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Angel Island: Breaking the Silence

In the early 20th century, America welcomed Chinese immigrants with imprisonment at a dismal outpost. Their unsettling tales are about to be told.

WITHIN THESE WALLS: Katherine Toy, charged with restoring the old barracks, wants visitors to get a taste of the detention experience.

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By Diane Rogers

For 20 stomach-churning days, the Chinese “paper sons” lay on canvas cots below deck, sustained by mush, toast and coffee, while they studied page after page of notes provided by their desperate parents.

The teenagers from Cantonese river-delta villages were bound for Gam Saan—Gold Mountain—the fabled shores of the American West. But as they fled political and economic chaos at home, they were risking their families’ life savings on passage to an uncertain future. Because the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States unless family members were already established here, thousands tried to slip in by pretending to be related to friends or even strangers who had preceded them through the Pacific gateway.

As the young men crossed the ocean, they read prepackaged family histories of the relatives they would claim, memorizing details that might help them answer tricky questions from immigration officials. How many windows does your house in China have? Where is the rice bin kept? What direction does the front door face? What is your living room floor made of?

When the San Francisco headlands finally came into sight, many tore up the notes and threw them overboard, confident they could convince the authorities. But instead of disembarking with first-class passengers on the city wharves of the Pacific Mail Steamship Co., the Chinese were diverted onto smaller boats and ferried out to the middle of the bay. Their destination was a processing station called Angel Island, where undesired aliens were detained.

And there the boys and other Chinese passengers waited—for weeks, months, sometimes years—to be quizzed by skeptical inspectors who would compare their answers to those of their alleged relatives. An estimated 175,000 Chinese, mostly males, along with smaller numbers of Filipinos, Indians, Japanese, Koreans and Russians, passed through Angel Island Immigration Station between its opening in 1910 and its closing in 1940. Crowded by the hundreds into locked rooms in dank barracks surrounded by barbed-wire fences and armed guards, detainees were allowed out only for physical examinations, which they considered humiliating and barbaric. Those diagnosed with communicable diseases or parasites faced unconditional deportation, as did the many who failed their interrogations. The saddest fate of all, perhaps, was an extended wait—in effect, indefinite imprisonment.

As the long days passed, detainees poured out their despair and frustration by inscribing poems on the redwood walls. The verses echo like ghostly voices today.

Today is the last day of winter,
Tomorrow morning is the vernal equinox.
One year’s prospects have changed to another.
Sadness kills the person in the wooden building.

The poems tell us that the boys “were full of despair, and a lot of them were very angry,” says Katherine Toy, a fifth-generation Chinese-American who serves as executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. “They also talk about how the [Chinese] government wasn’t strong enough to fight for them.”

Today, the island is one of California’s most popular state parks, and its status as a historical landmark draws a steady stream of school groups. Toy’s job—as the point person in a $32 million, eight-year project—is to guide the restoration of the deteriorating immigration station and come up with creative ways to bring its past to life.

The poems are at the heart of the saga she wants to help the island tell.

“This is not just the story of Chinese-Americans or Asian-Americans, but a quintessential American story about the dreams that bring immigrants to this nation and how they continue to come in spite of the hardships and obstacles that are so often placed in their way,” says Toy, ’91, MA ’95. “And the spirit of this place is essential to telling the story, because there’s nothing like it anywhere else, where the walls speak as they do here.”

Over a hundred poems are on the walls.
Looking at them, they are all pining at the delayed progress.
What can one sad person say to another?
Unfortunate travelers everywhere wish to commiserate.
Gain or lose, how is one to know what is predestined?
Rich or poor, who is to say it is not the will of heaven?
Why should one complain if he is detained and imprisoned here?
From ancient times, heroes often were the first ones to face adversity.

“The poems are literally everywhere,” Toy says. Some are modeled on well-known verses from classical Chinese literature; others are less formal. Many characters are rendered in a style that suggests they may have been brushed on in ink during the very early decades of the 20th century, when would-be immigrants from China tended to be well educated.Toy and others speculate that later detainees etched the inked characters into the wood.

Although a collection of the poems was published in 1980 (Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940), conservators expect to find dozens more as they scrutinize dark corners and strip away old paint during the restoration. The process, however, is extremely laborious. A postcard-size patch of wall tackled by a pair of experts last fall took a full day to clear, using different kinds of solvents to remove a half-dozen layers of green, yellow, brown and gray paint, as well as spackling that had been applied to cover up the writings. Even then, the timeworn characters were so obscure that only a sharply angled flashlight could bring them into view. “You can see how so much of the poetry was missed for years,” says Toy.

