The angels of America: restoring and preserving the history of Asian Immigration to the United States

In 1934, 12-year-old Wong Kai Chong leaves everything he knows in China and travels to the United States to join his father. When he lands in San Francisco on a cold, gray day, he is detained on Angel Island, an immigration station off the coast of California. Kai is shoved into overcrowded barracks and given soggy rice to eat.

During his stay, Kai is interrogated mercilessly. “What is the name of your village in China?” the immigration officer barks. “How many rooms were there in your house? What did the chairs look like? Were their backs round or square?” Kai knows his answers must match what his father said before him. If they don’t, he will be sent back to China.

Kai’s experience is detailed in the book Kai’s Journey to Gold Mountain, published by the Angel Island Association. The story depicts the harsh passage of more than 175,000 Chinese immigrants through Angel Island from 1910 to 1940. The people endured harsh conditions to immigrate to the United States.

In December, President George W. Bush signed the Angel Island Immigration Station Restoration and Preservation Act to help commemorate the Chinese immigrants’ difficult journey. The legislation provides up to $15 million to establish a museum and research center on the island. The money will also be used to preserve hundreds of poems, carved on the wooden walls of the barracks, that describe the trying trek.

On the Border

People from China didn’t always have difficulty entering the United States. The earliest Chinese immigrants arrived during the California gold rush in the late 1840s and 1850s. They nicknamed the United States Gam Saan, or “Gold Mountain,” because they hoped to strike it rich on the West Coast.

But as the number of Chinese immigrants grew, Americans became less welcoming. In 1882, the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, making it almost impossible for Chinese workers to enter the United States.

Immigration officials detained newly arrived Chinese families at Angel Island while they decided whether their families should be allowed to enter the United States. The process was dramatically different from that of Ellis Island, the New York entry port for European immigrants.

On Ellis Island, as many as 98 percent of travelers were processed immediately and allowed into the country. On Angel Island, however, Chinese immigrants were held for weeks, months, and sometimes even years. After interrogation, more than 30 percent of those immigrants were sent back to China.

Powerful Poetry

Angel Island’s doors closed in 1940 when China and the United States became allies during World War II (1939-1945). The island’s main immigration station was scheduled to be demolished in the 1970s until a park ranger found poetry engraved in its walls.

“The Chinese immigrants used poetry, which is central to Chinese culture, to leave their mark on the island,” Charles Egan, a Chinese studies professor at San Francisco State University, told Current Events. “When you walk through the hallways of the immigration station, you are surrounded by the ghosts of these people.”

The poems describe the despair, frustration, and sadness that many people felt during their stay at Angel Island. Because the poems were written in Chinese characters, U.S. immigration officers had dismissed them as graffiti and covered them with paint. Since 1980, Egan and his team have uncovered more than 60 pieces of writing on the walls. (See “The Poems of Angel Island” on page 4.)

The Future of Angel Island

Next year, the poems will literally be brought to light. Angel Island’s main buildings will reopen to the public in 2007, and the poems will be brightly illuminated for visitors to see.

The Angel Island Immigration Foundation also hopes to use the federal money to create a museum and visitor center to help tell stories like Kai’s.

“Angel Island shows a different, but equally important, side of immigration,” Erika Gee, director of education at the Angel Island Immigration Foundation, told Current Events. “We hope that Angel Island becomes a bookend to Ellis Island.”


Here are three recently discovered on Angel Island barracks walls by Charles Egan and his team. As you read the poems, imagine how the authors felt.

 It's been a long time since I left my home village

Who could know I'd end up imprisoned in a wooden building? I'm heartsick when I see my reflection, my handkerchief is soaked in tears I ask you, what crime did I commit to deserve this?

–Li Hai of Nancun, Taishan

 Dwelling in the wooden building, I give vent to despair Searching for a living while perching on a mountain--it's hard to earn glory Letters do not arrive, my thoughts in vain In bitterness and sadness, I watch for my early release 


 Cloud and hills all around, a single fresh color Time slips away and cannot be recaptured Although the feeling of spring is everywhere How can wee fulfill our heartfelt wish? 


Get Talking

Ask students: What are some reasons people immigrate? What are some of the obstacles that immigrants face? Have you or anyone in your family moved to the United States from another country? What was the immigration experience like?

Notes Behind the News

* After the California gold rush, which began in 1848, Chinese immigrants worked as agricultural laborers and on railroad construction crews.

* The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first law in U.S. history that targeted a specific ethnic group. Starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act, a series of laws, including the Immigration Act of 1917 and the Immigration Act of 1924, prohibited the immigration of certain Asian nationalities. Although all Asians were affected, Chinese immigrants were affected most.

* One class of Chinese the United States could not keep out was those who were already citizens because they had fathers who were citizens. Hence, any Chinese person who could prove U.S. citizenship through his or her father could not be denied entry to the United States. Some of those without true fathers in the United States became “paper sons” and “paper daughters.” They bought papers identifying them as children of American citizens.

* In 1941, the immigration station at Angel Island was turned into North Garrison of Fort McDowell When the United States became involved in World War II (1939-1945), the old detention barracks became a prisoner-of-war center, and German and Japanese prisoners were processed there before being sent to permanent camps. * In 1943, Congress passed the Magnuson Act, which repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Magnuson Act allowed Chinese people to become naturalized citizens, but it continued to limit Chinese immigrants until the Immigration Act of 1965 was passed.

Doing More

The Angel Island Immigration Foundation wants to build a genealogy center on the island so that the children and grandchildren of those who were held at Angel Island can learn more about their past. Have students create family trees tracing as far back as they can with help from their families. Students should include dates and places of birth, marriages, number of children, and dates of death, if possible.

COPYRIGHT 2006 Weekly Reader Corp.

COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group

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