Black and white photo of Chinese immigrant families lined up against a wall

Some immigrants were held at Angel Island for more than a year.

The Granger Collection

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, RH.6-8.9, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.5, WHST.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, W.6-8.2, W.6-8.5, W.6-8.9, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Culture • Time, Continuity, and Change • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions • Power, Authority, and Governance • Civic Ideals and Practices

U.S. SPOTLIGHT

Paired Text

Turned Away

On Angel Island, tens of thousands of hopeful immigrants from China, including Calvin Ong, were stopped from entering the U.S.

As You Read, Think About: How has discrimination affected Asian Americans throughout history?

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

When Calvin Ong was 10 years old, he said goodbye to his mother, brother, and friends in China. He was moving to a place where he didn’t speak the language and knew almost no one: the United States. 

It was the summer of 1937. To get to his new home, Ong had to spend 18 days on a crowded ship, sharing a room with four strangers. He planned to start a new life with his father, who had moved to California years earlier. 

“America was a land of opportunity,” says Ong, now 94. “I could seek an education, find a job, and earn money to improve my family’s situation.”

But he soon found out that the American dream wouldn’t be easy to achieve. His first stop in the U.S. was Angel Island, an immigration station near San Francisco, California. It was built mainly to keep out immigrants from Asia, not welcome them. 

When Calvin Ong was 10 years old, he said goodbye to his mother, brother, and friends in China. He was moving to the United States. It was a place where he did not speak the language and knew almost no one.

It was the summer of 1937. To get to his new home, Ong had to spend 18 days on a crowded ship. He shared a room with four strangers. Ong planned to start a new life with his father, who had moved to California years earlier.

“America was a land of opportunity,” says Ong, now 94. “I could seek an education, find a job, and earn money to improve my family’s situation.”

But he soon found out that the American dream would not be easy to achieve. His first stop in the U.S. was Angel Island. That was an immigration station near San Francisco, California. It was built mainly to keep out immigrants from Asia, not to welcome them.

You might have heard about Ellis Island, the immigration station in New York Harbor. From 1892 to 1954, more than 12 million immigrants—most of them from Europe—entered the U.S. through Ellis Island. It still stands today, along with the Statue of Liberty nearby, as a symbol of the important role immigration has played in American history. 

Angel Island, located on the other side of the country, symbolizes a darker part of that history. Edward Tepporn, the executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, says it’s important to understand this story too.

“What Angel Island reminds us is that the U.S. has not always been completely welcoming of immigrants,” says Tepporn, “and has taken active effort to exclude certain immigrant groups.” 

You might have heard about Ellis Island, the immigration station in New York Harbor. From 1892 to 1954, more than 12 million immigrants entered the U.S. through Ellis Island. Most were from Europe. Ellis Island still stands today. Along with the Statue of Liberty nearby, it is a symbol of the important role immigration has played in American history.

Angel Island is on the other side of the country. It symbolizes a darker part of that history. Edward Tepporn says it is important to understand this story too. He is the executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.

“What Angel Island reminds us is that the U.S. has not always been completely welcoming of immigrants,” says Tepporn, “and has taken active effort to exclude certain immigrant groups.”

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

When immigrants arrived in the U.S., they had to undergo medical exams.

Unfairly Blamed

By the time of Ong’s arrival, Chinese immigrants had a long history in the U.S. The first big wave of newcomers from China began to arrive during the California Gold Rush of the 1840s, when gold was found in that state. Many of these immigrants worked in the gold mines, started their own businesses, or labored on farms. 

In the decades to follow, up to 20,000 Chinese people took on the grueling, dangerous work of building the transcontinental railroad. In 1869, that railroad linked America’s East Coast and West Coast for the first time. 

If not for immigrants from China, historians say, the railroad might not have been built. Yet Chinese railroad workers often faced discrimination. They were paid 30 to 50 percent less than White workers—only about $1 per day (the equivalent of about $19 in today’s money). And unlike other workers, they had to pay for their own food and housing. 

By the time Ong arrived, Chinese immigrants had a long history in the U.S. The first big wave of newcomers from China began to arrive during the California Gold Rush of the 1840s. That was when gold was found there. Many of those immigrants worked in the gold mines, started their own businesses, or labored on farms.

In the decades to follow, up to 20,000 Chinese people did the grueling, dangerous work of building the transcontinental railroad. In 1869, that railroad linked America’s East Coast and West Coast for the first time.