Scraping every inch of the barracks down to the original redwood might not be practical or even desirable, she adds. The decrepit paint, in fact, sets an authentically dismal mood. “Would we want to leave some sections as they are?” she wonders aloud. “Would that be a better way to make the barracks a contemplative space?”

Still, she admits to getting a chill every time she wanders through the deserted barracks and discovers a new character. A self-described “history geek,” she describes the feeling this way: “I remember putting my hand on the column of a Roman ruin once and thinking, ‘If I could peel back thousands of years, what would those people say?’ On Angel Island, the words of the people are right here in the room with you.”

It is important to hear those words today, Toy says, in part because the Chinese immigrant experience has been shrouded in silence for so long. This stands in contrast to the stories of European immigrants, which are recounted in dramatic detail throughout American culture.

Toy, who used to teach history at a middle school in Baltimore, recalls taking students on field trips to New York’s Ellis Island and encouraging them to trace their families’ roles in U.S. history. But most Chinese who came through Angel Island have kept quiet about their time there, she says, because of the shame they felt about being detained. Some elderly men still have “paper names” and live with the fear that their U.S.-born children might be deported someday.

Nor do many schoolbooks highlight the ordeal or examine the questions it raises about national policies. “What does that say, when your history isn’t discussed?” Toy asks. “It tells me that we have in many ways tended to romanticize America as an immigrant nation, and that perhaps we need to look more critically at the question of American immigrant identity and explore how, as a nation, boundaries have opened and closed over time, both literally and figuratively.”

John Kuo Wei Tchen, a historian at New York University, notes that the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, wasn’t repealed until 1943, when China became a World War II ally—and even then, it was replaced by a quota system that allowed only 105 Chinese to immigrate per year. “The 1882 act was a racially defined law,” he says, “and the legacy of ‘paper sons,’ of buying other people’s identities, was the result of trying to get around legislation that was suspect to begin with.”

Toy adds a 21st-century slant. “Recent events, especially, should make us all ask questions and look at the treatment of Arabs in this country—as foreigners, as people unable to assimilate, as people who are seen as ‘other.’ There’s the whole notion of ‘Who gets to be considered an American? What do you have to look like?’”

Questions like those could be asked, Toy says, in the kind of interactive, interpretive site she envisions for the restored immigration station.

The full history of the idyllic-looking, 15-acre island stretches from the Civil War, when federal officials developed it as a garrison, to the Cold War, when the Defense Department set up a missile station there. The immigration station that opened in 1910 was the West Coast’s main processing center for Pacific Rim immigrants (smaller stations were in Seattle, San Diego and San Pedro). It consisted of a pier, barracks, hospital and large administrative center, along with several facilities buildings. There were also 12 cottages, designed by up-and-coming architect Julia Morgan, that housed families who worked on the island. A fire destroyed the administrative center and closed the immigration station in 1940; during World War II, the barracks housed German prisoners of war. By 1963, when Angel Island was established as a state park for picnickers, hikers and campers, all that remained of the original immigration station were the barracks, hospital and power plant.

“Some of these very important historic buildings are in an advanced state of deterioration, and we’re now looking for ways to do right by the restoration of the site and its interpretation,” says Brian O’Neill, general superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which encompasses Angel Island.

The cause has gained momentum in recent years from some influential endorsements, as well as continuing pressure from many in the Chinese-American community. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997, the former immigration station is now listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the nation’s 11 most endangered sites. It is one of only two National Historic Landmarks recognizing the often-troubled experiences of Asian-American immigrants (the other is the WWII Manzanar internment camp for Japanese-Americans near Independence, Calif.). It’s also an invited member of the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience, a group that includes Ellis Island, Auschwitz/Birkenau in Poland, Maison des Eclaves (Slave House) in Senegal and Russia’s Gulag Museum.

The major restoration project began in 1999, with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation working in an unusual partnership with the California State Parks and the National Park Service. Toy, now 32, assumed the helm in May 2000, taking as her model the tenacity of past presidents such as Felicia Lowe and Dan Quan, as well as fund-raiser Kathy Lim Ko, ’91, who has brought in sizable federal and private donations.

