Angel Island, CALIFORNIA — Documentary filmmaker Eddie Wong thought he had discovered something unusual to show his father when he went to Angel Island in 1971 and took footage of the abandoned former immigration station in San Francisco Bay.
“ I told him, I went to this amazing place called Angel Island and he said, ‘I was there. It was a prison, a jail,’” said Wong. “He never wanted to talk about so I never knew.”
For tens of thousands of American-born Chinese, the history of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents can be traced to one side of an island three miles from San Francisco.
The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America by Mae Ngai is the story of one family’s struggle and ultimate success. Many others did not succeed.
Ellis Island under the silhouette of the Statue of Liberty is more famous as the gateway to America for European immigrants. But Angel Island in San Francisco Bay was for decades the entry station for arrivals from Asia where nearly one million immigrants were processed, opening at a time a century ago when anti-Chinese sentiment was at its highest.
A fire shut down the immigration station in 1940 but the 740-acres island, the largest in the bay, remains today a popular camping spot. In the decades since the Second World War, the abandoned buildings of the station fell into disrepair and were about to be burned down by California State parks to make more camping space.
What saved Angel Island were the discovery of poems in 1970 carved into the decaying walls of the immigration station written by Chinese migrants detailing their thoughts and despair as they endured days, weeks and sometimes months of interrogation before being allowed off the island. Authors Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim and Judy Yung documented the poems in their 1999 book Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940
For about 10 per cent of those who came to the U.S. seeking a new life, Angel Island was as far as they got to America when they were sent back to China without ever touching the mainland.
Wong’s father was one of those who arrived and got deported at age 15 when his false documentation was discovered. He then made a second successful attempt to come to the U.S., again via Angel Island.
Wong, the executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation which is dedicated to preserving the site, said he had no idea about his family’s history until he mentioned it casually to his father.
“It’s only now, the second generation, the American-born Chinese who want to know where did grandmother or my father come from,” said Wong. “They wanted to forget about the place but their children and grandchildren are saying it’s important to remember as a reminder of how hard it was for some people. It made them stronger and more determined and as a result, we’re around.”
Wong said at times of economic hardship, as it was in the early part of the 20thcentury after the gold rush and cheap labour for constructing the railroad was no longer needed, immigrants were usually the first to suffer.
“It’s a darker side of American history that we can’t forget. Particularly today when some of it is being repeated when you look at the tougher calls of restriction on immigration,” he said.
More to come…