'Angel Island': Ellis Island Of The West Thousands of immigrants passed through California's Angel Island before entering the U.S. during the early 1900s — and few received a warm welcome. Historian Judy Yung shares her father's journey through the island and discusses her book, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America.
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'Angel Island': Ellis Island Of The West

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'Angel Island': Ellis Island Of The West

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Angel Island is more than another landmark in the San Francisco Bay. A hundred years ago, it opened as the Pacific gateway to America. Half a million immigrants from over 80 countries passed through Angel Island Russians, Japanese, Australians, Chinese, Mexicans and many others found themselves in the island's detention barracks to be tested and probed to qualify for entry into the United States.

Among them was a poor, young Chinese man who crossed the Pacific under a false name. Today, historian Judy Yung joins us to tell us about her father's journey to America, and the new book she wrote with Erika Lee, "Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America."

If you have relatives who came through Angel Island, call and tell us your story. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Judy Yung, professor emerita of American Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, with us here at KQED in San Francisco. Nice to have you with us today.

Professor JUDY YUNG (American Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz; Co-author, "Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America"): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And your father was a paper son. What is that?

Prof. YUNG: Well, because of the Chinese Exclusion Act that was passed in 1882, it prohibited Chinese laborers from coming to the United States. And my - so the only way that Chinese could circumvent this was to come as one of the exempt categories because merchants, U.S. citizens, and those who claimed direct citizenship, diplomats and teachers and visitors were still allowed to come.

So my father did what many of the Chinese immigrants did to come to this country. He bought papers that said he was the son of a Chinese merchant in Stockton, California, who sponsored him to come because merchants could still sponsor your families. And so he bought these identification papers and came, posed as this person.

And when he arrived at Angel Island, he was interrogated by the immigration inspectors. And his answers to minute details about his village life and his family history were compared to the answers given by his paper father and his paper son, his paper brother. And he was detained in Angel Island for a month during this whole process. But in the end, he was admitted. They believe that he could be this paper son, the son of Yung Ang(ph). And he was then admitted into the country.

CONAN: And you grew up - your family used two names.

Prof. YUNG: Yes. Many of us who grew up in San Francisco, Chinatown, as I did, had two names. We had our Chinese name, which was our real surname.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. YUNG: In my case, Tan. Tan is our family name. But on our birth certificates and in all our other transactions with the larger American society, we were known as the Yung family. So this dual identity and this kind of deceit and duplicity that my father had to use to enter this country stayed with us. Throughout his whole life, he never - and he never wanted to admit this or to tell us about this history because it was - he was always fearful being detected and deported. To the day he died, he kept this secret.

And we grew up with just knowing that we had two surnames but not really understanding why that was the case, because many of our parents - most of our parents didn't want to talk about this shameful past. And also didn't want us to spill the beans and get them in trouble.

CONAN: Sure. You mentioned the exclusion act which restricted Chinese immigration. At various times, it was Japanese - limits on Japanese immigration as well. Were those people from those countries treat it differently from people that were coming from, well, Uruguay or from Europe?

Prof. YUNG: Yes. I think one of the things that we were able to do with this particular research in the book was to show the diverse experiences of all these various immigrant groups that had come through. The immigration officials at Angel Island were reinforcing immigrations laws that basically discriminated against immigrants on the basis of race and class and gender and nationality.

And so, Angel Island immigration station was built in 1910 to enforce Asian exclusion laws, to keep Asians out of this country. And the other groups that were coming through - the laws that were in place, were treated more like they were at Ellis Island. The 12 main European immigrants who were able to come to Ellis Island, who were asked a total of 29 questions, detained for at most a few hours while being processed. And 98 percent of them were admitted into the country without having to be staying at the immigration station for longer than that period.

Whereas Angel Island, many immigrants we count here, the Russians and the Jews who were fleeing political and religious persecution at this time, in the 19 - early nineteen-teens, into World War II period, they remember Angel Island as being the promised land, the entry into the promised land. They were, of course, also sent to Angel Island for a physical examination or for a brief interview. But most of them were detained for, at most, one to two days. And less than two percent were excluded. And so their memories of being - of the way they were treated at Angel Island was very different from...

CONAN: Different from...

Prof. YUNG: ...the Asian immigrants who were restricted and excluded. Not just the Chinese, but also the South Asians, those from India. There's also from Korea and from Japan that these immigration restriction exclusion laws made their treatment at Angel Island a lot more difficult, longer detentions and subjected to longer interrogations and stays and then excluded.

CONAN: If your family came through Angel Island, whether it was a stopping point for detention, an eventual gateway, or whether you passed through quickly, give us a call. 800-989-8225. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's go Decker(ph), and Decker is calling us from New Jersey.

