“Ellis Island of the West” reveals immigration stories from various Asian countries.
By NAO GUNJI
Rafu English Assistant Editor
ANGEL ISLAND.— 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.
Hundreds ventured onto the moody San Francisco Bay water to celebrate the reopening of the Immigration Station at Angel Island State Park on Sunday, Feb. 15. Armed in thick jackets and rain boots, some attended the opening ceremony to honor their parents and grandparents, while others came out to learn about the black spot in the U.S. immigration history staged on the “Ellis Island of the West.”
“Today is the first stop on the long road of the restoration of this special site,” Angel Island State Park Superintendent David Matthew said, greeting the visitors in the makeshift tent set up to shelter them from the heavy rain. “For almost 40 years, hundreds of people, thousands of hours were put into this dream we’ve realized here.”
From 1910 to 1940, approximately 350,000 immigrants from over 60 nations passed through the Immigration Station on this 740-acre island, a 30-minute ferry ride away from San Francisco. Although over 122,000 Chinese immigrants have told the most prominent stories of Angel Island, other groups of immigrants included 63,000 Japanese, 12,000 Russians, 7,000 East Asians, 1,000 Koreans and more. The majority of the Japanese immigrants were picture brides and Kibei Nisei. During the war, the station also housed POWs, such as Kazuo Sakamaki, a Japanese Naval officer captured in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Last month’s reopening marked the completion of the first $15 million phase of a $60 million, three-phase restoration project.
Attending the ceremony were: Ruth Coleman, California State Parks Director; Cynthia Garrett, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty National Monument superintendent; Ming Hsu, American Presidents’ Line senior advisor; Kathy Lim Ko, Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) president; Brian O’Neil, Golden Gate National Recreation Area general superintendent; former Angel Island Park Ranger Alexander Weiss; and People’s Republic of China Consul General, Gao Zhangshen.
Lim Ko held back tears as she thanked the project pioneers, such as Weiss and architect/historian Phil Choy, who prepared the National Historic Landmark application for the Immigration Station.
“Excuse me if I’m emotional,” said the AIISF president. “There are many people who came before me in this 30-plus year effort and for them, I am sure they are more emotional than I am. But for me, having worked on this project for over 10 years, today is literally a dream come true.”
The president acknowledged several of the former detainees who were at the event and asked them to stand. They received a round of applause, and three of them, along with Coleman, participated in a ribbon cutting. Members of the Marin Chinese Cultural Association Lion Dance Troupe danced outside the tent and concluded the ceremony. After the ceremony, the participants toured inside the barracks, bathroom, mess hall, and recreation rooms, guided by the park rangers and docents.
The building contains a mixed, faint smell of dust, rust, mold and old damp wood. Divided into male/female and Chinese/non-Chinese spaces, the dark two-story barracks are partially furnished with tiered bunks, suitcases, clothing, and other personal items donated by historians and families of the former detainees.
Angel Island was never the symbol of hope and freedom that Ellis Island has been. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese laborers from entry into the United States and they were detained until officials verified their immigration status.
After a fire in 1940, which destroyed the administration building, the Immigration Station was mostly abandoned. In 1970, Ranger Weiss found Chinese poems carved into the wooden walls of the soon-to-be-demolished building and wisely warned the California Parks Department not to destroy them. Initiated by the ranger, Asian Studies scholars and students from San Francisco started a grassroots campaign to preserve more than 130 Chinese poems etched in the walls of the building as well as the building itself.
Carved and penned poems are everywhere on the walls of the barracks. Some of them are hidden under layers of paint and putty, results of building maintenance. Among them, there are a few Japanese writings.
The recreation rooms and bathrooms are all too small for hundreds of people who were confined here at the same time. A few showers and toilets are sitting next to each other without partitions. In those days, all the doors were locked and the windows were covered by metal gratings. High fences and barbed wire surrounded the building.
The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) was formed in 1983 when the barracks were opened to the public for further preservation and educational efforts regarding the site. In 1997, the Immigration Station became a National Historic Landmark, and there have been nearly 200 carved poems discovered in the past three decades.
Ranger Casey Lee, who oversees the interpretative programs at the Station, explained that Chinese stayed here three to three and half weeks on average, while non-Chinese stayed two to three days. The longest detainee on record was a Chinese woman held for 22 months.
Dale Ching, 88, of Daly City, was detained at Angel Island for three and a half months in 1937. He said his stay was relatively short compared to other Chinese immigrants, nonetheless, it was a painful experience.
