Thursday, December 19, 2013

San Francisco’s Angel Island

The largest island in San Francisco’s Bay is Angel Island. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Japanese and Indian immigrants from Asia were processed at the Angel Island Immigration Station from 1910 until the early 1940s.

Angel Island is called “the Ellis Island of the West.” But unlike immigrants that were greeted by the welcome sight of the Statue of Liberty in New York and then most often processed within 2 to 3 hours the immigrants held on Angel Island were treated as prisoners and sent the message “Stay away. We don’t want you.” *

The reason for this began in the years following the California Gold Rush when the demand for railroad labor spiked-- a huge number of Chinese immigrated to the U.S. to fill this need. But soon native-born Americans spurred by racism and fear started to resent the competition for jobs these immigrants posed. This anti-Chinese movement was agitated further by newspaper articles and by state and federal politicians.

As a result Congress passed the “Chinese Exclusion Law” in 1882, which prohibited more Chinese laborers from entering California. That same year 40,000 Chinese immigrants entered the United States in order to beat this ban before it took effect in 1883. This law was finally repealed in 1943 after 60 years of exclusion. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that Chinese immigration came close to the numbers before 1883.

Before the Angel Island Station opened in 1910 detained immigrants were held in cramped facilities along San Francisco’s wharf, even worse some were held in “floating prisons” on various merchant ships that were docked close to shore.

The Angel Island facility was supposed to be an improvement but conditions on the island were almost as bad. The new facility “was found to be a fire trap, with poor ventilation, terrible bathrooms and a lack of fresh water.” The food was worse. Graft took over and money for this purpose was skimmed off the top.

The Immigrants were kept for months on end in barracks that housed triple bunk beds. They were put through rigorous interrogations, which included denial of entry  or long delays if various family members answers differed even slightly. Despite this many of the immigrants on Angel Island eventually were able to stay.

Many of these immigrants embarrassed and “shamed” by this treatment did not discuss their experience while on the island afterward--even with their families-- so for awhile this history was lost. This was compounded by the fact that the Angel Island administration building burnt down in 1940 destroying all the records. 

Many immigrants wrote poems
on the Station's walls
expressing their feelings.
The Chinese who would talk about their experiences while being held at the Angel Island Station often mentioned that the two worst things about their stay were “the ghosts and the starving.”

Shortly after the Station first opened a young Chinese bride-to-be was told after her interrogation that she was not going to be allowed to enter the U.S. She was told she was going to be sent back to China. She then returned to her dormitory were she put on her wedding dress. In despair, she entered the woman’s shower room and hung herself with a “twisted bed sheet.”

Many female immigrants that stayed in this dorm in the following years claimed that it was evident that her spirit never left this shower room. These Chinese woman reported feeling her presence in this area on a regular basis.

In this bathroom the lights would flicker and it was felt this was proof this young brides’ ghost remained. One witness, years later reported that she and others were afraid to enter this bathroom alone and that they always would bathe with others and never alone.

Another witness had a direct encounter with this ghost when she was detained at Angel Island. She was 16 years-old at the time and was waiting to be admitted to America where her Chinese-American fiancé lived.

One night as she lay in her bunk trying to fall asleep, an unseen force attacked her. She stated she felt “an intense pressure on her chest.” She said because of this pressure she had trouble breathing. She managed to look around and realized the room was quiet and everyone was sleeping.

She tried to scream but the pressure on her chest intensified and she felt a great deal of pain. She was only able to stop the pressure when she managed to say a prayer out loud. 

Today Angel Island is a California State Park. It is a popular spot for people to camp, hike and bike. Access to the island is by ferry--either from San Francisco or Tiburon--or private boat. What remains of the old Angel Island Immigration Station can be seen after an 11 mile plus hike from Ayala Cove. Tours are given. 

The yellow painted barracks are still perched atop a bluff. The old white Station hospital underwent renovations this year.

* An example of this--one female Chinese immigrant was detained on the island for more than 600 days. At first they did not believe she had a husband already living in the U.S. She was finally released. In contrast, the European immigrants that passed through Angel Island were processed quickly. The Station was dubbed, Guardian of the Western Gate-- its purpose was to keep the Chinese out.

Here is a video about the Angel Island poetry.

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