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Everything you know about Angel Island, the largest island in the San Francisco Bay, is likely wrong – SF Gate

The San Francisco Bay is seen through a window in the detention barracks at the Angel Island Immigration Station.
It’s so ubiquitous that you see it on a poster during the ferry ride to Angel Island from San Francisco. It could very well be one of the only things that you know about the state park in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. But describing Angel Island as the “Ellis Island of the West” is a ham-fisted comparison. 
Unlike the island on the East Coast that welcomed European immigrants to the United States with general ease, Angel Island received immigrants from Asian countries with scrutiny and bias. 
Approaching the front of the new Angel Island Immigration Museum, Casey Dexter-Lee removes her state parks ranger flat hat and explains there used to be two doorways into the building, one of which was labeled “Non Europeans.” During immigration, each person had to pass through these doors for their mandatory examination before entering the United States. Discrimination met them before even entering the door. 
The Angel Island Immigration Museum opened in January 2022. 
The hospital, located above the northeastern cove of the island, once provided medical inspections and care for thousands of patients a year from 1910 until 1940, when a fire burned the administration building nearby and ended the island’s immigration operation. 
The hospital then fell into disarray until an effort between State Parks and the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation revived the facility to become a museum, which opened in January 2022. 
Today the hospital is transformed to further detail the hopes and struggles of those who immigrated to the United States via Angel Island in the early 20th Century. 
An estimated half a million people, a majority from China, Japan and other Asian countries, passed through Angel Island in the 30 years it was active. These immigrants were subjected to particular scrutiny, which led to days, weeks and, in the most egregious of cases, years of detention.
There is a dramatic contrast between Ellis and Angel islands for their detention rates. According to “Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America” by Erika Lee and Judy Yung, 80% of applicants passed the Ellis Island immigration inspection and medical examination and were on their way to New York or New Jersey within hours.
On Angel Island, nearly 60% of those immigrating were detained and confined for up to three days. For Chinese immigrants, who made up 70% of the entire detainee population, their stay was for two to three weeks.
As more stories are told about immigrants’ experiences on Angel Island, it becomes clear that reframing how we view the largest island in the Bay Area is overdue. 
The museum can create a visceral experience for the visitor. For example, the room titled “In the Shadows” features exhibit walls that are purposefully compact and nearly claustrophobic to conjure a struggle. Some immigrants were subjected to dehumanizing conditions such as exclusion and weekslong detention. 
A quote from an Angel Island detainee from China in 1939 credited to Mr. Lowe is printed on the wall: “We stared at the scenery beyond the barbed wires -– the sea, the sky and the clouds that were separated from us.”
Upon entering the adjacent room, called “Opening Doors,” there’s an immediate sense of relief. The exhibits are spread apart and colored in the red and yellow akin to the Golden Gate Bridge at dawn. The room is a celebration. 
One video details the path of Tyrus Wong, who came to the United States as a “paper son” (meaning he used a different name to bypass exclusionary laws at the time) to become a visual artist for Disney’s “Bambi.”
The exhibit “Opening Doors” within the new Angel Island Immigration Museum. 
Dexter-Lee has been a state park interpreter for more than two decades and has seen firsthand how history is unwritten and continuously updated.
“My tour is very different today than what it was 20 years ago. We’ve learned from a lot of stories that were passed down,” she said. “When I first got here, a staff member debunked the tale about how fortune cookies were invented here to pass notes to the immigrants. It’s a great story but we know better now.”
The Angel Island of today offers a diverse experience for visitors. There’s a self-guided tour and unique trails for hiking and biking a loop that offers a 360-degree view of the Bay Area. School children from around the state visit the island and marriage proposals are not uncommon. However, visiting the state park is incomplete without an acknowledgment of its once discriminatory purpose. 
When Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, it restricted Chinese immigration, and the island was a front line of discrimination. Chinese citizens continued to immigrate, either by abiding by the guidelines of the exempt categories of the law or by using a different name. The immigration station on Angel Island was used to determine who had legitimate exemption documentation or who was to be deported. 
