Historic Immigrant Passage Gains New Life Most people know about Ellis Island, but fewer know about its West Coast counterpart, Angel Island. From its opening in 1885 to its closing in 1940, more than a million people passed through Angel Island en route to the U.S., including hundreds of thousands of immigrants from China and Japan. After an extensive renovation Angel Island is open to visitors.
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Historic Immigrant Passage Gains New Life

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Historic Immigrant Passage Gains New Life

Historic Immigrant Passage Gains New Life

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, my memories of a dear friend.

But first, on this President's Day, we want to tell you about a place that represented the first introduction to America for many immigrants. Now, most people know about Ellis Island, the East Coast port where more than 12 million immigrants, mostly from Europe, first set foot in the United States. But many people don't know about its West Coast counterpart, Angel Island.

Located roughly 45 minutes from San Francisco, Angel Island opened in 1910. More than a million people passed through its doors, including hundreds of thousands from China and Japan. It was closed in 1940 and scheduled for demolition in 1970. But that was stopped when Chinese calligraphy, poems describing the experience of people detained there, were discovered on the walls of the barracks. And now, more than seven decades after it was closed, Angel Island reopened yesterday after a massive restoration project.

Here to tell us more about all this is Eddie Wong. He's executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. Mr. Wong, welcome. Thank you for talking to us.

Mr. EDDIE WONG (Executive Director, Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation): I'm glad to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: First of all, tell me a little bit, if you will, about Angel Island. How important was this particular port? Why was this location selected?

Mr. WONG: Well, it was selected in part because it was isolated in the San Francisco Bay. After 1882, when the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, there was a place, actually a wooden shed, on the wharf in San Francisco. And that's where Chinese immigrants were kept and questioned as to determine the legality of their entry in U.S. That proved to be a very unsanitary, unhealthy place. And also, it wasn't very secure. Several people busted out of there. So they decided to build a separate facility on an island, and that's why Angel Island was constructed.

But its purpose was still the same. It was to verify who was a legal entrant. And the way the law worked is that it forbade laboring classes of people to come. You could be the son and daughter of an American-born citizen, you could be a merchant, a diplomat, a clergyman, but working people were not at that point allowed to enter from China. And that's why it became known as the Guardian of the Western Gate.

MARTIN: Were the experiences of people at Angel Island very different from those at Ellis Island?

Mr. WONG: It was for the Chinese, in the sense that they had to go through lengthy interrogations to prove that they were who they were. And the way that worked was your sponsor had a certain story, so to speak, about you, and you had to match that story point for point. Now, for other groups - whether they were Japanese, Filipino, Korean - they had different laws applying to them. And in some cases, there wasn't as strict a interrogation process, and they spent less time there.

MARTIN: And I want to play a short clip from one of the interviews of a person who was detained at Angel Island that you have on your Web site. His name is Harmen Guan Wu(ph). He arrived on Angel Island in 1938. He was 15 years old. He says he was kept there for two months. And he talks about the interview process that you were just describing. I want to play a short clip where he explains - he was asked to describe his village from back home, his brother and father with him, and they were asked in separate interviews to do the same, and then those notes were compared, and here's what he has to say about it.

(Soundbite of interview clip)

Mr. HARMEN GUAN WU: I said going upstairs was 13 steps. And then my brother, my father said that there were four steps. I personally went through two days of testimony. And then, when the initial denial came and I had to re-interview, I remember that was about half a day or so, but I was denied million(ph) times.

MARTIN: What was the point of this questioning, this kind of questioning?

Mr. WONG: Well, I think a lot of - like a lot of bureaucracies, they want to, you know, dot the i's and cross the t's, and it was sort of a process of tripping people up. If you didn't answer the questions correctly, then you were denied entry. And then therefore, you had to appeal, and then the appeal process took months.

