Angel Island


SFX:  Chinese Music


MOGLEN: In 1938 Thomas Lowe fled political turmoil in China and set out for the United States in search of a better life. He left his small village, traveling three weeks by boat and landed on the shores of Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay.


SFX:  Ocean and seagulls


MOGLEN:  While the East Coast had Ellis Island, where foreigners were known to be welcomed with open *arms, Angel Island greeted arrivals with *armed *guards. Casey Lee is Angel Island State Park Interpreter.


LEE:  Angel Island was actually called the Guardian of the Western Gate.


MOGLEN:  Lee says nearly a million people from about 90 different countries passed through the Immigration Station during its operation from 1910-1940. The largest emigrant group was the Chinese, who numbered around 175,000.  But because of the Chinese Exclusion Act -- a federal law passed in 1882 restricting the amount of Chinese who could enter the US -- the emigrants at Angel Island were treated almost like criminals. 


LEE: They were seen as threatening because they were seen as an unending labor source. and because they worked so cheaply threatening American jobs.


MOGLEN: So while paperwork for most foreigners was processed in three days – it could take *months if you were Chinese.  Thomas Lowe was detained for three weeks and confined to crowded military-style barracks.  He was allowed out only for meals, doctors’ visits and short recreational breaks in a yard surrounded by barbed wire.  His experience wasn’t unusual.  Lowe’s daughter, Felicia Lowe, is a filmmaker.  Her documentary “Carved In Silence” explores the Angel Island Chinese Immigration experience. She says life at Angel Island was very regimented.


LOWE: There were guards at the door and they barred you inside – and you were given a specific time when you went to eat.  So you were treated really like a prisoner.


MOGLEN:  The mostly male population were also rigorously interrogated several times before it was decided whether they would be allowed into the US or sent back to China. While studying her father’s papers, Lowe discovered proof that the constant uncertainty affected her father.


LOWE:  With each conclusion of each interview, they have to sign their names and I noticed on one of those interviews, that there was very shaky handwriting – and it really affected me deeply. Just to see the evidence that it was quite likely that he was very uncomfortable and probably scared that day.


MOGLEN: To alleviate their fear, some of the men wrote *poetry – on the walls. In fact, the barracks walls are covered in Cantonese script – over 200 poems, some in ink, some carved, express the men’s frustration, despair and hope. 


SFX:  Read in both Cantonese and English.

Everyone says travelling to North America is a pleasure.

I suffered misery on the ship and sadness in the wooden building.

After several interrogations, still I am not done.

I sigh because my compatriots are being forcibly detained.



READER:  Everyone says traveling to North America is a pleasure.

I suffered misery on the ship and sadness in the wooden building.

After several interrogations, still I am not done.

I sigh because my compatriots are being forcibly detained.


MOGLEN: Daniel Quan is also an Angel Island descendent. He says the Chinese have a long tradition of poetry.


QUAN:  So, it was more commonplace to know the different types of poetry, how to write it, and so it was more akin to just expressing your feelings, as if in prose.


MOGLEN:  He says some of the Angel Island poetry inspired other Chinese detainees to respond with their own poems.


QUAN: We see evidence of other poems written that allude to the first poem, or are answers or responses to that, and so obviously people were reading the poems and had some kind of emotional response to them.


MOGLEN: And though the men appeared to share their stories with each other while *interned, once *immigrated, many *never talked about their experience again.  Felicia Lowe:


LOWE: It was never spoken of in the home, because I think there was shame attached to it, that there would be a country that says specifically we don’t want Chinese people.


MOGLEN: Currently the Angel Island Immigration Station is undergoing a major restoration. Dan Quan is in charge of interpretive elements, like descriptive signs and sculpture.


QUAN:  What’s been done so far is that we’ve completely restored the barracks which is where all the poetry is and then we’ve also put together a replication of the footprint of the administration building.


MOGLEN:  Lowe is proud of the restoration and hopes it will help shed light on this little known era in America’s past.


 LOWE: We have the most diverse population in America, and we have the most beautifully crafted ideals in terms of equality for all.  And it’s a story and a goal we chase after all the time.  But it’s not without it’s pimples.  Those blemishes that defy some of our ideals are the very things we need to look at.


MOGLEN: By 1940, the Immigration Station closed. The Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed in 1943, mainly because China allied with the US during World War Two. 


AMBI: Ocean, seagull’s noises, distant sound of the bell, and faint Chinese music.


MOGLEN:  Thomas Lowe was finally released from Angel Island and allowed into the US. He married, had four children, owned several businesses and lived in America for the rest of his life.


AMBI: Music


MOGLEN: The newly restored Angel Island Immigration Station will reopen in early 2009. If you want to find out more about the Immigration Station or *all the recreational activities on Angel Island, visit the State Parks website at parks dot ca dot gov.


OUTRO: If you want to find out more about *supporting all of California’s state parks, visit the California State Parks Foundation website and join our 90,000 members. This podcast was brought to you thanks to a generous donation from Wendy James.