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Book Review: Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America by Erika Lee and Judy Yung

Posted By Ed Voves On September 10, 2010 @ 1:38 pm In History,Non-Fiction Reviews | No Comments

Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America
by Erika Lee and Judy Yung
Oxford University Press, 434 pp.
CLR Rating:


Pacific Rock

Reading Angel Island, a gripping new book on America’s immigrant history, feels like traveling over familiar territory, except that someone turned the road signs in the opposite direction.

Angel Island was the west coast equivalent of Ellis Island. Here at this United States Government installation in San Francisco Bay, hundreds of thousands of newcomers to America first stepped ashore after a long voyage across the Pacific Ocean. Opened in 1910 and remaining in operation until the year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Angel Island has never achieved the fame of Ellis Island.

Part of the problem lies in the dominant current of U.S. history. From Plymouth Rock to The Grapes of Wrath migration of the Great Depression, America’s frontiers moved in a westward direction. The arrival of immigrants from across the Pacific Ocean cut against the grain of the American experience.

This counter-current of eastward moving immigration began as a trickle during the California Gold Rush of 1849. With the need for cheap labor, the tide of predominantly Chinese immigrants began to swell after the Civil War. A backlash, aimed at preserving the U.S. as a “white man’s country,” began in 1877. “The Chinese Must Go!” agitation led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, setting the tone for West Coast immigration policy for decades to come.

In their history of Angel Island, Erika Lee and Judy Yung recount the difficulties encountered by the immigrants from China, Japan, Korea, the Indian subcontinent, the Philippine Islands and other points east. Many of the obstacles they encountered, especially in the case of the Chinese, were erected with the purpose of barring the door to Gam Saan, the “Golden Mountain” as the Chinese called California.

For the authors, the story of Angel Island is a chapter in the history of their respective families, as well as a missing piece in a multi-ethnic appraisal of America’s past.

Judy Yung, who is a history professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, first heard about Angel Island in the 1970′s. A series of extraordinary Chinese-language poems had just been discovered, carved into the walls of the dilapidated immigrant barracks. When she questioned her father about it, she found, after some determined prodding, that he had arrived at Angel Island under a false name in 1921. Tom Yip Jing had come to America, posing as Yung Hin Sen, the son of a Chinese-born U.S. citizen in Stockton, California. Judy Yung’s very surname derived from the experience of her father, a “paper son” like so many Chinese immigrants who succeeded in making it ashore on Gam Saan.

Another “paper son” was Le Chi Yet, Erika Lee’s grandfather. Le Chi Yet arrived at Angel Island in June 1918. After rigorous questioning and an eight-day hospital stay to treat hookworm, he too was admitted. In 1946, he applied for naturalization and was able to resume the use of his family name. Le Chi Yet was proud that he “had left a life of nothing in China, dared to enter a country that did not want him, and pulled it off on the island.”

In order to document the story of Angel Island and the ethnically-diverse immigrant groups who passed through, the authors and a team of dedicated assistants waded through huge masses of documents and conducted interviews with surviving detainees. It was not an easy process, as Angel Island’s records were largely destroyed in the 1940 fire that permanently shut down the station’s operation. After an exacting analysis of Immigration and Naturalization archives, passenger lists of ships arriving in San Francisco, Board of Special Inquiry registers and immigration cases files at the National Archives, Yung and Lee estimate that 300,000 immigrants (and some U.S. citizens or people claiming U.S. citizenship) from eighty different nationality groups were detained at Angel Island, interrogated and subjected to medical examinations of varying degrees of rigor and humiliation.

Yung and Lee also followed the paper trails of the many determined newcomers who, denied entry, fought back through legal means. To a very surprising degree, most of them succeeded in gaining admittance to the U.S. Even the Chinese, the target for decades of intense bureaucratic opposition, were usually successful in appealing to U.S. courts to over-turn decisions excluding them. In the end, Yung and Lee conclude that “only 7 percent of all Chinese applicants at the Angel Island Immigration Station ended up being excluded.”

For those who fell in the “only” 7 percent category, the decision to deport them was often a death sentence. Several wrenching accounts of suicide are featured in the book, including that of a Chinese woman, waiting to be deported, who rammed a sharpened chopstick through her ear canal into her brain.

For all the important statistical material included in the book, Angel Island is most affecting when resurrecting the past in the many case studies of those who entered America through the station’s gates. The research of Lee and Yung has opened the pages of history to people who have been denied their true place in the American saga, as once they faced exclusion from citizenship in the “land of the free.”

And what amazing individuals the protagonists of Angel Island are! It is difficult in a short review to give an adequate idea of the human drama or the ethnic diversity featured in this book. But a couple of examples will hopefully suffice.

From the earliest days of anti-immigrant fervor in the American West, the Chinese were singled out as the greatest threat, with the highest rates of detention at Angel Island. No less than seventy-six percent of all Chinese immigrants were sent there. They had, as well, the longest average stay, two to three weeks. Of the 178,000 Chinese who were admitted between 1910 and 1940, 100,000 were detained for questioning and physical examination at Angel Island.

One of the Chinese-language poems carved on the walls at Angel Island poignantly expresses the feelings of those trapped in the limbo of Angel Island.

I clasped my hand in parting with my brothers and classmates.
Because of the month, I hastened to cross the American ocean.
How was I to know that the western barbarians had lost their hearts and reason?
With a hundred kinds of oppressive laws, they mistreat us Chinese.

