Angel Island and Anti-Chinese Sentiment

Written by Reina Wong and edited by Alice Shu

Immigration on the East Coast goes through Ellis Island in New York, but what’s its West Coast equivalent?

In 1905, the construction on Angel Island started in an area known as China Cove. Between 1910 to 1940, immigration through the West Coast went through Angel Island in San Francisco, California. Chinese immigrants were incarcerated and underwent thorough questioning and demeaning medical examinations. The excessive questions varied from “How many steps are there to the front door of your relative’s house” and ”Who lives in the third house on the second street of your relative’s town?” Incorrectly answering these questions led to further custody and future deportation. The typical detention lasted a couple of weeks, but the majority of them were held for months.

The Chinese first came to California in 1848 due to the Gumm San or “Gold Mountain” (referring to the California Gold Rush). Following their arrival, the Chinese were met with obvious racism and discrimination. Exclusion against the Chinese began with anti-Chinese legislation, such as the 1850 Foreign Miners’ License Tax law, which required anyone who was not a U.S. citizen to pay a monthly fee of $20, which is around $667 today, to mine in the state. The Chinese immigrants got paid about $26-$35 monthly for a twelve-hour workday, six-day workweek, and had to pay for their own food and shelter. On the other hand, white people earned $35 and were provided with food and shelter. Even though the law was repealed the next year, many Chinese had already moved out of the mines and migrated to San Francisco and started the very first ChinaTown.

Anti-Chinese legislation also took the form of immigration restriction. In 1880, the Hayes Administration appointed James B. Angell to negotiate with China to come up with a treaty. The resulting Angell Treaty allowed the U.S. to restrict Chinese immigration, but not ban it. Two years later, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which enjoined Chinese workers from entering the country. The Act lasted ten years and was extended with the Geary Act of 1892, which required all people of Chinese origin to carry certificates of identification, which cost a dollar (equal to $17.58 today) or risk deportation. Congress extended the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1902 which substantially closed all immigration gates to the Chinese.

The Exclusion Act ended in 1943 with the passage of the Magnuson Act, which allowed Chinese immigrants to become citizens if they already lived in the country and if they had a father who was a U.S. citizen. Fatherless Chinese children became known as “paper sons” and “paper daughters” with papers establishing that they were children of American citizens and meticulous books with facts about their “family”. They had to use the information they knew to pass exhausting assessments which included specific details about their ancestors and about their homes.

While these policies are not enforced today, they are an important part of history. Even though they were abhorrent, they were impactful and they showed how we’ve evolved as a society. Hopefully, history will not repeat itself and we can continue to learn from these mistakes.


Cover Photo by Madeleine Maguire on Unsplash

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