Another Island

 

Many Americans focus on Ellis Island when considering the American immigrant experience. This island, the primary immigration station on the east coast from 1892 until 1954, served as the point-of-entry for 20 million Americans; 40% of Americans have ancestors who entered the US through the Ellis Island station. (Ellis Island Virtual Tour) Stories and images from this station have become an important part of American culture. Most American children have heard stories of young European immigrants arriving and settling in New York City, and pictures of new immigrants spilling off boats and into the Great Hall at Ellis Island abound in history textbooks and modern media. In contrast, the average American knows nothing about Angel Island, the primary immigration station on the west coast of the US between the years of 1910 and 1940.

When first learning about Angel Island, one notices the similarities between Angel Island and Ellis Island. The US government open both Angel Island and Ellis Island after 1891 when the government created its first immigration administration. Both stations sit on picturesque islands in the middle of prominent US ports. Today both islands are run as historic monuments. However, when one begins to look closely at both the history of the islands and the place of the islands today, one notices many differences. These differences offer insights into the continuing inequities faced by Asian American immigrants to the US.

Asian Immigrants arriving at Angel Islands faced an ordeal at the Island which often lasted longer than their voyage from Asia. Most Immigrants were detained an average of two weeks with some staying as long as 2 years. During this detention, the government kept the immigrants locked in cramped rooms with no privacy, and no source of distraction; “‘When we arrived . . they locked us up like criminals in compartments like cages in the zoo. They counted us and then took us upstairs to our rooms. There were two or three rooms in the women’s section . . Each of the rooms could fit twenty or thirty persons.’ The men were placed in one large room. There were 190 ‘small boys to old men, all together in the same room’”. (Takaki, 237) Immigrants at Ellis Island, in contrast, were rarely detained long, and instead passed through the station with a series of quick (albeit terrifying) examinations to determine their physical and mental health.

The long detentions of Asian (specifically Chinese) immigrants resulted from the Chinese exclusion act of 1882. This act allowed only the wives and children of Chinese merchants already living in the US to enter the US. After this act passed and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 destroyed most immigration records in San Francisco, immigration officials began to question immigrants rigorously to prevent the entry of “paper sons” and “paper wives”--immigrants who posed as family members of Chinese already living in the US in order to gain admittance to the US. These examinations proved extremely rigorous and only half of the immigrants passed on their first try. (Pugh) “Each immigrant asked from two or three hundred questions to over a thousand. The records of the hearing generally in length from twenty to eighty typewritten pages depending on the nature of the case.” (Yung, 66) Immigrants trying to pass these exams would often face questions like “How many steps in your house?” “Your house had a clock?” “Where do you sleep at your house?” (Takaki, 236) European immigrants at Ellis Island had to answer only 29 questions as no laws like the Chinese Exclusion act existed to limit their entry into the country. (Yung, 66).

Asian Immigrants arriving at Angel Island had very different experiences from European immigrants arriving at Ellis Island because of racist laws concerning Asian immigration. One would like to think that these racist attitudes existed only in the past, however the recent histories of Ellis and Angel Island suggest that although the US government no longer discriminates against Asian immigrants, US culture does not yet consider the experiences of Asian immigrants to be as important as those of European immigrants.

The immigration station at Angel Island opened for tours in 1972 (Dembling). However, the buildings have become dilapidated, endangering many of the artifacts within the station. “Maintenance on Angel Island, which is dotted with crumbling military barracks, mess halls, and hospitals, is further behind than any park in the state system . . Inside on the yellow and green peeling walls fragile poems carved mostly by Chinese detainees are framed only by string and pushpins.” (Minton) The station is further blighted by exhibits which do not accurately depict the history of Asian immigration. A classic photograph of European immigrants entering Ellis Island greets visitors to the Angel Island station today, essentially overlooking the 200,000 Asian immigrants who entered through the station. Inside a female Chinese dummy in an exhibit wears a queue, despite the fact that only men wore queues under the Qing Dynasty. (Dembling)

The current exhibit in no way does justice to the experience of Asian Americans at Angel Island, yet the current yearly budget of $200,000 dollars cannot cover basic repairs needed, much less make improvements. (Minton) Ellis Island experiences none of these problems. In 1990 the government (aided by a fiscal campaign run by Lee Iococa) completed a 160 million dollar renovation and the elegantly restored Station and new Wall of Immigrants monument opened to the public (Ellis Island Virtual Tour).

Reflection

Growing up in Madison, WI, I learned about America’s immigrants from school history lessons and novels. I watched endless films about Ellis Island, learned about all the different European populations which came over at different times, and read stories about plucky immigrant kids who lived in the Jewish slums of New York City. In high school we studied the conflicts between immigrants who came from different European countries, but never even heard of immigrants from other continents. I remember thinking that immigrants from other continents had only recently begun to arrive from other countries, that non-European immigration was only a very recent phenomenon. While visiting San Francisco in high school I asked about Angel Island after seeing it on a map. My aunt told me it was a pretty island and a nice place for a picnic. Despite having a fairly wide range of experiences and an extensive education, I did not learn about Angel Island and Asian American immigration until 2 weeks ago, at the age of 21.

Nothing can change the sad history of Asian American immigration in this country, however, much can be done to increase American understanding of the Asian-American immigrant experience. Younger Americans have grown up with an awareness of the frequent examples of discrimination against minorities in America’s past and a desire not to see these patterns repeated. If attitudes can be changed so that American children are educated about all immigrants who created America, I think we will begin to see much more acknowledgment of the Asian American immigrant experience in the future.

Works Cited

Dembling, Sophia. "Even now, wings of despair hover over Angel Island." Dallas Morning News, 27 November, 1994, p. F-1.

Minton, Torri. "Angel Island’s immigrant story." San Francisco Chronicle, 14 June, 1999, p .A17.

Pugh, Clifford. "Immigrant journeys." Houston Chronicle, 7 October, 1999, p. 1.

Takaki, Ronald. Strangers From A Different Shore. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1998.

Takeshita, Vernon. History 32 Lecture. Dartmouth College, 15 October, 1999.

Yung, Judy. Unbound Feet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Ellis Island Virtual Tour. Retrieved October 29 from the World Wide Web: http://www.capital.net/~alta/index.html.