Secrets of Angel Island

A state park in San Francisco Bay unveils a restored landmark that illuminates the history of Chinese immigrants who were detained there between 1910 and 1940.

Angel Island in the foreground looking south to San Francisco, image

From Angel Island, San Francisco lies across the bay to the south.

Map of Angel Island State Park showing locations, image

A map of Angel Island shows various coves, peaks, and historic sites.

aerial view of Angel Island with the Golden Gate Bridge in the foreground, image

From the air, Angel Island State Park seems to float in the middle of San Francisco Bay.

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In the scope of history, the flames that burned half of California’s 740-acre Angel Island State Park in October 2008 barely count as a blip. For thousands of years, Miwok Indians came to the island to catch salmon, snare birds, and gather acorns. Spanish explorers arriving in 1775 dubbed the place Isla de los Angeles, the name that stuck—albeit in English. Russians hunted sea otters, and Mexicans brought cattle here before the United States installed soldiers, cold war missiles, and in the 1950s, park rangers.

Green leaves sprouting on charred oak and bay trees now welcome hikers, bikers, and picnickers, and on February 15 Angel Island celebrated another sort of rebirth. Unharmed by the fire, the former U.S. Immigration Station reopened, newly restored, to tell a tale that was almost lost.

Between 1910 and 1940, some 175,000 Chinese men and women were detained here, some for days, others for months, due to laws designed to exclude Asian immigrants. Chinese arrivals had to prove they were the children of U.S. citizens; many, desperate for economic opportunity, assumed false names to do so. They persevered through exacting interrogations that sometimes led to long detentions that felt like imprisonment.

Some wrote or carved poems about their experience on the wooden walls of the barracks. Delicate phrases, such as i wish i could travel on a cloud far away, reunite with my wife and son, are now preserved and gently lit. They serve as the station’s centerpiece.

“It’s like the walls are crying out,” says Judy Yung, whose father was detained at Angel Island in 1921 and who has written extensively on the topic as a UC–Santa Cruz professor emerita. “It can be eerie, but also moving.”

Once the immigrants made it off the island, they rarely spoke of their struggles. Discovery of the poetry brought their buried history to light and saved the station from destruction. In the early 1970s, the facility was about to be torn down when a park ranger inspecting the barracks noticed the calligraphy etched into the walls and alerted the local Chinese American community. Scholars and volunteers lobbied to preserve this poignant written testimony of the immigrant experience.

Today, after extensive fund-raising, the restored station includes a striking terraced monument where the administration building stood; picnic tables at the site of the old dining hall (where notes were once smuggled inside pork buns); an exhibit of authentic immigration papers; and the barracks, now dressed with antiques to capture its original character.

“The enduring spirit in the dormitories was almost forgotten,” says Dale Ching, who spent three months there as a 16-year-old and later became a volunteer docent. “The restoration should have been done sooner, but I am pleased it is taking place. People need to know the complete history.”

Photography by Kai Schreiber/Wikipedia (island and San Francisco); map from Kevin Murray/Wikipedia; Edward Betts/Wikipedia (aerial view)

This article was first published in March 2009. Some facts maybe have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

If You're Going: 

90-minute docent-led tours of the immigration station will be given twice daily, Wednesday through Sunday. Reservations are required; call (415) 435-3522. For more information, visit aiisf.org.

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