Angel Island is now an idyllic state park out in San Francisco Bay. but for many of the 175,000 Chinese immigrants arriving from 1910 to 1940, it served as one final obstacle in their long journey to Gam San,m the Golden Mountain and the Land of the Flowery Flag. There the boats docked, and the Chinese were marched up to "the wooden building" to be separated by sex and probed for infection, then detained while awaiting the immigration inspectors who would determine their fate.
This slim, attractive volume of oral histories, photographs, and poems gleaned from the walls by two detainees, Smiley Jann and Tet Yee, unveils a fascinating story of raw courage and delicate sensibility which should make Chinese-Americans proud they descend from such "pioneers."
Wisely, the authors do little editorializing, preferring to let the stark facts speak. What is revealed is a macabre theatre of the absurd between the immigrants and the inspectors, with the haven of San Francisco as backdrop and goal across the fog-ridden harbor. Because of racist laws to exclude all who were not related to Chinese already in America, family ties were all-important. A young Chinese boy would have to prove he was indeed the true son of the San Francisco cook he claimed as his father, and it was the inspector's duty to trip him up.
On the one side, "coaching papers" were provided to be memorized and swallowed; on the other, translators were rotated and family members separated to prevent collusion. The anxious boy might be asked how many houses there were on the left side of his street. Even the legitimate sometimes slipped, and failure to convince the authorities of authenticity meant return to the impoverished village and to unpaid loans for passage. Appeal, though possible, was often long and costly; and some unfortunates lingered on Angel Island for as long as two years.
How did they feel? What did they think? Fortunately, some of the "pioneers" were literate; they scratched out poems on the walls, revealing their anguish to console those around them and warn those coming after. Smiley Jann called them "Collection of Autumn Grass: Volume Collecting Voices From the Hearts of the Weak"; and these poems, with the beautiful Chinese calligraphy facing simple English transliterations, reveal the anguish of confused hearts looking. Because my house had bare walls, I began rushing all about. The waves are happy, laughing "Ha-ha!" When I arrived on Island, I heard I was forbidden to land. I could do nothing but frown and feel angry at heaven.m
Many felt betrayed by China's own weakness in the world: For what reason must I sit in jail? It is only because my country is weak and my family poor.m
Looking back now with the wisdom of years, one might well ask how it might have been different. The desperate situation in China created a desperate people; often "coaching papers" were sold to the highest bidder. And not all was grief; there were some kind "Jesus Mothers," such as Deaconness Katharine Maurier, who earned herself the title "Angel of Angel Island." But much seems callous or worse on the part of authorities refusing to admit the humanity so poignantly revealed here.
For Chinese-Americans, publication of this book is an act of recovery -- the truth, however bittersweet, is the onl y heritage worth preserving.