF will be updating several of the permanent exhibits, creating new temporary and traveling exhibits, and resurfacing the outdoor terraces at the site.
While the fog streamed across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, I ferried back from Angel Island to the Port of San Francisco. I poignantly reflected on our pioneer Chinese immigrants in America, the prisoners of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. I deeply admire their resilience to achieve the American Dream on Gold Mountain.
My ode to them
OUR CHINESE PIONEERS OF ANGEL ISLAND
On a crispy winter dawn
Midst a crystal blue sky
I ferry on the San Francisco Bay
To the landmark Angel Island Immigration Station
To humbly honor the intrepid Chinese men, women, and children
From the Republic of China
When they anxiously immigrated
For three wretched decades
Under the bigoted Chinese Exclusion Act
To endure the harsh interrogations
By stern American inspectors
For incessant dawns
During the infinite detention
At the barren Detention Barracks
Among rows of bunk beds
While they achingly wallowed
In anxiety and agony
When they carved poems
On the wooden walls
To share their sheer misery
Of faith, hope, and dream
To pursue the eagle gold coins
On a quixotic Gold Mountain
The American Dream
Our Chinese pioneers of Angel Island.
By Raymond Douglas Chong
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Something that is visibly absent in our history books used in schools.