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December 7, 2005
Poetic Justice for a Feared Immigrant Stop
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN
ANGEL ISLAND, Calif., Dec. 1 - It was known, simply, as "the wooden building." For 30 years, from 1910 to 1940, the barren walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station gave mute testimony to the experiences of roughly 175,000 Chinese immigrants who were detained and exhaustively interrogated on this island in San Francisco Bay, the West Coast's insidious version of Ellis Island.
"Today is the last day of winter," begins one of nearly 300 poems surreptitiously carved in Chinese characters by detainees on the walls.
"Tomorrow morning is the vernal equinox/ One year's prospects have changed to another/ Sadness kills the person in the wooden building."
On Thursday, this little-spoken-about place, the physical embodiment of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was intended to prevent Chinese laborers from entering the country, received long-awaited recognition when President Bush signed into law the Angel Island Immigration Station Restoration and Preservation Act.
The legislation, a result of a 35-year effort by the nonprofit Angel Island Immigration Foundation, authorizes up to $15 million to establish a museum and genealogical research center on the island and to help preserve two original structures, including barracks with chicken-wire clerestories and melancholy graffiti - eloquent poems carved on wooden walls and routinely puttied and painted over by the authorities. The immigration station, nestled in a eucalyptus grove on the largest island in the bay, is a national historic landmark, though it is closed to the public.
The facility was the point of entry for roughly 75 percent of Chinese immigrants to the West Coast, and its preservation has underscored the story of the "paper sons and daughters" who used false identities to circumvent the Exclusion Act, the first legislation in United States history to ban a specific ethnic group. For Chinese-Americans like Li Keng Wong, now 79, who was detained with her family as a 7-year-old in 1933, it has been an emotional journey.
Even today, she can ruefully recite from memory the description from her investigation file assembled by the authorities: "Female of the Chinese race. Faint pit near outer corner right eye. Height, in socks, 2 ft 11½ in." The faint pit, a scar from a childhood infection, is still visible beneath her bangs. The artifice and fear with which Mrs. Wong and her family lived, even as they prospered, was repeated by thousands of immigrants. In contrast to Ellis Island, where millions of European immigrants were processed largely with swift industrial efficiency, the Angel Island station was designed for exclusion.
Upon a ship's arrival, officials would separate the immigrants on board, with those bearing first-class paperwork allowed to disembark in San Francisco, while those remaining - mostly Chinese, but also a smattering of Japanese, Filipino, Indian, Russian and other groups - ferried to Angel Island.
"Ellis Island was created to let Europeans in," said Robert E. Barde, deputy director of the Institute of Business and Economic Research at the University of California, Berkeley, who is writing a book on immigration. "Angel Island was created to keep the Chinese out." The Exclusion Act, repealed in 1943 when China became America's ally in World War II, was the culmination of decades of anti-Chinese sentiment in the aftermath of an economic depression that resulted in mob violence and lynching.
Chinese laborers had been coming to America since the Gold Rush, bearing "a harsh purse with a reverence for copper coins," in the words of one poem on the barracks walls. They worked for 12 cents an hour laying the tracks of the Central Pacific Railroad and erecting levees in the swamps of the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta. The law was intended to end the arrival of Chinese laborers and to bar Chinese from becoming citizens. At Angel Island, this meant grueling interrogations and humiliating physical examinations.
In 1906, the San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed municipal and birth records, creating an opportunity for the city's Chinese residents to claim citizenship and to try to bring friends, family and fellow villagers, often with false identities, to "Gam Saan" - the Gold Mountain - or America.
Like the poems on the walls, Mrs. Wong's five days on the island as a little girl remain deeply etched. Her father, or "Baba, ", came to the United States from a small village in the Pearl River delta as a 16-year-old in 1912, presumably as a "paper son."
Sipping green tea in her kitchen in a suburb overlooking the bay, Mrs. Wong recalled the ruse that brought her family to San Francisco. Because wives were prohibited from entering, it was decided that her mother, then 28, Mr. Gee's second wife, would pose as her "yee," or aunt. Blood relatives were allowed to emigrate.
"Baba could not bring Mama as his wife, only as his sister," she recalled. "He gave us coaching papers. Mama and Baba said if we made a mistake, the white officers would deport us."
Even her 3-year-old sister, Lai Wah, was required to remember. "She was always saying, 'Yee, yee, yee, yee,'" Mrs. Wong, a retired teacher, said. "But whenever we were in a corner together, we would whisper 'Mama.' "
In a recently completed memoir, "Good Fortune: My Journey to Gold Mountain," to be published later this month by Peachtree Publishers, Mrs. Wong recalls the intense interrogations, to be corroborated by family members - questions like "What is your living room floor made of?" and "What direction does your house in China face?" "I was praying 'Don't let me trip up, 'Don't let me trip up,' " Mrs. Wong recalled, her girlhood anxiety palpable 72 years later.
Until recently, Mrs. Wong refused to set foot on the island and never spoke about her experience, even to her own children. Her parents, like many of their generation, never mentioned Angel Island. She eventually made the trip, a mile's ferry ride from Tiburon, in neighboring Marin County, at the encouragement of a writing teacher.
"I saw the place where I was incarcerated," she said. "It was just like a liberation. At last I could talk about it."
The station closed in 1940. Its history was largely swept aside until 1970, when a park ranger noticed Chinese characters chiseled on the vacant barracks walls, which were scheduled for demolition. Since then, the revitalization has been a grass-roots movement, aided by $15 million in state bond money as well as support from Asian-American politicians.
The site, to be opened on a limited basis in 2007, will include refurbished barracks in which the poems on the walls will literally be brought to light.
Their presence has already given young people like the foundation's educational director, whose grandparents came through Angel Island, a chance to retrieve their own powerful, not-so-distant history.
"It is just a wooden building," she said, softly. "Yet there are so many voices that still speak."