“People were watching inside, we could not come out. The doors were always locked and always had the guards outside making sure you were not gonna run away. It was kind of a bad feeling for anybody who had to stay in,” Ching told The Rafu Shimpo at the event. “I got the feeling like, ‘How come? I am free, I didn’t do anything wrong. How come I’m in here, like jail, why?’”
Ching came to the U.S. from China to live with his father, but instead, the 16-year-old was put on the ferry in San Francisco, sent to Angel Island, and subjected to several interrogations by immigration officials.
Judy Yung, a UC Santa Cruz Asian American History professor emerita and co-author of the 1980 book, “Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940,” said in a phone interview that she didn’t find out about her own family connection to the island until she got involved in the preservation effort as a historian.
“My father had never talked about it. He came here in 1921 and he was detained for two months on the island,” Yung said.
His uncles paid and arranged the journey for the 17-year-old, giving him a fake identity as a son of an American merchant.
“Even though he was able to pass the interrogation, he was detained for an extraordinarily long time. That experience created the psychological, emotional stigma that lasted upon him throughout his life. He’d never gotten over the feeling of the fear of being deported,” she said.
Yung is currently working on the project to shed light on the non-Chinese immigrants on Angel Island with University of Minnesota Associate Professor Erika Lee. She has conducted interviews with picture brides and Kibei Nisei and researched oral history collections, records, and books, such as “Ganbatte” by Karl Yoneda.
Through the community outreach, Yung was introduced to Don Nakahata, a retired Mill Valley dentist and UCSF professor. Nakahata’s late aunt possessed a pocket-sized, leather-bound register of picture bride marriages performed in San Francisco Japantown nearly 100 years ago by his grandfather, Rev. Barnabas Hisayoshi Terasawa. The ledger indicates about 600 weddings, and most of them, who crossed the ocean by steerage, were processed at Angel Island.
Nakahata stated that his grandfather himself was the first generation immigrant from Aomori, Japan at the turn of the century, and his grandmother, Fuku worked at the Immigration Station as an interpreter between 1912-1925.
Yung explained that picture brides were normally processed in only a couple of days due to the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, unless they carried diseases like hookworm or had invalid paperwork. Only 1 percent of the Japanese immigrants were deported, while 5 percent of Chinese, and 30 percent of Eastern Indians were debarred.
Arranged marriage was a very common custom in Japan, however, the American public wasn’t too thrilled with picture brides. Many believed that it was a barbaric practice and that the women were prostitutes.
When Fuku Terasawa was interviewed by a group of sociologists from the University of Chicago conducting a survey on race relations between Asian and Caucasians on the West Coast in 1924, she expressed her concern over this misconception people had toward picture brides.
“People have a great many wrong ideas about Japanese picture brides and Japanese women coming to America,” Terasawa said, during the interview.
She continued, “Just a little while ago I had a crate of grapes sent me from someone whose name I did not remember, but a letter came with it, so: ‘I was a bride and came to this country years ago. You were very good to me, and I wanted you to know that I was happy and prosperous.’ I hear many stories like that.”
“For some women, it held a great promise and opportunity,” Yung said. “Some of them actually went out of their way engaging the picture bride marriage on their own because they wanted to come to America and this was one way to do it.”
The historian also stated although their experiences were not as traumatic as those of Chinese immigrants, picture brides did feel that Angel Island was indeed, prison.
“It was a very unwelcoming situation when you came to this new country,” she said. “Ellis Island was not like that. For the 11 million Europeans who came to New York, they were processed through within a few hours.”
Back in the reopening ceremony tent, Chin, a 15-year Angel Island preservation volunteer, said he didn’t want to come back to the island for a long time. “A bad memory,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
However, one incident in 1991 forced him to change his mind forever. It was his grandchild’s school trip to Angel Island. Ching accompanied the trip out of curiosity.
“At the end of the trip, I asked the kids, ‘what did you learn today?’ And, they said, ‘we had no school,’ ‘I enjoyed the picnic.’ It really hurt. It really hurt to hear something like that,” he recalled.
Disappointed in the children’s reactions and lack of knowledge on the island, Ching decided to be part of the preservation.
“I was ashamed to talk about this, but now, I am open to talk about it. It’s important to talk about it,” he said.
And, Angel Island is ready to acknowledge the past and pay tribute to the hardships and struggles of those immigrants who traveled the Pacific Ocean nearly a century ago.
“The Immigration Station is a site of conscience, about immigration past, present and future,” Lim Ko said. “It is a place for reflection on the very personal immigration experience, but also on international relations and social justice. And it is a place of reconciliation for the wrongs that were done and the human rights that we must uphold.”
Those who have stories to share about the Japanese immigrant experience at Angel Island are encouraged to contact Professor Judy Yung at [email protected]t