On a daily basis, life for the Chinese immigrants was a constant stuggle. The food was practically unedible and the living conditions were deplorable. Worst of all they were separated from their families. From the moment the Chinese immigrants arrived, they were immediately led up to various offices to fill out forms and then to the hospital where each immigrant would undergo a complete physical. The immigrants were forced to strip off all of their clothes and allow the doctors to examine them. For the women, this procedure was extremely demeaning because as a very modest people, they were embarrassed to expose themselves to complete strangers. If one of them was found to have any kind of sickness or disease, he or she was immediately deported. After the guards began a file on each immigrant, they led them to the Immigration Station. Coming from a completely foreign culture, the drastic change in lifestyle devastated the Chinese immigrants. They were unsure how long they would remain imprisoned and they didn't know the next time they would see their family members again. Depending on their answers to the [interrogations], the time span of their imprisonment ranged from two weeks to two years. Although the Americans made minor attempts to ease the cultural change, their blatant discrimination allowed them to treat the Chinese like animals.
Although the Americans hired Chinese cooks to ease the cultural change, the food was still awful. Only small amounts of meat and vegetables were served and rice was the immigrant's primary sustenance. Though even the rice, which was left out all day, was soggy. The food was so bad that in the early 1920's the Chinese inmates rioted. (Angel Island, Jewel of SF Bay) In fact, family members smuggled food in from the mainland through the cooks. The immigrants would reheat the food by placing it on the steam pipes that lined all of the barracks. This only proves further that the food was less than adequate.
Despite the efforts of the Americans, Angel Island still felt like a prison to the Chinese. Like the meals, the living quarters at Angel Island also proved unbearable. Fencing and barbwire surrounded the station, and frosted windows subdued the only sunlight that reached the barracks. When they first arrived, as the Chinese families approached the foreboding building, they were confronted with two doors at the top of the steps: one for women, and one for men. No matter how old the child or parent, all men were separated from all women: husbands from wives, fathers from daughters, and brothers from sisters. One of the first changes that the Chinese recognized was the wooden building of the station. In China their houses were traditionally made of brick and their barns built out of wood. Being stuffed into confined wooden building was not only unfamiliar, but also an insult. The women's beds were arranged in three layers, close together, and narrow. The damp and musty barracks reeked of body odor and tobacco spit. Also, the Americans allowed the men to wander outside their barracks in an enclosed area "at their leisure" and provided a "recreation center" to prevent riots. Some other more insignificant features that the Americans provided for the Chinese included steam pipes for heat, a blanket, and a pillow for each bed.
Although the Americans provided some comforts such as running water, the facilities were still abhorrent. The intolerable smelling bathrooms were rusty, dirty, and had no dividers between the toilets or showers. The modest immigrants, to escape the humiliation, would place paper bags over their heads to hide their identity when they went to the bathroom. "The worst part was the toilet. It was a ditch congested with filth. It stank up the whole barracks. We slept on three tiers of canvas bunks. The blankets were so coarse that it might have been woven of wolf's hair. It was indeed a most humiliating imprisonment." (Mr. Lowe, age 16 in 1939) The women would avoid using the bathrooms at all costs because men sent to Angel Island from Alcatraz were housed directly above them, and believed the showers were haunted by the small number of women who killed themselves there. The women were reluctant to share showers and would fill basins with water and take sponge baths in their clothes. They would then hang their wet clothes on a string hanging above their bunks.
The desperation of the Chinese was revealed by the pleading letters to family members in San Francisco:
I kneel down to talk to you. I'm wishing you a very healthy life and hope you are making money in your business. Your son is waiting on Angel Island for three months. The hardship is indescribable. I hope that you could get a lawyer as soon as possible to get me out of here. (Anonymous)
Although most of the immigrants were eventually permitted to enter San Francisco, they still had to cope with the painful memories that lingered even after Angel Island was closed in 1940. Even today when former immigrants return to the island, they are overcome by a rush of emotion, sadness, and heart-wrenching memories.
Angel Island Docent. Personal Interview. 3 April. 2000.
"Angel Island: Handout 2: Selected Oral Histories." Google. 2000. April 3, 2000. ed. http://www.askasia.org/frclasrm/readings/r000201.htm
"Life At the Immigration Station." Google. 2000. April 3, 2000. ed. http://www.nara.gov/publications/prologue/angel2.html
"Life on Angel Island." Google. 2000. April 3, 2000. ed. http://www.itp.berkley.edu/~jsu/asam/angelcond.html