Migration and Moving Forward
There's a reason why you might never have heard of Angel Island before -- why Ellis Island on the East Coast might come to mind instead. Among the nearly 12 million immigrants greeted by the Statue of Liberty, nearly all were of European descent. Ellis Island was a place of welcome, opportunity, and freedom. By contrast, Angel Island was built to contain specifically Chinese immigrants, to block those who undertook the brunt of the manual labor involved in constructing the Transpacific Railroad and later faced brutal discrimination after European laborers saw a chance to blame the Chinese laborers for an economic downturn in the 1870s. This history becomes even more complicated considering that railroad bosses imported many of these Chinese laborers, over 25,000 of whom arrived in California between 1849 and 1851.
As estimates go, around 300,000 immigrants passed through the station during its operation from 1910-1940, although the exact number is unknown. Immigration officials at Angel Island deported up to 30 percent of immigrants, according to KQED's education initiative Pacific Link, compared with a 1-2 percent deportation rate at Ellis Island.A testament to the fierce anti-Chinese sentiment at the time nationwide: Massachusetts and Connecticut were the only two states that did not ratify the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the piece of legislation behind the creation of the Angel Island Immigration Station.
Michael McKechnie, Director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF), speaks here about the challenges to keeping this history alive, one that exposes a moment of hatred in our country's rich immigrant history, and one that is ultimately, very painful for many who actually lived it. Addressing key questions about why Ellis Island dominates American narratives of immigration, McKechnie speaks to the heart of this Asian American Studies course on two levels.
We studied this quarter how people follow economic opportunity, leaving the destitution of their home countries for the promise of greater wealth in a new one. Unlike the East Coast, where labor and people were in short supply during 1892-1924 when Ellis Island was in operation, the West Coast had no labor shortage at the turn of the century. After the railroads were built, we turned on those Chinese laborers who had given their lives to build them, making no mention of the exploitation in terms of wage disparity and persecution Chinese laborers endured in the so-called Gim San, or Golden Mountain.
Today, the interactive, multimedia-based work Director McKechnie is leading with AIISF aligns closely to the project our Asian American Studies/Labor and Workplace Studies class has undertaken these past few months. Mimicking the new complexities of contemporary society, both endeavor to trace the changing ways in which our world is looking, acting, and envisioning the future, taking stock of the important histories that inform these changes.
In my research for this chapter, it's been interesting for me to learn how much of the anti-Asian sentiment came from immigrants themselves, how so much was laborer-on-laborer hatred. As amazing it is to study at UCLA, a large public research institution, I can affirm how competition among us students can perpetuate the kind of racial prejudice that allowed a place like Angel Island to exist -- not to mention the outrageous displays of racism, even Asian-American on Asian-American racism, our university community has seen in recent years. Ultimately, this self-reflection has affirmed for me the value of this Scalar project.
Keeping this context in mind, the approaches that both the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and we in Dr. Cong-Huyen's class are using take on a whole new meaning. Expanding access to information by creating it, they demonstrate how we must move forward from our pasts into a more connected future: collaboratively.
By Samantha Ching
Media Credit: The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) via YouTube
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