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Immigration history preserved on Angel Island

The Angel Island Immigration Station, once known as the "Ellis Island of the West," is reopening after a multimillion-dollar restoration of the historical landmark.
Ellis Island West
Dale Ching, 87, talks about his lengthy detention at the Angel Island Immigration Station in 1937 on Angel Island in Calif. on Tuesday Dec. 9, 2008. The Angel Island Immigration Station, once known as the "Ellis Island of the West," is reopening to the public in February 2009.Jakub Mosur / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Angel Island Immigration Station, once known as the "Ellis Island of the West," is reopening after a multimillion-dollar restoration of the historical landmark aimed at showing visitors a chapter of American history that many would rather forget.

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants, mostly from Asia, were detained on the largest island in San Francisco Bay for days, weeks and sometimes months in the three decades before World War II.

They were housed in crowded, dingy barracks while undergoing humiliating medical exams and grueling interrogations administered by officials intent on upholding federal laws restricting immigration from China and elsewhere.

"Angel Island is a commentary on the kind of racist thinking that really impacted how people from Asia were treated," said Eddie Wong, executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. "To correct those errors for other people, not just Asians, it's important to know that history."

$60 million restoration
Nearly seven decades after it closed, the station is set to reopen in mid-February following completion of the first phase of a $60 million restoration project that was started in 2005. The initial work has focused on restoring the barracks, where many immigrants carved poems into the wooden walls.

The station was built on Angel Island, a short boat ride from San Francisco, to help enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and other laws aimed at curbing immigration at a time when Americans were worried about immigrants stealing jobs and depressing wages.

From 1910 to 1940, about 1 million immigrants from some 90 countries — including an estimated 175,000 from China — were processed at Angel Island.

Some passed through fairly quickly, but many Chinese immigrants were detained for up to two years while immigration officials questioned their legal status.

Stranger in new land
Don Lee was 11 years old when he left his rural village in China's Guangdong Province to join his father in America in 1939. After three weeks crossing the Pacific in the steerage deck of a steamship, he was held for a month on Angel Island.

"The whole place is really congested and full of strangers, so I was more scared than anything else," Lee, 81, said during a recent visit to the renovated barracks.

The retired civil engineer remembers long interrogation sessions in which inspectors asked him detailed questions about his family, home, village and neighbors in China.

"They're not there to welcome you. They're really there to discourage you. It's up to them to bounce you," said Lee, who now lives in Concord, about 30 miles east of San Francisco.

The station was closed in 1940 after fire destroyed the main administration building. Then it was used to process German and Japanese war prisoners during World War II, when the U.S. repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act because China and the U.S. had become allies.

The island became a state park in 1954, and until the restoration project began in 2005 about 200,000 people visited the station each year even though they could only see a small section of the barracks.

'I am anxious'
Now visitors can tour the entire two-story facility, including several rooms furnished with suitcases, clothes, books, games and other items from the period.

"We're trying to create as accurate of an experience for the visitor so they can see what it was actually like to be detained here," said Katherine Metraux, a museum curator with the state Department of Parks and Recreation.

The abandoned barracks had been scheduled to be torn down in 1970, when a park ranger rediscovered the Chinese poems — many covered by paint — that conveyed the sadness, anger and loneliness of being held captive on the island.

One poem reads: "Imprisoned in the wooden building day after day, My freedom is 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."