A Hell for Some Who Sought the Gold Mountain

There are tens of thousands of poems
on these walls
They are all cries of suffering
and sadness
The day I am rid of this prison and
become successful
I must remember that this chapter
once existed
I must be frugal in my daily
Needless extravagance usually
leads to ruin
All my compatriots should
remember China
Once you have made some small gains,
you should return
home early

Written by one from Heungshan

Between 1910 and 1940, there were as many as 175,000 Chinese immigrants detained and processed at Angel Island, San Francisco Bay, California. Unlike Ellis Island in New York's harbor, Angel Island is a visible reminder of a shameful period in U.S. immigration history.

The early Chinese came to the United States for much of the same reasons as the European immigrants. There were years of famine and poverty in China. The United States offered the opportunity for work and sending money home to one's family. The California gold rush and the transcontinental railroad offered the lamp of hope for many. The United States was known as "Gum San" or Gold Mountain.

The Chinese were welcomed to work in California during the boom years of the mid 1800's. (Welcomed, but don't live with us! Segregation was the order of the day.) There was a great need for labor and not enough hands. However, as the economic conditions changed for the worse, discrimination against the Chinese increased.

The first measure restricting immigration enacted by the U.S. Congress was a law in 1862 forbidding American vessels to transport Chinese immigrants to the United States. Twenty years later, as a by-product of fear and ignorance, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.

Forty-Seventh Congress. Session I. 1882. Chapter 126.
Whereas, in the opinion of the Government of the
United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this
country endangers the good order of
certain localities within the territory thereof:

Generally, Chinese without family connections in the United States were excluded from entry. The exception to this law was Chinese diplomats. Later, legal loopholes emerged for Chinese merchants and wealthy travelers. At that time, no other racial groups were denied entry into the United States.

As a consequence of this law, "paper-sons" were born. Many Chinese seeking entry bought false papers to show a family connection residing in the United States. Often, Chinese residents would list numerous non-existing sons and daughters to try to help bring others of their village or town here. The great earthquake and fire that almost leveled San Francisco facilitated this objective because most, if not all, the original records were destroyed.

To enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and other subsequent Chinese exclusion laws, the Immigration Station at Angel Island was built in 1910. Chinese arriving in San Francisco were inspected. Those who passed by luck or bribe were allowed to enter San Francisco. Those who were suspected were sent to Angel Island for further processing.

For 30 years, Angel Island served more as a detention and deportation center than an immigration processing center. Thousands of Chinese were detained and interrogated at the barracks in a prison-like atmosphere for weeks, months, or years. Many were deported. Such treatment quickly quashed the hopes of these luckless thousands. Some chose to escape their humiliation by suicide.

Life for the detainees was strange, stressful, demoralizing, and humiliating. Separated from family members, they were placed in crowded communal living quarters. One hundred persons would sleep in bunk beds, three high in columns, in a room about 1,000 square feet.

The interrogation process was a frightening event for the detainees. The questions were detailed and irrelevant. The questions were designed to confuse and entrap the detainees. As a result, poignant reminders of the detainees' stay on Angel Island were written on the wooden barrack walls. Poems were penciled, carved or brush painted on the walls to express the detainees' anger and frustrations over their treatment and detainment.

These writings would have been lost, had they not been discovered by a U.S. Park Ranger and the successful efforts of the Asian American community to pressure the federal government to preserve the site from demolition.

The Immigration Station was closed in 1940, because a large fire destroyed several buildings. In 1943, the Chinese exclusion laws were repealed. Now, the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation founded by Paul Chow, preserves this legacy as a reminder of the Chinese heritage in the United States.

Paul Chow teaching the history of Angel Island to members
of the San Diego Chinese Historical Society (Oct. '93).

Donations may be sent to:

      Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation
      P.O. Box 29237 

      San Francisco, CA 94129-0237
      (415) 561-2160

      EMAIL:          WEBSITE:

       You can contact the Angel Island Association at (415) 435-3522 for information about docent training in 2003.

      The Angel Island Association is looking for volunteers to help lead tours through the Immigration Station and help educate the public about the history of Chinese Immigration in America. We often have requests for Cantonese and Mandarin guides, as well as English.

February 1998 Announcement:

The Angel Island Immigration Station has recently been declared a National Historic Landmark.


This midi background music is provided by Dr. Yat-Con (Colin) Kong from the United Kingdom.

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