The experience of a young Chinese woman, Lee Puey You, was an extreme case of such heartbreak on Angel Island.

Lee Puey You was twenty-three when she was forced to come to the U.S. in 1939 as part of an arranged marriage pact with a man old enough to be her father. She came to America with a man posing as her father, her own having recently deceased. Her traveling partner, Ngim Lin, claimed U.S. citizenship, but Immigration officials were dubious. After a two-week wait, Lee Puey You was subjected to a grueling interrogation, 170 questions and two days in duration. Concluding that Ngim Lin’s claims of being a citizen and Lee Puey You’s father were fraudulent, she was denied entry. Legal appeals on her behalf, reaching all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, failed even though World War II was raging with particularly savagery in China.

In November 1940, Lee Puey You was sent back to China, after spending over a year at Angel Island. Her plight, predictably, went from bad to horrifying. A new plan to get her into the U.S. was based on a “paper marriage” to a friend of the elderly man waiting for her in the U.S. Lee Puey You was raped and reduced to the status of a concubine by her “paper husband.” He later succeeded in bringing her to the U.S. in 1947 under the bogus status of a “war bride.” Immigration officials launched further investigations and Lee Puey You’s story unraveled a second time.

Lee Puey You was determined to assert her right to be treated as a human being. Divorcing her “paper husband,” she hired a lawyer who conducted a successful court battle to have her declared a naturalized citizen of the United States. That happy event took place in 1959, twenty years after Lee Puey You first stepped ashore on Angel Island.

As a Chinese woman, her sex, unmarried status and nationality all worked against Lee Puey You. However, she was not alone. Even Japanese immigrants, backed by a government with international diplomatic clout following Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905, were not immune to being detained on Angel Island for extended periods of time.

Among the Japanese-Americans to pass through Angel Island was Masayuki “Jim” Ariki. Born in the U.S., Ariki was taken to Japan as an infant. Within the Japanese-American community, there was a hierarchy of distinctions: immigrants born in Japan were issei (meaning first generation), children born in the U.S were nisei and U.S. born Japanese-Americans who returned to Japan to study or to live were kibei.

Masayuki “Jim” Ariki was a kibei. Caught between two worlds, he had trouble adjusting to life in Japan. As he entered his adolescent years, his parents decided to send him back to live with his sister and her husband in San Francisco. Ariki, his parents concluded was “nothing but trouble.”

Unfortunately, Ariki’s sister and brother-in-law had a similar opinion of him. When Ariki, who did not at the point speak English, reached Angel Island, there were no welcoming relatives to assist him during the interview with Immigration officials. Ariki was consigned to the men’s barracks along with about 50 Chinese and Filipinos. Since this was 1937 and Japan was already at war with China, the experience cannot have been pleasant for the solitary Japanese-American teenager. A sympathetic Filipino helped him address a letter to his parents in Hiroshima, as well as understanding the complexities of flush toilets.

Finally, after twelve days, Ariki’s sister appeared with the necessary documentation to secure his release from Angel Island. Ariki’s comments to his sister as they departed were a testament to the experience of thousands of detainees at the station.

“That’s not the kind of place you want to go and stay,” Ariki said, “especially when I can’t even speak their language.”

“Jim” Ariki’s travails were far from over. Unhappy living with his in-laws, he wandered through California working as a farm-laborer. Just as his life took a turn for the better, after he married, Ariki and his new bride were interned in a detention camp in Arizona following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But the U.S. was so short of wartime labor that Ariki jumped at the chance to work at an ice factory in Denver, Colorado. In 2000, now a successful mushroom farmer, Ariki returned to Angel Island, a place “I never thought I would be seeing …again.”

Thanks to this outstanding book, many readers will gain insight into the remarkable history of Angel Island for the first time. But Yung and Lee are taking their effort a step further than most historians normally go.

With Angel Island, the authors are helping to bring the site back into public view as a National Historic Trust Landmark. Yung and Lee are dedicating the proceeds of their book to benefit the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. It is a commendable act, the capstone of decades of work to correct a glaring lack of awareness of America’s diverse multi-ethnic heritage.

Angel Island is more than a superb historical text, however praiseworthy its authors’ aims and accomplishments. In the final chapters, Yung and Lee once again link personal, living experience with the broad themes of what it means to be an American. They relate that the park ranger who discovered the Chinese-language poems during the 1970′s, Alexander Weiss, had come to the U.S. as a child in the 1940′s. His family, Austrian Jews, fled to America to escape Nazi persecution, though they did not arrive in the U.S. at Angel Island. The significant point is that Weiss was connected to the lives and experiences of people from other lands and races, other victims of “a hundred kinds of oppressive laws.”

The spiritual kinship that bound Weiss to the Chinese immigrants who composed those poems is a link in the bond that unites all Americans, native-born and immigrant. This is a political and social issue today, that is every bit as pressing as it was when Lee Puey You and “Jim” Ariki struggled to gain entry into the U.S. during the 1930′s. Surveying the terrible conditions in current U.S. detention centers, such as the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, near Austin, Texas, Yung and Lee leave their readers with haunting images of immigrant children cowering behind fences of razor-wire. They quote from a Washington Post article which states that today’s immigrant detainees “have less access to lawyers than convicted murderers in maximum-security prisons…”

Viewed in this perspective, Angel Island is not just a major re-appraisal of America’s past. Erika Lee and Judy Yung have co-authored an essential document in the on-going debate over American freedom.


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