Angel Island
NHL Photograph
The U.S. Immigration Station, a National Historic Landmark, is located on Angel Island in San Francisco bay, near the Tiburon peninsula. What Ellis Island symbolizes to Americans of European heritage who immigrated to the east coast, Angel Island symbolizes to Americans of Asian heritage on the West Coast. In 1905, the War Department, which managed Angel Island, transferred 20 acres of land to the Department of Commerce and Labor for the establishment of a U.S. immigration station. In the years that the Immigration station operated on Angel Island (1910-40), it has been estimated that approximately one million people were processed through the station. Out of this number, approximately 250,000 Chinese and 150,000 Japanese immigrants were detained at the Station. Small numbers of immigrants from other Pacific Rim countries, including Russia, Korea, and the Philippines were also detained at the Station, but only briefly.

Most of the first Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States during the California Gold Rush (1849-50) and were then recruited as a major source of labor in the economic development of the western frontier. With the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Congress restricted the immigration of Chinese laborers and prohibited Chinese immigrants, already in this country, from becoming American citizens. Exempted were merchants, diplomats, ministers, travelers, students, and children of American citizens. Many Chinese attempted to immigrate under these exempt categories which prompted U.S. officials to scrutinize all Chinese immigration documents.

Upon arrival at Angel Island, Chinese immigrants were held in detention barracks for weeks or months until their paperwork was approved. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 when China became an ally of the United States during World War II.

During the first two decades of the 20th century, Japanese immigrants were able to move to the United States without any restrictions. However, in 1923 in the case of Ozawa vs the United States, the Supreme Court ruled that Japanese were ineligible for naturalization. This ruling led to the Immigration Act of 1924 which virtually prohibited Japanese immigration, except women who were married to Japanese men already in the United States. These "picture brides" were allowed to immigrate. In 1925, Japanese immigration dropped dramatically from 8,481 to 682. The annual number hovered around 600 until World War II stopped all Japanese immigration.

Poems carved into walls of Angel Island Barracks
NHL Photographs

During their long wait on Angel Island, some Chinese men, confined in the barracks, expressed their bitterness, frustration, and despair with poems carved in the redwood walls. Constructed in 1908, the barracks soon had poems written with Chinese ink brushes on its walls. The walls were then painted which covered up the first generation of poems. Subsequently, the detainees began to carve their poems into the walls. These poems reflect and record the hardship endured, and the indignity suffered by the early Chinese while establishing roots in America. In the words of the authors of Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, "The poems occupy a unique place in the literary culture of Asian America. These immigrant poets unconsciously introduced a new sensibility, a Chinese American sensibility using China as the source and America as a bridge to spawn a new cultural perspective."

Following World War II, the Island was declared surplus and turned over to the State of California and became a state park. The station was abandoned and largely forgotten until 1970 when State Park Ranger Alexander Weiss discovered the scores of poems on the barrack walls. Today, the detention barracks are a museum open to the public.

The National Park Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the California State Parks Department are working on a special joint project to develop a slide show on the history of the Immigration Station. The slide show will be shown in communities around the San Francisco Bay area to educate the public about Angel Island's special history.

The Immigration Station is located about 1 mile east of Ayala Cove, where ferries from San Francisco, Sausalito, and Tiburon land. Access to the Island is also possible by private boat. For more information on visiting Angel Island, visit the Angel Island State Park Web Site.

National Asian-Pacific Heritage Month Home


Comments or Questions