Alone at Angel Island

Overview: This audio story from PRI is a great resource for using in lesson plans for teaching about young Chinese immigrants to Angel Island

By Zhaoyang Liu

Angel Island Immigration Center, oftentimes referred to as the “Ellis Island of the West”, operated from January 21, 1910 to November 5, 1940. Unlike Ellis Island, the immigration center was built to keep people out of the country. The majority of the immigrants that went through Angel Island were Asian, primarily from China, Japan, and India. Enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the underlying reason behind the construction of the facility; the United States government sought to limit the arrival of new Chinese immigrants, allowing only merchants, clergy, diplomats, teachers, and students. Nativists portrayed Chinese immigrants as an economic threat since they oftentimes occupied low-wage manual-labor jobs that they argued should go to Americans.

When immigrants arrived at Angel Island, they could be detained for a few days up to many months, where they had to answer detailed interrogation questions in order to verify their identities. This lengthy and convoluted questioning process was justified as a response to the “Paper Sons/Daughters,” individuals from China who purchased fabricated documents with the intention of proving that they were the children of Chinese immigrants already living in the United States.

The legacy of Angel Island still affects some Asian-Americans to this day. Lew Din Wing, the grandfather of Princeton history professor Beth Lew-Williams, was detained and interrogated at Angel Island as a nine-year-old boy, an experience which stayed with him his entire life. In 1930, his older brother (who had already been living in America) brought him across the Pacific to stay with their father in San Francisco. At Angel Island, Lew Din Wing was separated from his brother and father so that he could not coordinate his answers before the interrogation, a rule that was not written yet still enforced by officials. He failed his first round of questioning because he mentioned a parade that he had once attended in China, which his brother and father knew nothing about.

Although he was only detained for 34 days, which Beth verified through his immigration documents, Lew spoke about how it felt like nine to twelve months to him. “It took me a moment to realize what that meant, that 34 days was a lifetime for this nine-year-old, you know he had been separated from his family, he had been detained and he was interrogated all along,” Beth said in a PRI interview. She described that her grandfather had felt fear and shame from his time on Angel Island even in his later years, believing that he was still in some way unwanted by the United States.

The entirety of this interview can be heard below:

Reflection Questions:

1. Lew Din Wing explained that his 34-day detention at Angel Island felt like nine to twelve months. What effects might extended isolation from family have on young children? What emotions might children have while undergoing such experiences? How can these emotions affect an individual throughout their entire life?

2. Lew Din Wing still did not feel at home after living upwards of seventy years in the United States. Beth says in the interview:

“He was still ashamed and he was still scared from his time on Angel Island; he thought that some part of America still did not want him and that his trauma, his time there, had somehow been deserved… he carried the burden of that shame and fear of America when he passed away.”

Keeping that in mind, what messages might immigrants take away from an experience of detention? How might detainment cause immigrants to feel shame about their relationship with their new country?

3. How can Lew Din Wing’s story help us in understanding current day immigration crises? What can his story teach us about the experiences of modern-day migrant children?