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About Angel Island

From the Angel Island Association

The Purpose of the Station

In 1905, construction of an Immigration Station began in the area known as China Cove. Surrounded by public controversy from its inception, the station was finally put into operation in 1910. Anticipated as the "Ellis Island of the West", it was designed to handle a flood of European immigrants who were expected to begin arriving in California once the Panama Canal was opened. International events after 1914, including the outbreak of World War I, canceled the expected rush of Europeans.

Instead, the majority of immigrants to America via the West Coast were from Asia. Like their European counterparts entering at New York City, they hoped to escape the economic or political hardships of the homelands. On Ellis Island, immigrants were processed through within hours or days; on Angel Island, they spent weeks or months.

This facility was primarily a detention center. Beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a series of restrictive laws had prohibited the immigration of certain nationalities and social classes of Asians. Although all Asians were affected, the greatest impact was on the Chinese. In fact, more than 70 percent of the immigrants detained on Angel Island were Chinese.

Immigration Background

The first Chinese entered California in 1848, and within a few years, thousands more came, lured by the promise of Gam Sann or "Gold Mountain". Soon, discriminatory legislation forced them out of the gold fields and into low-paying, menial jobs. They laid tracks for the Central Pacific Railroad, reclaimed swamp land in the Sacramento delta, developed shrimp and abalone fisheries, and provided cheap labor wherever there was work no other group wanted or needed.

During the 1870s, an economic downturn resulted in serious unemployment problems, and led to outcries against Asian immigrants who would work for low wages. Restrictive immigration laws were passed that allowed entry only to those who had been born in the U.S. or had husbands or fathers who were citizens. Imperial China was too weak and impoverished to exert any influence on American policy. Many Chinese already residing here were deported.

Paper Sons and Daughters

There was a loophole in the exclusion law. Any Chinese who could prove citizenship through paternal lineage would not be denied entry. Those without true fathers in the United States became "paper sons" or "paper daughters". They bought papers which identified them as children of American citizens. Because official records were often non-existent, an interrogation process was created to determine if the immigrants were related as they claimed.

Questions could include details of the immigrant's home and village as well as specific knowledge of his or her ancestors. Interrogations could take a long time to complete, especially if witnesses for the immigrants lived in the eastern United States.

When it opened in 1910, the new detention facility on Angel Island was considered ideal because of its isolation. There were buildings to house and care for detainees, a pier, and regular boat service to the mainland. During the next 30 years, this was the point of entry for most of the approximately 175,000 Chinese immigrants who came to the United States. Most of them were detained on Angel Island for as little as two weeks or as much as six months. A few however, were forced to remain on the island for as much as two years.

Some detainees expressed their feelings in poetry that they brushed or carved onto the wooden walls of the detention center. Others simply waited, hoping for a favorable response to their appeals, but fearing deportation. Many of the poems that were carved into the walls of the center are still legible today. Others were documented through the efforts of two detainees, Smiley Jann and Tet Yee in 1931-32, who copied down the poetry while they awaited disposition of their cases. In 1940, the government decided to abandon the Immigration Station on Angel Island. Their decision was hastened by a fire that destroyed the administration building in August of that year. On November 5, the last group of about 200 aliens (including about 150 Chinese) was transferred from Angel Island to temporary quarters in San Francisco. The so-called "Chinese Exclusion Acts", which were adopted in the early 1880s, were repealed by federal action in 1943, because by that time, China was an ally of the U.S. in World War II.

World War II

In 1941, following the departure of the Immigration Service from the island, the station property was turned back to the Army, and it became the North Garrison of Fort McDowell. When World War II began, the old detention barracks became a Prisoner of War Processing Center, and German and Japanese prisoners were processed there before being sent to permanent camps in the interior. The first prisoner taken by American forces in World War II, the commander of a midget submarine at Pearl Harbor, was sent to Angel Island. He was followed by Germans captured in North Africa, and Japanese captured in the Pacific. In 1942, the North Garrison was greatly expanded, with the construction of several barracks, a mess hall and a recreation building, making North Garrison a post in miniature.  

 Other Detainees

By 1920, an estimated 19,000 Japanese "picture brides" were processed through Angel Island. Immigrants from other Pacific Rim countries, including Russia, Korea, the Philippines, and Japan, were detained here. During World War I, "enemy aliens" (most of them German citizens who had been arrested on board ships in West Coast harbors) were held at the Immigration Station. These men were later transferred to permanent detention quarters in North Carolina.

Some U.S. federal prisoners were held on the second floor of the barracks.

In 1939, the deportation hearing and trial for longshoreman leader Harry Bridges was held at the Immigration Station. 

 Creation of the Immigration Museum

After the war, the Immigration Station was abandoned and fell into disrepair. Like many other unused buildings on Angel Island, the detention barracks was scheduled for destruction in 1970. Prior to demolition, Park Ranger Alexander Weiss toured the building with flashlight in hand and noted the calligraphy carved in the walls. Through his efforts and those of the Angel Island Immigration Station Historical Advisory Committee (AIISHAC) the dilapidated barracks was saved from demolition and special legislation was passed granting $250,000 to preserve and restore the barracks. A museum has been established in the old barracks building. It includes a re-creation of one of the dormitories, and features some of the poems that were carved into the station's walls. The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation is an all-volunteer non-profit organization dedicated to raising funds to educate, preserve, restore, and improve the site. The long-term goal is to develop a premier west coast center for the study of Pacific Rim immigration from the past to the present, and to keep the history of Angel Island Immigration Station alive.