DECKER (Caller): Hi. My father came over from Europe as a very small boy, about four years old. He spoke no English. He heard in the waiting rooms there his first English words, and they were so beautiful that he memorized them and practiced them on his own. And then he tried them out on people.

CONAN: Does he remember about whom they were speaking?

DECKER: No. He was too small. But it just had such a lovely sound to it for him as a small child. He didn't even know what they meant.

CONAN: What country did your father come from?

DECKER: Albania.

CONAN: Albania.

DECKER: It was a sudden time where your families either had everything or nothing. And if you had everything, somebody else wanted it. So they were all pushed out through a hole in the wall into another building and out through a 10-foot wall around the whole family compound. And they escaped in the night to Salonika, Greece, and then came over here.

CONAN: It's a long way from Greece to San Francisco Bay.

DECKER: It is. It is a long way, a long way of - in every way.

CONAN: Decker, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

DECKER: Welcome. Bye.

CONAN: We're talking with Judy Yung about, well, her family's story and the story of many families in the United States who came to Angel Island. The new book is called "Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And it's interesting to me, you still use the name Yung, the paper son's name.

Prof. YUNG: That's correct. I kept Yung as my last name because I think I carried this legacy of exclusion that my father suffered in having to take on a false identity.


Prof. YUNG: But whenever I use my Chinese name, I proudly use the surname Tan in writing my Chinese name. And this was, you know, quite common for the second generation, those of us who were descendants of Chinese immigrants who came during the exclusion period.

CONAN: What happened to those who did not fool the authorities?

Prof. YUNG: Well, in the end, only seven percent of the Chinese were turned back, and that was because although 75 percent of them were initially excluded because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, they hired attorneys and filed legal appeals. And because that process took so long, they had to stay at Angel Island, locked up for as long as a few months to two years while waiting for their legal appeals to go through.

And in the end, because they took this route, the courts ruled that they had been unfairly treated and allowed them to be admitted. They had the financial resources and the support of ethnic organizations that allowed them to do this. But in contrast, South Asians had the highest deportation rate. Over 60 percent were turned back.


Prof. YUNG: And that's because they didn't have the same kinds of financial assistance, as well as the help of an ethnic or religious organization or immigrant aid society to help them fight exclusion decisions. And under British rule, the British government would - was not interested, was not willing to help come to their defense as the Japanese government did for Japanese immigrants who were processed through Angel Island much quicker as a result.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Rudy(ph), Rudy calling us from Ann Arbor.

RUDY (Caller): Hi. My parents came from Vienna, Austria, to this country and they arrived in Angel Island on December 10th, 1941. What ultimately happened was that night they went into San Francisco, they got sort of a pass or something, went for dinner in a downtown hotel. My father stopped at the newsstand on the way in and turned to my mother and said, my God, this is a democracy. And she said, why? And he said, look, all the cigarettes are the same price.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. YUNG: Yeah. Actually, the immigration station burnt down in 1940 and the immigration station moved back to San Francisco. So your parents arriving in 1941...

RUDY: Yeah.

Prof. YUNG: ...probably meant that's why they were taken to San Francisco and not to Angel Island.

RUDY: Right. Thank you very much.

CONAN: And Angel Island - thank you very much - was later used as a place for - to house Japanese prisoners of war.

Prof. YUNG: And German and Italian POWs during World War II.

CONAN: Let's see we get Abdullah(ph) on the line, Abdullah with us from Madison.

ABDULLAH (Caller): Yes. I was wondering if that law was repealed under legislation that Senator Ted Kennedy, I believe, wrote and was signed by Lyndon Johnson related to the origins act.

Prof. YUNG: Yes. Actually, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 as a goodwill gesture to China, who was an ally with the U.S. in World War II. And only - but only 105 Chinese immigrants were allowed in after that repeal. But you're right, it wasn't until 1965 that the immigration act signed by Lyndon B. Johnson repealed the quota laws that were passed 1924 that restricted immigration from southern and eastern European countries but also stopped further immigration by aliens ineligible for citizenship which would indicate all the other Asians -Japanese and Koreans - were not allowed then to come to United States.

So the 1965 act was the fix all. That was our comprehensive immigration reform package that put every race and country on an equal basis. And so that there was an outpouring of immigration, family reunification and others coming under preferences because of their employment skills after 1965 that equalized immigration from all countries in the world. And that is - was the repeal of all the Asian exclusion laws putting every country on equal footing.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Abdullah.

ABDULLAH: You're welcome.

CONAN: And Judy Yung, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate you coming into the studio to talk with us.

Prof. YUNG: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Judy Yung, professor emerita of American studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her new book is "Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America." She co-wrote it with Erika Lee.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in San Francisco.

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