If not for immigrants from China, historians say, the railroad might not have been built. Yet Chinese railroad workers often faced discrimination. They were paid 30 to 50 percent less than White workers. They made only about $1 per day. (That would equal about $19 a day in today’s money.) And unlike other workers, they had to pay for their own food and housing.

Then, in the 1870s, the U.S. economy collapsed and jobs became scarce. Many White people blamed Chinese workers, claiming that they were taking all the jobs, even though they were only a small portion of the U.S. population.

In response to pressure from political and labor leaders, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. It banned nearly all Chinese immigrants from entering the country and was the first U.S. law to restrict immigration on the basis of a person’s race or country of origin. 

Angel Island opened in 1910 to enforce this law, as well as later acts that banned immigrants from most other Asian countries. 

Still, about 175,000 Chinese people landed on Angel Island over the next 30 years, hoping to gain entry to the U.S. People from Japan, India, Russia, and nearly 80 other nations did too. About one in five of them were turned away. Ong was one of them.

Then, in the 1870s, the U.S. economy collapsed. Jobs became scarce. Many White people blamed Chinese workers. They said Chinese were taking all the jobs, even though they were only a small portion of the U.S. population.

In response to pressure from political and labor leaders, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. That law banned nearly all Chinese immigrants from entering the country. It was the first U.S. law to restrict immigration on the basis of a person’s race or country of origin.

Angel Island opened in 1910 to enforce this law, as well as later acts that banned immigrants from most other Asian countries.

Still, about 175,000 Chinese people landed on Angel Island over the next 30 years, hoping to gain entry to the U.S. People from Japan, India, Russia, and nearly 80 other nations did too. About one in five of them were turned away. Ong was one of them.

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants arrived at Angel Island between 1910 and 1940.

Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress

Ong and other immigrants lived in cramped rooms with triple bunk beds.

Trick Questions 

After arriving on Angel Island, Ong was given an extensive medical exam. He was then assigned to stay with strangers in a cramped room filled with rows of triple bunk beds (see photo above)

Before he could enter the U.S., Ong would have to answer questions correctly to prove that he was actually who he claimed to be. But there was no telling when he’d be called. Some people were held on the island for more than a year. 

“It became a prison,” Ong says. 

After four months, Ong was finally interviewed. He had prepared thoroughly for questions he might be asked—but they were purposely difficult, especially for a kid. What direction did his house in China face? How many steps led to his front door? What were the ages of his neighbors? 

Ong’s father was brought in for questioning too. If their answers didn’t match, the immigration agents would conclude that they weren’t actually related. 

Ong couldn’t answer many of the questions. He failed the test and was deported. 

“It was one of the worst moments of my life,” he recalls. “I felt I had failed my family, and it was the end of my journey.”

After arriving on Angel Island, Ong was given an extensive medical exam. He had to stay with strangers in a cramped room filled with rows of triple bunk beds (see photo above).

Before he could enter the U.S., Ong would have to answer questions correctly. That was to prove that he was who he claimed to be. But there was no telling when he would be called. Some people were held on the island for more than a year.

“It became a prison,” Ong says.

After four months, Ong was finally interviewed. He had prepared thoroughly for questions he might be asked. But they were purposely difficult, especially for a kid. What direction did his house in China face? How many steps led to his front door? What were the ages of his neighbors?

Ong’s father was brought in for questioning too. If their answers did not match, the immigration agents would conclude that they were not actually related.

Ong could not answer many of the questions. He failed the test. He was deported.

“It was one of the worst moments of my life,” he recalls. “I felt I had failed my family, and it was the end of my journey.”

Courtesy of Calvin Ong

Left: Ong in 1951; right: Ong today

An American at Last

But Ong would get a second chance. In 1943, Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1949, he tried once again to come to the U.S.

By then, Angel Island was no longer operating as an immigration station. A fire had destroyed the administration building in 1940. So this time, Ong was held in a different immigration center in San Francisco. After being detained there for six months, he was allowed to go live with his father.

In 1951, Ong became a U.S. citizen. Two years later, his mother and brother joined him in this country. Ong went on to serve in the U.S. military, own a business, and raise a family. 

He is one of the few immigrants alive today who was detained at Angel Island, and he says he would do it all over again.

“Even with all the hardships, it was worth it,” Ong says. “I sincerely love America.”

But Ong would get a second chance. In 1943, Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1949, he tried again to come to the U.S.

