Angel Island

September 5, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Spencer Michels reports on making art out of history.

SPENCER MICHELS: From 1910 until 1943, Chinese immigrants to America approached Angel Island in San Francisco Bay with fear and hope. They hoped the U.S. immigration station on the island would not be their last stop in the country they called gold mountain, America. Flo Oy Wong, a Chinese-American artist, and Felicia Lowe, a documentary maker, take the short ferry ride to Angel Island often these days. Both are the daughters of at least one parent who came into the U.S. Illegally. Through art and film, they are bringing new attention to an old, and until now, obscure story; a story that happened in the place sometimes called the Ellis Island of the West. This is the place where the U.S. Government under an 1882 law called the Chinese Exclusion Act tried to keep Chinese laborers and their families out of the country, send them back to China.

FELICIA LOWE, Documentary Maker: When I learned about Angel Island…

SPENCER MICHELS: Lowe has documented both the pain of that rejection, and the lies the immigrants had to tell to gain admittance to their chosen land.

FELICIA LOWE: But it’s a place that moves you, not only because the walls talk and tell you stories, but because of the spirit and energy of this place.

SPENCER MICHELS: Does it still move you?

FELICIA LOWE: Absolutely. Every time I come here I have such deep feelings about the people who were here, especially knowing that my father was one of those people.

SPENCER MICHELS: Felicia Lowe, who is raising funds and awareness to have the old immigration station restored, has documented on film Angel Island’s history. (Whistle blows) The story begins with Chinese coming to America to work in the California gold fields and to build the railroads in the mid- 1800’s. About 100,000 Chinese lived in America in 1880. When the economy went bad, anti- Chinese feeling became virulent, and Congress voted to exclude all new Chinese immigrants except certain categories: Merchants, teachers, and minor children of citizens. For the most part, wives of Chinese men already here– even if the men were citizens– could not enter legally, since U.S. policy was to prevent families from settling here. Judy Yung teaches Asian American history at the University of California, and has written about Angel Island’s legacy. She calls the Chinese Exclusion Act blatant racism.

JUDY YUNG, University of California: The Chinese were seen as being not only racially inferior, but they were seen as being politically despotic, they were seen as being heathens, they were seen as being immoral, unethical; they didn’t treat their women right. They were just seen as being very un-American and undeserving of being American.

SPENCER MICHELS: Despite being mostly unwelcome and illegal, Chinese kept arriving, though in smaller numbers. Starting in 1910, these new immigrants landed first at Angel Island to face immigration officers and possible deportation. It was an intimidating place: Barbed wire, guards, locked doors, and unfamiliar food. Families were often split apart. Stays of two weeks to six months were common. And the culmination of it all was an interrogation by officials. Lowe found the transcript of her father’s interrogation.

FELICIA LOWE: You had to answer a series of questions to confirm that you were the person you said you were on the paper. In looking at these transcripts, it’s frightening. “Did your father tell you what he had done in this country? When is the first time you were ever absent from Kay Gok Village overnight or longer? How many children did your father’s first wife bear him?”

SPENCER MICHELS: In order to try to qualify for entry, many of the immigrants assumed new identities. Wives became paper sisters who were supposedly married to merchants, since the U.S. allowed merchants– and only merchants– to have families. Therefore, the children became nieces and nephews of their real parents. To pass the test, they studied coaching books prepared by relatives that told them about the person they were now claiming to be. Like Lowe’s father, they became so-called paper sons.

FLO OY WONG: My name is Flo Oy Wong. Now Wong is my married name, but I also have a fake name.

SPENCER MICHELS: Flo Wong often tells school groups how her family had to change their identities to get into the country. She has turned that saga into an art show, called “Shhh,” which is on display in the old immigration station barracks — rice sacks stitched to American flags, with stenciled names– real and fake– on the work. Each panel tells of family member of friend who secretly changed his or her name, and then held that secret sometimes till death.

