Brown Quarterly - Vol. 3, No. 4 (Spring 2000)

Angel Island

The U.S. Immigration Station, a National Historic Landmark, is located on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. What Ellis Island symbolizes to Americans of European heritage, who immigrated to the east coast, Angel Island symbolizes to Americans of Asian heritage on the West Coast. From 1910 to 1940 this immigration station processed one million people. Approximately 250,000 Chinese and 150,000 Japanese immigrants were detained at the Station.

Most early Chinese immigrants arrived during the Gold Rush (1849-50) and were recruited as laborers. With the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Congress restricted immigration and excluded Chinese laborers already in this country from becoming American citizens. Exempted were merchants, diplomats, ministers, travelers, students and children of American citizens.

Chinese immigrants were held in detention barracks at Angel Island for weeks or months until their paperwork was approved. In 1923 in Ozawa v. the United States, the Supreme Court ruled that Japanese were ineligible for naturalization. This led to the Immigration Act of 1924 prohibiting Japanese immigration, except for women married to Japanese men already in the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 when China became an ally of the United States during World War II.

During their long wait on Angel Island, some Chinese men expressed their bitterness, frustration and despair in poems written with Chinese ink brushes on the redwood walls of the barracks built in 1908. The walls were then painted covering the first generation of poems. Subsequently, the detainees began to carve their poems into the walls, reflecting the hardships and indignities they had endured.

Following World War II, the island became a state park. The station was abandoned and largely forgotten until 1970 when State Park Ranger Alexander Weiss discovered the scores of poems on the barracks walls. Today, the detention barracks are a museum open to the public. For more information, visit the Angel Island State Park Site at