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