By then, Angel Island was no longer an immigration station. A fire had destroyed the administration building in 1940. So Ong was held in a different immigration center in San Francisco. He was kept there for six months. Then he was allowed to go live with his father.

In 1951, Ong became a U.S. citizen. Two years later, his mother and brother joined him in this country. Ong went on to serve in the U.S. military, own a business, and raise a family.

He is one of the few immigrants alive today who was held at Angel Island. He says he would do it all over again.

“Even with all the hardships, it was worth it,” Ong says. “I sincerely love America.”

Learning From History

Over time, the Angel Island site fell into disrepair and was almost torn down. But in 1970, a California state park ranger discovered poems that had been inscribed on the walls by immigrants, describing their journeys to the U.S.—and their detention (see "Voices From Angel Island," below). The finding spurred an effort by activists and community groups to preserve the center. In 1997, the site was designated a National Historic Landmark and opened as a museum.

Today, people of Asian descent make up about 7 percent of the U.S. population and are the nation’s fastest-growing racial or ethnic group. But Asian Americans continue to face discrimination in this country. 

Over time, the Angel Island site fell into disrepair. It was almost torn down. But in 1970, a California state park ranger discovered poems written on the walls by immigrants. The poems described their journeys to the U.S. and their detention (see "Voices From Angel Island," below). The finding spurred an effort by activists and community groups to preserve the center. In 1997, the site was named a National Historic Landmark. It opened as a museum.

Today, people of Asian descent make up about 7 percent of the U.S. population. They are the nation’s fastest-growing racial or ethnic group. But Asian Americans continue to face discrimination in this country.

Today, Angel Island is a National Historic Landmark.

Aerial Archives/Alamy Stock Photo

Angel Island today

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, there have been increased reports of attacks against members of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, including incidents of verbal harassment and physical violence. Experts say the attacks are being fueled in part by false claims blaming Covid-19 on people of Asian descent—even though a person’s race has nothing to do with how the disease spreads (see “Taking a Stand for Tolerance”). 

Tepporn of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation says Angel Island reminds us that such attacks are part of a larger pattern of anti-Asian racism in this country, dating back to the mid-1800s.

“There’s a long history of xenophobia toward Asians and other immigrants that has unfortunately been part of our U.S. history,” he says. “And when we forget to learn from history, we’re unfortunately doomed to repeat it.” 

For example, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been increased reports of attacks against members of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. That includes incidents of verbal harassment and physical violence. Experts say the attacks are being fueled in part by false claims blaming Covid-19 on people of Asian descent. However, a person’s race has nothing to do with how the disease spreads (see “Taking a Stand for Tolerance”).

Tepporn of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation says Angel Island reminds us that such attacks are part of a larger pattern of anti-Asian racism in this country. It dates back to the mid-1800s.

“There’s a long history of xenophobia toward Asians and other immigrants that has unfortunately been part of our U.S. history,” he says. “And when we forget to learn from history, we’re unfortunately doomed to repeat it.”

Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress

An inscription by an immigrant at Angel Island

Voices From Angel Island 

More than 200 poems and hundreds of other inscriptions have been found on the walls at Angel Island. The messages—written by the immigrants detained there—express emotions such as sadness, homesickness, and anger. Most of the authors did not include their names. Here is one of the poems from a Chinese immigrant, translated into English. What does it tell you about life at Angel Island? What details stand out to you?

Imprisoned in the wooden building day after day,

My freedom withheld; how can I bear to talk about it?

I look to see who is happy, but they only sit quietly.

I am anxious and depressed and cannot fall asleep.

The days are long and the bottle constantly empty; 

my sad mood, even so, is not dispelled.

Nights are long and the pillow cold; who can pity 
my loneliness?

After experiencing such loneliness and sorrow,

Why not just return home and learn to plow the fields?

Poem #43 from Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, eds. Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, Second Edition. ©2014. Reprinted with permission of the University of Washington Press.

Poem #43 from Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, eds. Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, Second Edition. ©2014. Reprinted with permission of the University of Washington Press.

Write About It! How have Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders experienced discrimination and stood up for their rights over the years? Include key dates and details from the article.

Interactive Quiz for this article

Click the Google Classroom button below to share the Know the News quiz with your class.

Download .PDF

Related Content

videos (1)
Skills Sheets (7)
Skills Sheets (7)
Skills Sheets (7)
Skills Sheets (7)
Skills Sheets (7)
Skills Sheets (7)
Skills Sheets (7)
Lesson Plan (2)
Lesson Plan (2)
Leveled Articles (1)