To call Angel Island the “Ellis Island of the West”  is misleading. The U.S. immigration station at Angel Island is markedly different from its East Coast counterpart; for one, unless you are from the San Francisco Bay area, it’s likely that you haven’t heard of it. And, scholars say, there’s a reason for that.

The September 8th  Immigrant Heritage Wall dedication at the Angel Island Immigration Station was, perhaps unsurprisingly, mostly a family affair. Tucked at the bottom of a steep knoll a mile from the ferry dock, the immigration station is not easily accessible. Who but the descendants of those who passed through the station would know of its existence, much less trek by ferry and footpath to get there?

Sam Louie, 73, makes the trip about once a week. A docent at the immigration station, Louie learned of his connection to Angel Island after his mother’s death in 2003.  Among his mother’s belongings, he found the coaching book his mother had used to pass inspection. Louie then went to the National Archives in San Bruno and found that his  father, mother and three siblings had all been held at the immigration station-his father in 1912, the rest in 1932.

Sam LouieSam Louie at the September event 2012 at Angel Island.

“Chinese parents never talked about [Angel Island] back then,”  he said. “It wasn’t a happy time; they wanted to forget.” 

Coaching books were necessary for Chinese immigrants subsequent to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred people of Chinese descent from entering the United States. A common workaround was to become a “paper son” : a Chinese man residing in the U.S. (most at the time were male) would report having borne a child. True or not, that report reserved the ability to bring over a relative, friend or even strangers in later years. To match stories for officials, paper sons immigrating under assumed identities memorized coaching books packed with excruciating detail, which they tossed in the sea before disembarking. Upon arrival at Angel Island, immigrants faced grueling inspection and an indefinite detention period, ranging from a matter of days to weeks or years.

The Exclusion Act effectually silenced the stories of Angel Island for many years. Chinese immigrants living in the U.S. under assumed identities chose not to speak of a shameful period of their lives-interrogation, detention, even despair-but they also could not, for fear of exposure and deportation. And in quite a literal way, the voices of immigrants were buried in the walls of the immigration station.

That changed in 1970. Alexander Weiss, a park ranger who had himself emigrated from Austria, perused the long-abandoned barracks to find Chinese characters emerging underneath layers of chipped paint. The discovery galvanized efforts to preserve the station, which at the time was slated for demolition.

Chinese characters scratched and carved into the concrete wall; here half hidden under paint.

The poems are visible throughout the men’s barracks; at right, a restored section of wall carvings.

Ellis Island and its most famous resident, Lady Liberty, have come to epitomize an ideal memorialized in Emma Lazarus’s poem: “Give to me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  However, whereas Lazarus’ famous inscription conjures a sepia-toned American dream–the teeming hopefuls facing inspection with eager anxiety-the poetry carved into the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station tells a harder story.

In the quiet of night I heard the faint shrieking of wind
And out of this landscape of visions and shadows a poem grew.
The floating clouds, the fog, darken the sky.
The moon shines softly as the insects chirp.
Grief and bitterness are sent by heaven.
A lonely shadow sits, leaning by the window.

Yee of Toishan

The poems are anguished, even angry, but today they are celebrated too. The dedication ceremony, where families of Angel Island immigrants gathered over picnic blankets, felt like a reunion for those not only  related by blood, but also connected by the quest that led them there.

Angel Island Immigrant Heritage Wall DedicationImmigrant Heritage Wall dedication ceremony.

Like many who have worked to preserve the station, Grant Din, Director of Special Projects for the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF), traced his family roots to the island. In an interview, he recounted the story of his paternal grandfather, who came to the U.S. under the surname Ow. Ow passed the interrogation at Angel Island-How far is it to the village well, do you have a wife, are her feet bound?-and settled in San Francisco in 1912. Then in 1921, his wife and brother, Doon Ho, posed as a married couple to enter the U.S. together. Years later, when Doon Ho died, Ow assumed his brother’s name in order to be legally married to his own wife.  Legality was but a formality, given that the identities under which all three had entered the country were falsified.

There are many stories like these, many survivors and their descendants now willing to share them. So why is Angel Island not more widely known?

One reason may be its relatively small numbers-the estimated 1 million people who passed through Angel Island hardly compares to the 12 million who came through Ellis Island. Yet various estimates of the deportation rate range from 11% to 17%-a rate much higher than that of Ellis Island, at a mere 2%.

Another reason is that, from the outset, both the exclusionary policy that necessitated the station and its locale were designed to maintain invisibility. Officials chose a site reachable only by ferry, isolating people from their community of support and from the public eye. As historians Erika Lee and Judy Yung write, “Chinese detainees [were] segregated from the rest of the nation, thereby protecting Americans from any contagious diseases or danger represented by their threatening presence. Plus, it was escape proof.” 

Angel Island Immigration Station - Men's Barracks

Like the painted-over poetry, the hard legacy of Chinese exclusion is not often brought to light. But there are people, including those at AIISF, who have worked tirelessly to preserve and restore the immigration station. After years of advocacy and fund-raising, AIISF gained National Historic Landmark status for the station in 1997 and reopened it as a museum and memorial in 2009. In June of this year, U.S. Congress issued a formal apology for exclusionary policies against the Chinese enacted throughout the 19th  and 20th  centuries.

Writing with prescience in 1943, the year the Exclusion Act was finally repealed, journalist Carey McWilliams asked, “In retrospect one is intrigued by the question: how was it possible for a single West Coast state to force its racial views upon the national government and to shape, in effect, the foreign policy of the country?”     

Angel Island Immigrant Heritage WallThe Immigrant Heritage Wall up close.

Planning a visit to Angel Island? How to get there. [MAP]

Devin McCutchen contributed to reporting for this article.

Get in touch with the author @jooy8 and follow her blog.