Facing History at the Angel Island Immigration Station

I never met my great-grandfather, Wing Dick Chew (趙葉德). From family stories, I learned that he left Toisan, a rural region in southern China, as a young man. I learned recently that he arrived in the 1920s as a 紙兒子, a “paper son,” a common practice as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barred most Chinese immigration to the United States. But there were a few notable exceptions, including the children of Chinese who were “naturalized” U.S. citizens. To evade these restrictions, young men bought expensive ($100 per year of age of the user), fraudulent immigration papers on the black market, which claimed that they were the sons of these citizens. They were not biological sons, but sons-on-paper. This practice was only possible because the Hall of Records in San Francisco was burned to the ground, including all immigration records, during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. 

My great-grandfather was detained at Angel Island, an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, before arriving in San Francisco—Ramaytush-Ohlone land. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 lifted immigration quotas from Asia, allowing his family to “legally” immigrate, regardless of his illegal entry. As a result, his family of 10, including my mom, arrived in 1969. 

Fast forward to 2021, and I am on a community call with fellow cast members from LUNAR: the Jewish-Asian Film Project. They shared an excerpt of Chinese poetry, and mentioned that the poem had been carved into the detention barracks of the Angel Island Immigration Station. I was shocked that I had never learned about this poetry, as my great grandfather was held at Angel Island. The majority of the poems are Tang dynasty-style poems, written by Chinese immigrants from Toisan, my great-grandfather’s point of origin.  Instantly, I was intrigued and started doing research. I confirmed with my family that my great-grandfather was held at Angel Island for a “long time,” though no one knows for exactly how long, or the details of his detainment.

I learned how Angel Island’s immigration station, on Huimin Coast Miwok land, was used to process and detain mostly Chinese immigrants, but also Japanese, Indian, Central and South American, and Russian immigrants. They were repeatedly interrogated, asked to remember details about their homes. Questions included how many windows were in their house, how many houses were on their street, and where was the rice bucket located in their house (in order for officials to verify their identities). Paper sons and daughters had to memorize every detail of their false identities, in order to correctly answer these questions during interrogation. About 18 percent of immigrants were initially denied entry, though most successfully appealed. Immigrants were detained for weeks, months, or even years at time. It is no wonder why my great grandfather never shared details about his stay on Angel Island—he was likely traumatized.

At Angel Island, Chinese detainees received support from groups of Methodist women, most notably Kathryn Mauer, and mutual aid efforts in San Francisco’s Chinatown. If a paper son was having trouble answering the interrogation questions, the kitchen staff at the Immigration Station, mostly Chinese immigrants themselves, would try to retrieve answers from Chinese immigrant networks in Chinatown. They would pass them along by taping cheat sheets to the bottom of cafeteria plates, to sneak to the paper son at mealtime.

Immigrants carved tens of thousands of poems into every square inch of the barrack walls, describing their anguish of captivity and longing for home. The guards disapproved of this practice, and would paint and plaster over the words. After the Chinese Exclusion Act ended in 1943, the immigration facility was closed and converted into a World War II prisoner-of-war camp, which was closed in 1946. The island became a state park in 1963.

In 1970, park ranger Alexander Weiss came across the poetry while inspecting the building. California State Parks had plans to demolish the building, but he asked that it be preserved for the poetry. His supervisors had apparently told him not to bother “with a bunch of graffiti”. When Ranger Weiss told his professor at San Francisco State about the poetry, word spread. Eventually, scholars, archaeologists, and others successfully fought for the building’s preservation.

Several internet rabbit holes later, I was shocked to learn that Ranger Weiss was an Austrian Jew who fled Nazi rule with his family in 1940, when he was four years old. During the Civil Rights Movement, he was arrested for his activities as a Freedom Rider. While Ranger Weiss likely didn’t know it at the time, his actions, along with those of millions of Black Americans and allies, helped pave the way for my family’s immigration in 1969. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was passed in a wave of progressive legislation after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

When I finally visited the immigration station on a solo trip last July, it was a surreal experience. Since there were so few visitors, the very friendly ranger, Erin, graciously gave me a personal tour of the barracks. She could not read Chinese, but had memorized the translations for almost every poem in the building. Ranger Erin also pointed out carvings of birds, homes, boats, fishes, and other objects carved into the walls. I proceeded to explore every inch of the detention barracks, for three hours. Though I couldn’t understand most of the Chinese characters in the walls (despite learning Mandarin for 13 years), seeing the poetry and drawings etched into the immigration barracks helped me find closure I didn’t know I needed.

[T]hanks to all who fought to save the immigration station, my family still has the opportunity to see the poetry, honor our people’s history, and heal from our generational trauma passed down by family members once detained there. 

I am deeply grateful for the efforts of Ranger Weiss and all of the scholars and activists who fought to save the Immigration Station—and the testimonies engraved in its walls. Shockingly, many of my family members didn’t know about the poetry at Angel Island until I sent them pictures from my visit, let alone had ever been inside the immigration station. This was despite our living in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 50 years. But thanks to all who fought to save the immigration station, my family still has the opportunity to see the poetry, honor our people’s history, and heal from our generational trauma passed down by family members once detained there. 

Visiting the island reinforced my belief that the fight for collective liberation is constant and interconnected, from the Chinese Exclusion Act and Jim Crow laws, to mass incarceration today. State-sanctioned and -enforced violence doesn’t disappear. It evolves and mutates. Two years after China became an official ally to the United States during WWII, the Chinese Exclusion Act was lifted and replaced with the Magnuson Act in 1943. This allowed some Chinese immigrants to become citizens, though it still limited immigration from China. Just a year and a half before this, ​​President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, the Japanese Internment Act—which allowed the U.S. government to intern Japanese-Americans in the name of “national security.” Throughout history, the U.S. has changed its immigration laws to align with its political and economic interests. However, the racial othering of Asian Americans—and other forms of dehumanization necessary to enforce these laws—has remained constant.

Today, refugees fleeing violence and climate change-induced disasters in Central America are being held in present-day Angel Islands throughout the country. Vice President Harris, from an Asian immigrant family herself, told these refugees not to cross the border, as if she willingly forgot her own history. They don’t have the circumstance of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake allowing a vital immigration loophole, as my family had. There is zero chance that a paper son from El Salvador would be able to make his way into the U.S. the way my great grandfather did. However, there are countless efforts fighting for these cruel systems to be overhauled, for a future without borders and state-sanctioned violence, and when seeking asylum is a right, not a privilege. Everyone who fought to save the Angel Island Immigration station modeled our duty to pay it forward and fight for our collective liberation—however uncertain of the reward, and however we can.

I would like to thank my family, Matthew Hom, Davi Cheng, LUNAR: the Jewish-Asian Film Project, the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, Ranger Erin, and the family of Alexander Weiss, for their assistance with and inspiration for this piece. A special thank you to the hundreds of advocates, known and unknown, who fought to preserve the Angel Island Immigration Station.

TAKE ACTION: Please support immigration justice efforts by contributing to Mujeres Unidas Activas (MUA), a membership-based Latina immigrant community organizing and empowerment program in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more about MUA at www.mujeresunidas.net

Bekkah 趙慧英 Scharf is an environmental educator, mediocre artist, and cat mom who lives on Lisjan Ohlone land, aka Oakland, CA. Instagram: @bekkahpaintsplants