In the early twentieth century, most Chinese immigrants coming to the United States were detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay. There, they were subject to physical exams, interrogations, and often long detentions aimed at upholding the exclusion laws that kept Chinese out of the country. Many detainees recorded their anger and frustrations, hopes and despair in poetry written and carved on the barrack walls.
Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, Second Edition tells these immigrants’ stories while underscoring their relevance to contemporary immigration issues. First published in 1980, this book is now offered in an updated, expanded edition including a new historical introduction, 150 annotated poems in Chinese and English translation, extensive profiles of immigrants gleaned through oral histories, and dozens of new photographs from public archives and family albums. In this Q & A, Judy Yung—one of the book’s three coauthors—discusses the Angel Island Chinese immigrant experience, remarkable poetry engravings on the barrack walls, and more.
Could you give us a snapshot of a common Angel Island immigrant experience?
Judy Yung: From the beginning, the Angel Island Immigration Station has been known as the “Ellis Island of the West,” but in fact, it was very different from its counterpart in New York. Built in 1892 to welcome European immigrants to America, Ellis Island processed immigrants through within a few hours. They were given a cursory physical exam and asked 29 questions mainly to test their sound minds and ability to support themselves in America. Only 10% of the 12 million who came through Ellis Island were detained, usually for a few days, for legal or medical reasons. In contrast, Angel Island was built in 1910 to better enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese laborers from the country. At Angel Island, Chinese immigrants were thoroughly examined and interrogated and often detained for weeks and months at a time.
Chinese men’s dormitory, 1910. Courtesy of California State Parks, 2014.
Upon arrival in San Francisco, all Chinese newcomers were taken by ferry to the Angel Island Immigration Station for the medical exam and immigration inspection. Aside from the line inspection and eye exam by medical officers, they were subjected to an invasive exam of their blood and waste products to detect parasitic diseases such as hookworms. If found with these diseases, they could seek medical treatment at the immigration hospital, but it would be at their own expense. Following the medical exam came the dreaded hearing before the Board of Special Inquiry, in which Chinese applicants were interrogated for days and asked hundreds of detailed questions about their family background, village life, and marital relations in an effort to verify their identities and right to enter the country. The same questions were asked of their witnesses, and discrepancies in their answers could mean deportation. When denied entry, 88% of the Chinese applicants chose to retain an attorney to appeal their cases to immigration authorities in D.C. and the higher courts if necessary. They usually succeeded in their appeals, but it meant staying locked up on Angel Island for an additional six months and added expenses. Continue reading