I think one side effect of this was that because people stayed there so long in some cases, they actually wrote poetry. And that's why Angel Island, the Immigration Station became recognized as a national historic landmark because of the hundreds of Chinese poems that were either written on the walls or in many cases carved onto the walls. And these were testimonies about how sad they felt, how angry they felt. And in some cases, their aspirations to get out of there and start their new lives.

MARTIN: Do have a poem that you could share with us?

Mr. WONG: Well, yes. There's one poem that was translated in a book called "Island," and I'll read it for you right now.

(Reading) There are tens of thousands of poems composed on these walls. They are all cries of complaint and sadness. The day I am rid of this prison and attain success, I must remember that this chapter once existed. In my daily needs, I must be frugal. Needless extravagance leads youth to ruin. All my compatriots should please be mindful. Once you have some small gains, return home early.

And it's signed by One from Xiangshan, which is an area near Macau in China.

MARTIN: I wonder where this practice came from of writing these poems on walls.

Mr. WONG: Well, it's part of Chinese culture to commemorate, you know, a certain occasion with a poem, and in some cases, it was quite common to, you know, in the evening write a poem about your day. It's sort of like blogging, you know, is today for some people. And it's also a very refined style of writing, too, and so many of the poems that have been analyze, you know, they're written by people who are educated, by people who really had a sense of classical poetic writing, and many of the poems actually comment on the other poems that are written on the walls by other people who came before them. So, it's very much a unique experience where this place in America, the walls actually talk to you and tell you stories.

MARTIN: There is a sense, though, that a lot of these stories are sad, and there's a description of the fear and the loneliness that people experienced there. In fact there's - I want to play another clip from the Web site from another person who came through Angel Island. His name is Robertson Yee(ph). He arrived in 1921 at the age of 10, and he was very upset in his interview about the children he saw who had been separated from their mothers for some reason. Here's what he said.

(Soundbite of interview clip)

Mr. ROBERTSON YEE: But I saw few little children away from their mother there are nobody look at them(ph). I thought that was awful thing to do even when I was 10 years old.

MARTIN: Is that true? Were children - young children routinely separated from their parents there, and if so, why?

Mr. WONG: Well, I think there was sort of an age cut off around like 12 years old. If you were 12 and older and you were a male, you were separated and put into the men's barracks. Women and children were kept together, and so that didn't happen for them. But I think a lot of young men traveled by themselves, even as young as eight or nine or 10, and in some cases, they ended up in the men's barracks. So, I think this is a very lonely and frightening experience for them - a different country, being asked questions in a different language, et cetera.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Eddie Wong. He's the executive director of a foundation that runs the Angel Island Immigration Station, which just reopened to the public yesterday.

And underlying this intense scrutiny, as you've told us, there was this concern that there would be people immigrating illegally. How would you immigrate illegally at a time like this? Was there a concern that there were false documents being generated? How did that happen?

Mr. WONG: Exactly. Well, what happened was the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and City Hall burned and all the records were destroyed, and so they had no way of resurrecting the records except by asking people, who are you, where were you born, et cetera. Well, naturally, people knew that the exclusion law had been passed already. So all the people who were living in San Francisco, Chinatown, a lot of whom were men, went to the City Hall and said, yes, I was actually born in this country, and guess what? I have eight or nine children in China, and most of them are male.

And so this became the establishment of the false identities, the false papers for men and women, and these were the papers sons and paper daughters. So these papers are actually sold to people in China who said, yes, I am so and so's son or daughter, and therefore, because he is a native-born American, I have the right to immigrate. And this system existed simply because - as a way to circumvent what many people felt was an unfair and racially discriminatory law.

MARTIN: And do I have it right that your own father, you discovered, was a paper son?

Mr. WONG: Yes, I did not know this until I actually went to Angel Island and did some filming. I was a documentary filmmaker years and years ago, and I went to this place and saw the poetry, and I went home and said, dad, this is a really - really unique space, and it's really fabulous. How come you never told me about it? And he said, I didn't tell you about it because I was there, and it was like a jail. And so for him, it was a very negative experience, and he didn't want to talk about it.

