Brief Introduction to the Citizen Process at Angel Island:
"Who lives in the third house in the second row of houses in your village?" "How many steps are there to the front door of your house?" Approximately 175,000 Chinese immigrants, on their way to the "land of opportunity," were bombarded with these questions and many others during their stay at Angel Island. The questions were not designed to determine if the immigrant would be a good citizen but if the person was related to a citizen. "The Ellis Island of the West" was very different than originally planned. Ellis Island in New York processed the incoming immigrants; whereas, Angel Island detained and interrogated immigrants. The interrogation process reflected the prevalent anti-Chinese sentiment present during the early 20th century. The immigrants were assumed guilty and had to prove their relationship. The questions were designed to entrap and confuse. Even though 97% of immigrants were allowed through, the human toll of the interrogation and waiting demoralized the Chinese immigrants. They felt that they weren't wanted and reflected their frustration and anguish in the somber poetry written on the walls of the barracks. The immigrants carried their fear, isolation, and humiliation with them into America. Thus, the citizenship process was extremely trying and difficult for the Chinese immigrants who came through Angel Island. Their tragic ordeal is now fully being understood as they reveal their painful memories of immigration to the next generations.
Path to the Interrogation: "Paper sons and daughters"
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 offered one hope: if a Chinese immigrant was related to a citizen in America, he or she would be allowed entrance into the country. The act was the first legislation to limit the immigration of a particular race into the United States and was a response to the economic depression that the country was suffering. The phenomenon of "paper sons" and "paper daughters" began to appear as people falsified papers claiming relations. Brokers provided false papers relating an immigrant to a citizen making them their son on paper. Papers did not come cheap; families often sold their land and spent all of their money in order to send the brightest individuals to the "land of opportunity." One Chinese immigrant explains his involvement in the business of "paper sons": "Instead, we had to go back to the same old thing, 'paper son.' They had to send me over not as my father's own son, but as the son of another cousin from another village." Immigration officials soon caught on and began to use interrogation in order to verify the paper relationships.
|Click here to hear an Angel Island docent explain the interrogations.||
Click here to watch a movie about paper sons and duaghters.
Originally thought to become the "Ellis Island of the West," a place where European immigrants would be registered, Angel Island easily became a detainment center for almost exclusively Chinese immigrants with the outbreak of World War I and the 1906 earthquake. In 1906, an earthquake in San Francisco and the resulting fires destroyed all the files containing the information about past Chinese immigrants. Any Chinese person living in San Francisco could claim to be a citizen and was now able to bring over their "relatives." The interrogation process was therefore created to attest that the Chinese immigrants were actually related to Chinese-American citizens. Brokers provided prompt books to the immigrants so they could adopt their new identity. The books were often 200 pages long and detailed the history of their paper family. These Chinese would memorize the extensive information to prepare to answer any question that the officials would ask on the island. One Chinese "paper son" explains his experience:
They give you a book of about 200 pages to study - all your life, you family, your brother's name, the whole village, almost. They would ask you all kinds of questions when you get to the United States, the immigration (station) at Angel Island . . . I was there for three weeks.
Interrogation teams composed of two inspectors, a stenographer and an interpreter interrogated the immigrants about their lives to compare their answers to the testimony of their "families." The questions were not designed to determine if the immigrant would be a good citizen but if the person was related to a citizen. The length of one's detainment was determined by how one answered the questions. Stays on the island could be as short as two weeks to as long as two years in one case. Inconsistencies were scrutinized and were grounds for deportation. The immigrants, separated from their families, awaited hours of interrogation that would decide if they had to go home or could stay. Several people could not handle the stress and committed suicide instead of returning shamefully to to China.
Chinese immigrants were forced to answer numerous confusing questions, and they expressed their fear and isolation in their poems etched on the walls of the barracks. The poems are a visible reminder of the pain that the interrogations generated. The stress of the interrogations induced depression, a feeling of extreme isolation, and resentment towards Americans. Most importantly, the "paper son" phenomenon caused the Chinese to lose their identity.
We are constantly kept in the dark about our real identities. This notion of being unwelcome, of being made to feel forever foreigners, stays with us. It's passed through the generations as a kind of shame. That's why I think so many Chinese American communities have suffered from political apathy and fear of authority for so long. There's still a lack of awareness and pride in our family history.
Even with the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Acts in 1940 and a fire that destroyed the main administration building, the consequences of Angel Island remain today in the memories of the 175,000 Chinese immigrants who passed through Angel Island. The human effects of their incarceration lasted longer than their ephemeral stay on the island and manifested in the way they lived their lives after their detainment.
To view a sample interrogation, click here.
To view the bibliography for this page, click here.