FLO OY WONG: After I tell you my mom’s secret, I want you to go to that part of the room and share the secret with different…

SPENCER MICHELS: Flo Wong’s family arrived from China in 1933 after her father, who had lived for a while in the U.S., decided his family would do better in America than in China. Her sister, Li Keng Wong, was seven at the time they made the long journey, but she remembers her father’s admonitions.

LI KENG WONG: He said, “well, we had better pack. We’re ready to leave.” But he reminded us, “remember, mama is not going as my wife; mama is going to the United States as my sister. And the United States would not allow me to bring your mother in as my wife, so therefore we’re going to tell a lie.”

SPENCER MICHELS: Li Keng Wong, who later became a teacher, was interrogated with her two sisters. They lied to the officers and passed, and then kept the secret.

LI KENG WONG: I never did want to say anything because I was embarrassed. I was still afraid. Throughout all the years going to school that the immigration officials would find out.

SPENCER MICHELS: The Chinese exclusion law was repealed in 1943, yet even today, Li Keng Wong can’t ignore what happened nearly 70 years ago.

SPENCER MICHELS: How do you feel about that? And how did you feel?

LI KENG WONG: Oh, we feel ostracized. We feel as though we’re marginalized and we feel as though we’re not 100% Americans. You know that. I mean, all of us feel that way.

SPENCER MICHELS: Her sister, Flo Wong, says she overcame her own bitterness, though she knows many older Chinese immigrants have not.

FLO OY WONG: There is anger. There’s hurt, there’s disappointment, there’s bitterness, there’s fear. There’s a fear of authority, especially white authority, because the first people who interrogated them were the white interrogators here at Angel Island.

SPENCER MICHELS: Retired purchasing officer Albert Wong, who is still playing basketball at 77, is no relation to Flo Wong and her sister. He came to Angel Island as a child, too, and remembers seeing Chinese poetry carved into the walls of the barracks.

ALBERT WONG: There were a lot of poems on the wall. I didn’t see anybody writing one, but I was told one of the gentlemen wrote the one by the bathroom there. And he was still there… He has been there over a year and he was still waiting for his case.

SPENCER MICHELS: The poems had long been forgotten when, in 1970, a ranger inspecting the decaying immigration station on Angel Island found them beneath layers of paint. Historian Judy Yung says many were in classical Chinese style.

JUDY YUNG: They were written by Cantonese-speaking immigrants, so I’m going to read them in Cantonese. This is the way it would have sounded. The first poem: (Speaking Cantonese) and in English we’ve translated: “Instead of remaining a citizen of China, I willingly became an ox. I intended to come to America to earn a living. The western-style buildings are lofty, but I have not the luck to live in them. How was anyone to know that my dwelling place would be a prison?”

SPENCER MICHELS: Until the poetry was discovered, the state was going to burn down the immigration station. Those plans were canceled, and the old barracks were made safe enough for tourists. California State Parks official Tom Lindberg says that now, this site is being increasingly visited by Asian Americans and others.

TOM LINDBERG, California Parks Department: It’s a chapter of California and mostly American history that’s not in our history books. We had a facility here that was trying to keep people out, and it’s been a quiet secret in the Asian community that’s finally coming out. It’s a chapter that should be told.

SPENCER MICHELS: In the end, 95% of the 175,000 Chinese who passed through Angel Island were admitted to the U.S. Immigration officials recommended deporting many, but on appeal, the courts often overturned those orders. Still, the scars and the secrets remained with the new Americans, as did their new identities.

FLO OY WONG: Why would my government enact a law to keep someone like me or my ancestors out of this country? And it’s a puzzling question. I don’t have the answers.

FELICIA LOWE: You know, it happens to be our history, and it’s not always pretty, and yet, without knowing what it was, how can we go forward? So I really feel like it’s in the revealing and uncovering this history that we can begin the healing process.

SPENCER MICHELS: The old immigration station is now open year-round. Flo Wong’s art exhibit is on display through September. Recently, state funds have been appropriated for additional restoration on the decaying and long-forgotten port of entry on Angel Island.