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The Clash of Two Worlds

Angel Island was in one sense a microcosm of the city of San Francisco itself. The Chinsese immigrants, permeating with the thoughts and traditions of thier own culture in China, were plunged into the polar society of America.


(Genthe's Photographs of San Francisco's Old Chinatown., 28)


Angel Island, the Ellis Island of California, served as the initial forum for the cultural collisions that would typify the Chinese experience after they were released from the immigration station and had moved to San Francisco's Chinatown. In Chinatown the Chinese had formed a haven away from the discrimination and racism they encountered in other parts of the city. They created an independent world in this refuge, with society groups, businesses, and traditions, separate from the rest of the city. At times, Angel Island and Chinatown, the two sites of cultural conflict, would interact with each other through politics or messages. The initial cultural friction at Angel Island and the cultural friction between San Francisco and independent ethnic world of Chinatown were central to the experiences of the Chinese immigrants.

Chinatown was founded because the Chinese wished to create an ethnic neighborhood or ghetto that would act as a cultural haven to ease them into America and mitigate homesickness. Many of the Chinese were here to make their fortunes and often sent money back to their homes in China to help their families and villages. Thus, many immigrants did not desire to settle, but rather, simply wanted to make money and consequently, had no desire to assimilate into the population. The Chinese tried to maintain their traditions and culture in their new home through establishing Chinese businesses, stores, restaurants, and by maintaing a Chinese style of dress as they transplanted Chinese culture through Chinatown. Although many immigrants converted from their religious beliefs of Taoism and Buddhism to Christianity, there was much religious diffusion and integration within the Chinese conversion to Christianity. Soon however, the Chinese found themselves trapped in segregation because they had become the targets of a "tidal wave" of racism. The San Francisco Chronicle described Chinatown as a "filthy nest of iniquity and rottenness in our midst." Hoodlums enforced this segregation, beating up Chinese they found outside of Chinatown and taking their queues, or braids, as trophies.

Picture of a Tian Hou altar of the Chinese Ma Zhu religion

(Genthe's Photographs of San Francisco's Old Chinatown., 86.)



Many members of San Francisco's Chinatown provided assistance to those held at the the immigration station. However, those who had been detained at Angel Island for weeks, months or years, often tried to forget their experiences after reaching the mainland. These immigrants carried with them the constant fear of being deported and would often refuse to speak of their degrading experiences at the station, for fear of being deported. The leaders of Chinatown protested the treatment of their people at the immigration station, but they were ignored by both the Chinese and the American governments. (Chinese in America, 91) Relatives and friends of immigrants in Chinatown were unable to help them through the interrogation process by communication by mail, it was read over by immigration authorities. However, a new way too comunicate information was soon found in the Chinese cooks, who were brought to the island when it was found that detainees were unable to digest American food. The smuggling of information soon became so wide spread that the immigration authorities quickly found out about it, but were powerless to stop it.


Click the photo above to view a movie about park docent John Trimble.
He lived on Angel Island as a child while the Immigration Station was in operation.

The juxtaposition of the two cultures had a deep impact on the experience of the Chinese immigrants. The American's and Chinese' cultures would first collide at Angel Island, but would remain locked in opposition even after the immigrants had arrived on the mainland. This conflict influenced many areas of the Chinese immigrants' life and shaped San Francisco's Chinatown.


Link to San Francisco's Chinatown

Link to Bibliography