And that's been sort of repeated in many, many people's stories that people wanted to forget that period of their lives and go on, just establish their lives in America. And it's only been over the last couple of decades because of the resurrection of the poems, because more people come forward with their stories, that people have recognized that, yes, this is an experience worth preserving.

But it's beyond just, you know, the Chinese experience, I mean, thousands of Japanese picture brides came through there, an estimated 60,000 Japanese women, and this is really the basis for the first American-born generation of Japanese Americans. These picture brides and their (unintelligible) husbands who were many farm workers and working people, and so it...

MARTIN: And when you say picture bride, why do we call them picture brides, for those who aren't familiar with the term?

Mr. WONG: Well, actually, this is again related to another aspect of immigration law. In 1907, the Gentleman's Agreement was reached between U.S. and Japan, and in return for not bringing any more laboring people from Japan, the U.S. government allowed the existing Japanese laborers to bring their wives. And so therefore, they sent home pictures of themselves to a marriage broker, and women in Japan sent pictures of themselves to these men, and these marriages were arranged by sort of mail, literally by picture. And when they arrived at Angel Island, they were examined for medical reasons and then reunited with their prospective husbands, and in many cases, married right in San Francisco, and that's the term picture pride.

MARTIN: It's curious, as you said, that this has such a prominent place in the history of so many families in this country. Two things I'm curious about. One is, you only found out about your father's connection to this place when you were an adult, you're a grown man. Is there a sense of shame about having come this way, or is it - the experience just so uncomfortable and unpleasant that people just wanted to forget about it? Why do you think we don't know more about this?

MR. WONG: I think, you know, for a lot of first-generation families, even Ellis Island people, the landing is not the most important part. It's the story of where you went to, whether it's Minnesota or Sacramento, California, wherever it is. So that's an aspect of it, that you built a really rich life after you landed, and you want to focus on that with your children.

But I think in this case it was really hard. There are stories about Russian immigrants who stayed there a few months also because they were also questioned not so much on the basis of race, but were they going to be indigent, you know, did they have a way to show that they can support themselves in this country? And so that kind of questioning process leaves sort of a stigma of like not really being wanted and quasi being a criminal, and you don't want to tell your children that, yes, you know, this is how I got my start in America, so you gloss that over.

So in some cases, yes, it was a source of shame. In other cases, it's sort of an inconvenient, hard story that you'd like to spare your children.

MARTIN: And as I think it's fair to say that Angel Island is not as well known as its East Coast counterpart, Ellis Island. What do you hope, now that it's reopened, that people will draw from the experience of knowing about it and hopefully wanting to go there?

MR. WONG: One of the exciting things about yesterday's reopening was the unveiling of a sister park status with Ellis Island, so the two parks will be cooperating with each other, exchanging information, students at each place will communicate with each other through the Internet. And so I think it will raise the visibility of Angel Island. But I think a lot of it's just time, you know. Fewer people came through Angel Island than Ellis Island. Until more people who came through that or were affected by that story embrace that story and tell it themselves, you know, that's the best way of making Angel Island more visible.

MARTIN: Eddie Wong is the executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation between 1900 and 1940. The island's Immigrant Center received hundreds of thousands of immigrants, mainly from China and Japan. The center just reopened yesterday to the public, and Eddie Wong joined us from San Francisco. I thank you so much.

MR. WONG: Thank you.

MARTIN: And now we'd like to bring you another poem found on the walls of the barracks at Angel Island. These poems, written by Chinese immigrants trying to enter the United States, were not titled or signed, but they've been compiled in a book of poems called "Island." Eddie Wong reads another poem from that collection.

MR. WONG: (Reading) Everyone says traveling to North America is a pleasure. I suffered misery on the ship and sadness in the wooden building. After several interrogations, still I am not done. I sigh because my compatriots are being forcibly detained.

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