Superintendent O’Neill is among those who work closely with Toy. “We want to be able to tell the stories of what Angel Island represents from the perspective of those who experienced it, and Katherine Toy has now become the point person for the partnership,” he says. “She’s very bright, engaging and resourceful, and she came on the scene at just the right time.”

Two consulting firms are developing plans for bringing the old barracks, hospital and power plant up to current health and safety codes, reproducing period landscaping, and documenting, translating and preserving the poems. To reach the $32 million required, the three-way partnership still must raise $15 million, and Toy is working to keep costs under control.

“We understand that we can’t afford to rebuild the administration building and that it’s not necessary,” says Lowe, a Chinese-American filmmaker and activist, who helped launch the 1980s grassroots committee that was the forerunner of Toy’s foundation. “With today’s technology, there are many creative ways to create imprints and impressions that can help people empathize with the experience of the detainees.”

Lowe, the daughter of a former detainee, spent six years making a documentary film, Carved in Silence (1987), about the experiences of Angel Island immigrants. In 1999 she organized two “visioning” workshops in which historians, anthropologists, architects, artists and Chinese-American community leaders imagined aloud how they might bring to life the story of the station. Should visitors experience the place from the perspective of hopeful immigrants, perhaps tracing their steps from arrival on the island to the doors of the barracks? How about building a pier and period ship to simulate the process of disembarking? Could interrogations be re-enacted? What about filling the silence of the barracks with recordings of oral histories?

Toy is exploring a grab bag of possibilities, looking especially for those with visceral impact. “Having been a teacher, whenever I visit historical sites, I think about how they might captivate students,” she says. “I ask, ‘Is this comprehensible to the average 14-year-old, and not just to a history freak like myself?’”

My belly is so full of discontent it is really difficult to relax.
I can only worry silently to myself.
At times I gaze at the cloud- and fog-enshrouded mountain-front.
It only deepens my sadness.

Toy has been drawn to family-history research since her childhood in Belmont, Calif., when she used to dig through an old, rubber-banded shirt box in her father’s closet, searching for photographs. She found snapshots of her grandfather from the 1920s, dressed in his Eagle Scout uniform, and she read newspaper clippings that described him as a “celestial boy” when he had his braided queue cut off. As an international relations major at Stanford, Toy wrote papers about what it meant to be Chinese-American—and in one foray to Meyer Library, she discovered a book with a picture of her grandmother rolling bandages for the Red Cross in San Francisco in 1940.

In December 1998, Toy and her sister, Melissa, made a trip to the National Records and Archives Administration office in Seattle to search for documentation of their great-great-grandfather’s travels between the Pacific Northwest and China. Armed with information about the years and months of his many trips, the sisters discovered that ship manifests singled out the names of Chinese passengers, listing them separately on the left side of the record logs. Merchant Toy, well established in his business, had a file several hundred pages thick, packed with questionnaires, photographs and certificates of identity. One helpful letter, dated January 25, 1924, states that Charley Toy of Milwaukee is “a personal friend of Assistant Secretary of Labor the Hon. E.J. Henning” and asks that special “courtesy” be extended to him and his family.

As a teacher, Katherine Toy drew on her fascination with family history by having all her students map out their stories on a single timeline that extended down a long school corridor. “Young people often look at history as something that happened to other people,” she says. “I tried to show them that you can happen to history. And they began to see that, in fact, American history was reflected in the lives of their classmates. They could see the progression of history in the potato famine that brought Irish families to America and in the pogroms that brought Eastern European Jews.”

Now, she hopes to insert the immigrant stories of Angel Island into the nation’s historical timeline. With only a couple of hundred detainees still alive, foundation volunteers are trying to record as many oral histories as they can, but the silence of shame is difficult to break through. Toy tells about a recent interview she had arranged with a son and his father, a former detainee living out of state. After taking his father to visit Angel Island and seeing his eyes fill with tears in the barracks, the son canceled the appointment, saying it just wasn’t going to work. That reluctance to talk makes it even more important to spotlight the poems, says Toy.

Anxiety. Fear. Depression. Beauty. The whispering walls will be heard.

The night is cool as I lie stiff on the steel bunk.
Before the window the moon lady shines on me.
Bored, I get up and stand beneath the cold window.
Sadly, I count the time that’s elapsed.
It is already mid-autumn,
We should all honor and enjoy her.
But I have not prepared even the most trifling gift and I feel embarrassed.

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