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Asian Migration and Global Cities

Anne Cong-Huyen, Jonathan Young Banfill, Katherine Herrera, Samantha Ching, Natalie Yip, Thania Lucero, Randy Mai, Candice Lau, Authors
San Francisco, page 5 of 5

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Angel Island

A global city Angel Island is not. To be exact, it’s not even a city. Or even a town. It doesn’t meet the criteria we’ve been using to look at other hubs like Los Angeles, Dubai, or Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon. Trying to place Angel Island in a geographic sense, today Angel Island is attributed (at least on Google maps) not to the global city of San Francisco, which is how we’re understanding it, to neighboring Tiburon on the mainland, where the ferry to the island departs. It’s thought of in relation to the other two islands in the San Francisco Bay, Treasure Island and Alcatraz Island, as the largest of the three.

Its own networks of information and flows of transnational capital have operated on a much smaller scale, especially in regards to the latter, as the island’s use by the government use has shaped it into a place where flows of labor and cultural capital were systematically interrupted – a processing center for military recruits and immigrants, a quarantine station – or where capital was stored/managed (a cattle ranch). Yet, I am studying Angel Island exactly for these varied histories.

Tracing its cultural history, I am arguing that where San Francisco might represent a place of settlement for Asian migrants and laborers, Angel Island stands as a gateway, a journey’s end in a few respects. After traversing oceans, many immigrants found themselves deported or detained, staying in the station for weeks to months to years, and some dying within its walls, whether by natural causes or sadly, by their own hand.

However, before this moment in history, coastal Miwok explored the island 2,000 years ago. The island also has over 100 years of military history, starting during the years of the Civil War when Camp Reynolds was established in 1863 to protect against Confederate sympathizers in the Bay Area to the declaration of the entire island as Fort McDowell, to its use a “prisoner of war camp” during World War II where persons of Japanese, Italian, and German descent were interned. In 1892, the quarantine station at Ayala Cove, alternatively known as Hospital Cove,

With the Gold Rush in 1848 bringing millions to San Francisco looking to make their fortune, the influx of immigrants, particularly those of Chinese descent, elevated racial tension, and fueled prejudice against migrants of Asian descent among European laborers, who blamed them for economic downturn of the 1870s. Close to 175,000 Chinese immigrants alone came to the station in the thirty years following 1910, when the station was built to great controversy in keeping with the Chinese Exclusion Law of 1882 that restricted Chinese immigration. In operation as a processing/detention center between 1910-1940, the station saw immigrants representing over 80 countries. Among them Chinese paper sons, Japanese and Korean picture bridges, South Asian nationalists, and Mexican families, all immigrants were subjected to lengthy interrogations, for which they’d have to study extensively in order to answer questions as specific as how many steps they had to their front door.

With the fire in 1940 burning down the station’s administration building, and the U.S. having to change their policy toward China when it allied with them during World War II, the station’s time as a detention/processing center made way for other (aforementioned) uses. Yet, the rediscovery of the poetry carved by mostly Chinese detainees led to a movement to restore the station, which enabled it today to become what the state park website terms “a place of reflection” for visitors and a bittersweet reminder of the past for returning detainees.1

Angel Island holds a varied, rich history within the experiences of our nation. I take a look at only some of the many stories it has to tell, looking at official texts from government-affiliated productions and cultural ones by independent companies and actors. I include impressions from my own visit to the Island, not having had a relative pass through but after learning about the poetry in my Asian American Literature and Culture course and at the wish of my grandfather, who had recently passed away just before. I conclude by relating the epic narratives from immigrants who passed through the processing/detention center and hopefully, underlying the sense of hope they impart.

By Samantha Ching

1”Angel Island SP.” California State Parks and Recreation. California State Government. Web. 18 Mar 2014

Media Credits: The Angel Island Company (“Spend a Day”) and KQED Pacific Link (“Anti-Chinese cartoon”)

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