The Forgotten Dark Spot in US History: Angel Island

When tourists want to visit Angel Island and search for information about it online, tons of websites jump out enticingly: Angel Island is a beautiful natural space, perfect for picnics and camping. The beach is magnificent. The ferry ride is breathtaking, and you can even get your exercise in through the beautiful hiking trails on the island.

I visited Angel Island this past Saturday, but my main focus was not to bathe in its natural beauty.

Angel Island, from roughly 1910-1940, had an immigration station that detained incoming Chinese immigrants. The US government did not appreciate that Chinese immigrants stayed for extended amounts of time in the US, thus “stealing” jobs from “true” Americans. US officials hoped to deport as many as possible by asking obscure questions about family histories that immigrants would have trouble answering correctly. The tour guide performed an exercise where he told us to imagine our bedroom down to the detail, and then asked us how many windows there were and what directions they were facing. I started to understand the ridiculousness of these interrogations. He also explained how Chinese immigrants were traumatized by the separation of their families once they landed at Angel Island, as well as by the forced medical interrogations that these immigrants did not know they were in for. During WWII, this immigration station was also transformed to become a Japanese internment camp.

What really touched me to the core about this immigration station/internment camp was that people actually left their marks on the walls of the building. They wrote their name and the date they arrived. Many Chinese immigrants wrote poems about the hopelessness they felt, but also about their resilience. It was breathtaking – to feel the carvings on the wall, these voices that yearned to be heard. I suddenly was seized with the strong notion of responsibility to speak for these people, today, 100 years later. The truth is, their voices have not been heard.

We learn about Ellis Island and the European immigrants that came into the US in our history textbooks – our high school teachers try to get students to understand their strife, and online sites always make a point to introduce its history. However, if you choose not to go deep into researching Angel Island, it is no more than a sunny spot to hike with your family. To think that so many people suffered in this place is simultaneously humbling and motivating for me. I want to write a blog post as a tribute to Angel Island.

This week, I will be doing a makeup tutorial based on the colors of Angel Island immigration station, so that we can all proudly wear the voices of these immigrants and internment camp victims on our faces. For more information on Angel Island, here is a short documentary I recommend:

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