Copyright  1995-1999 Angel Island Association

Life on Angel Island
from The Angel Island Home Page


One of the more important buildings on Angel Island was the large administration building which was used as detention quarters at first only for Europeans, but later to house women when the was overcrowding of Asians. Conditions often crowded, ie. 100 women in 30 x 30 foot room.

The "2 story wooden house" or detention quarters was where most of the men were housed, with the top floor used for the Chinese and the bottom for the Japanese at first. Barbed wire surrounded the area around the building and armed guards were posted in towers, ordered to shoot if there were any attempts of escape. The environment was that of imprisonment.

The island also had a hospital/infirmary, power plant, wharf. Those immigrants suspected of having contagious disease (which was many) spent many days in the infirmary. Many also were there due to the poor conditions and sanitation in the living quarters. The dining quarters were separate for Europeans and Chinese, another example of the how the Chinese were treated differently. In fact, the immigration station on Angel Island was not, at first, not open because there was barely enough money to complete it. It was because anti-Chinese factions were angered that Angel Island was not yet open that forced Congress to appropriate funds.

"I went back to visit and it was all pretty like a  paradise. Back then it was a prison"--anonymous

Some immigrants that went through Angel Island have gone back, some before the island was made a park in 1970, and were deeply saddened when told by an ignorant park ranger that there was no immigratoin here. It was as if the immigrants' experiences never happened. 


One of the most traumatic experiences the Chinese immigrants went through, especially the women, was the humiliation of being stripped naked, jabbed and examined by white doctors. Deportation on account of having certain diseases such as tracheoma and parasites (hookworm) was common. An interesting note about the differential treatment of the Chinese, was that the hookworm regulation later abolished - after 1920. In fact, the Japanese were not examined because the Japanese government threatened to do similar checks to U.S. citizens coming into Japan. There was also differential treatment depending what excempt class an immigrant belonged to. For instance, some wives of merchants not examined.

Living Quarters

As mentioned earlier, there was a separation of sexes, because there was a fear of collusion, or exchange of information. Husbands and wives would call out to each other to let their partners know they were doing ok.  The detention barracks were "dirty," with few toilets working, and bunks stacked 3 high. In fact, many formers Angel Island residents have blocked out their memories of the bathrooms and others say they never used them. Most residents did laundry (without soap often) inside the barracks, handing them from the bunks' poles. Stealing was common since many of their belongings were kept locked up in storage areas and not allowed into the already crowded barracks area.


The meal times followed a strict schedules, as was the rest of their activities while at Angel Island. The food was described as terrible and there being no variety. The mess halls were compared to the cleanliness of the bathrooms.

Breakfast and snacks usually consisted of saltine crackers, bread, jam, and butter. Lunch and dinner included beef and vegetables boiled, pickled cucumbers, and rice. "Food was edible but not tasty" and "food thrown together like pig slop" are examples of some descriptions of the food. Rice was sometimes days old.

Connection to outside

Chinese cooks sometimes smuggled papers or messages in "special dishes." Residents at Angel Island could write letters, but the letters were always examined as well as received packages. These packages usually included food and newspapers from relatives. At times, the cooks were white as well and so the only Chinese staff on the island were interpretors. 

Free time

Women were allowed for walks around island once a week. The men had to remain in the fenced in yard. Some played ball if one was available, while others gamble--few had much money however.  Women often knitted, read whatever was available or cried. No radio was available and usually no visitors either, except for missionaries. The restrictions on visitors was, naturally, so that no outside sources could coach the immigrants before their interrogations.

Some women became prostitutes, espeically those that had been on the island for over a year. Sometimes there were weekly Cantonese operas, meetings where the writings of Sun Yat-sen were read, in the open space in barracks (15' x 20'). Also, sometimes weekly donated newspapers were brought in. Poetry and calligraphy were carved on the walls about why they had come and how they felt about the conditions they faced.


To verify their status or prove they were children of residents, the main reason for the existence of the immigration station was the interrogration. That is because the general attitudes towards the Chinese was to assume guilt. The immigrants, then, had to prove innocence. One island official admitted that his own children would not have passed the exam given. An interpretor said "I used to think it was easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a Chinaman to pass through the Golden Gate"  Women were scrutinized because there was a push to limit any sort of growth in the Chinese community. This is in contrast to how lone women at Ellis Island were worried about, guarded, and cared for.

Decisions on status could be appealled and were often successful, but attorneys were expensive. Lengthy stays existed because of the scheduling and repeated scheduling of the interrogations. For some immigrants, after a single one hour interview they could go, while others had multiple interrogations, over the course of months.

Riots and protests existed, some involving the black federal prisoners. Chinese on the mainland and leaders on Angel Island formed the Angel Island Liberty Assoication to try to make conditions more bearable. For example, the created lessons for children, pooled money to buy newspapers.


Some Chinese immigrants were detained up to 3 years only to be refused entry and deported. Some tried again, using purchased papers. Others scheduled for deportation never left, deciding to hang themselves in shower stalls, rather than facing the humiliation and shame of returning to their village in China. There were many stories of ghosts in the bathrooms where immigrants hung themselves.

One story tells about how a women who had come to Angel Island with two sons. One son was accused of being a paper son. Thinking that there was no hope for them, the mother sharpened two chopsticks and put them through her ears. (When Washington heard this story, boths sons were landed and united with their father.)

Many sons or daughters who have brought their fathers back to visit Angel Island saw their fathers cry for the first time, after having suppressed the memories and emotions for so long. 

Copyright@ 1997 John Su, Eddie Tang, Karen Tom, and Betty Yan

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