The detention barracks part of the Angel Island Immigration Station.
“People will compare it to a concentration camp and I tell them that people were not murdered here. There was racist policy and practice but to our knowledge no violence,” Dexter-Lee said. “They referred to themselves as prisoners. There was a fence around the site with barbed wire. Angel Island was chosen for its isolation.”
Stanley Gee arrived at San Francisco from Hong Kong in 1938 and spent his first 10 days in America interned on Angel Island all because of the law. 
“He said he didn’t really understand why they were keeping him there,” his son Delbert Gee told SFGATE. “His immigration papers said he was who he said he was. Which is different than other Chinese immigrants who came over with purchased identities, called ‘paper sons.’”
Stanley’s internment was due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, a federal law signed by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882 — passed 140 years ago today — that restricted Chinese immigration and wasn’t replaced until World War II. Restrictions remained even after the act was superseded by the Magnuson Act in 1943, which only allowed a national quota of 105 Chinese immigrants per year, until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. 
Delbert, a judge for the Alameda County Superior Court for almost 20 years, said the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act stemmed from racism and the economy precarity. Immigrants were an easy target during a time of job scarcity. 
“In my opinion,” he said, “this is a very important piece of history. Not only to the country but to me personally.”
The exhibit “Under the Microscope” within the new Angel Island Immigration Museum. 
Edward Tepporn is the executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and visited the island the last week of April. He was dropping off supplies ahead of a monthlong commemoration of the Chinese Exclusion Act at the Angel Island Immigration Station.
The boxes held 140 LED candles, each representing a year since the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The candles will be on display in the site’s Detention Barracks Museum for the month of May to help ignite a conversation over the ongoing impacts of this discriminatory legislation. 
“The violence that we’re seeing against Asian Americans over these last few years isn’t new,” Tepporn told SFGATE. “Xenophobia made its way into the nation’s immigration policy with the Chinese Exclusion Act.”
One of the first things you tend to learn about Angel Island is a false equivalence. 
The comparison is so common: “Have you visited the ‘Ellis Island of the West?’” reads a poster on the wall of a ferry to Angel Island.
Historically, their equivalence was predetermined. As recounted in Lee and Yung’s “Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America,” local papers began introducing Angel Island as “San Francisco’s New Ellis Island” before the buildings on the island were even completed in 1910.
A photograph of Asian immigrants arriving at the quarantine station at Angel Island, San Francisco Bay, circa 1911. 
The two islands offer an isolated and controlled environment with the intent of processing immigrants into the United States, but their resemblance begins to fray upon a closer examination. 
Whereas the Emma Lazarus poem — “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty to celebrate a sense of welcome, this sentiment is lost on its West Coast counterpart. 
“Angel Island, on the other hand, was the main port of entry for Asian Immigrants and was characterized by the American immigration policies that excluded Asians and barred them from becoming naturalized citizens,” write Lee and Yung. 
The two islands do, however, share one clear unifying aspect. When architect Walter J. Matthews was hired to design the immigration station on Angel Island, he visited Ellis Island for inspiration. He was drawn to a “cottage system” and campus setting where each building was devoted to a specific function. 
Today, the two remaining buildings from Angel Island’s immigration history serve renewed functions to remind us of the injustices while promoting a future that doesn’t repeat them.
Silas Valentino is SFGATE’s Travel Editor. He was born in Bakersfield and raised in Marin County. He covered the New York City music scene for The Village Voice before returning west to report for the Point Reyes Light. Recently, he contributed to the launch of a monthly lifestyle magazine called PUNCH that focuses on the Peninsula. Outside of reading, writing and storytelling, Silas values his family (including eight nieces and nephews) and exploring the state. He lives with his girlfriend above a wine shop in Cole Valley. Email: silas.valentino@sfgate.com


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