I like going places with my daughter the historian because she raises questions I don’t think of. It happened again two weeks ago when she flew out to California for the dedication of a plaque on Angel Island honoring her grandfather.
First, some background.
During its years of operation, 1910-1940, the Angel Island Immigration Station was not a friendly place. Immigrants from China, and later from other Asian nations, spent agonizing days and months confined in barracks while their cases were adjudicated.
The harsh conditions and long interrogations made it clear that America did not welcome them, although most managed to get in.
My father-in-law’s experience was particularly difficult. He arrived in 1930, a 9-year-old boy, sent for by his father who worked in America. Laoh Yeh always told us that he waited alone on Angel Island for 9 months, and my heart ached to hear it.
Recently we learned that he was only there for 34 days, but clearly in his child’s mind the experience was prolonged and painful.
Although some Angel Island internees are still alive, their numbers are dwindling. My father-in-law died in 2002. Many children and grandchildren of these immigrants, however, are citizens who have done well. Dozens jumped at the chance to honor their ancestors and help fund improvements to the Angel Island museum by purchasing a plaque.
The plaques, placed outdoors, are a fitting counterpoint to the most famous part of the detention center: the Chinese poetry expressing discouragement and longing, painstakingly carved onto the walls of the barracks.
When my husband signed up for a plaque, The Angel Island Foundation told him how many characters to use—up to eight lines, 40 characters per line — and the whole family used email to bounce ideas back and forth.
Here’s what we finally wrote.
“In 1930, at the age of 9, Din Wing arrived from Toi San and spent 34 days on Angel Island. Once released, he met his father for the first time. When his father died two years later, Din Wing survived the Depression washing dishes. After proudly serving America in WWII, he married Chung How. Overcoming hardships, they ran a successful business and nurtured our large family to whom he often said, ‘I’m proud of you.’ We are proud of him.”
Here are four other plaques that moved me.
“Mrs. Lee Yoke Suey. Detained on Angel Island January 15, 1924 to April 29, 1925 upon returning to the U.S. Her American-born husband, Lee Yoke Suey, died in 1922, putting her status in jeopardy. Their American-born children immediately were landed but she endured one of the longest detentions of a woman on Angel Island and prevailed. Her successful, hard fought appeal case helped other immigrants receive justice. Mrs. Lee “Poh Poh” is remembered by her grandchildren with love and gratitude.”
“Hew Din and Lock Shee…Immigrated through Angel Island in 1912 and 1921 as a paper son and his wife. They operated laundries in Merced and Woodland until the 1940s and retired in Sacramento…With love and appreciation from four generations of descendants.”
“‘Eat less, move more and don’t worry.’ Thin Lee 1911-2005, Toisan, New York City, Laundryman, waiter, machinist. Happily wedded 69 years to Emma Yee. His legacy of a better life for 26 heirs.”
“I still remember vividly the moment that I saw my father cry for the first time when he helped me pack and told me that I would have to leave the country to stay with one of my older cousins overseas and that we might never see each other again in this life…” Into Bo Campon, refugee from Laos, arrived in California 1977.”
At the dedication ceremony, I read plaques and listened to speeches. I watched young children play on the grass. The cool air and warm sun felt good, but the barracks looked as confining as ever, and although I didn’t go inside this time, I remember the narrow bunk beds, stacked three high.
After the ceremony, my historian daughter commented, “No one said anything about immigration in the present day. That feels like something missing.”
She’s right. Honoring the brave immigrants of the past, some of whom arrived in violation of then-existing laws, without recognizing their brotherhood with the immigrants of the present does feel uncomfortable.
Today’s immigration issues are convoluted, politicized, and heart-wrenching: children see their parents deported, children grow up American but can’t stay, families wait patiently but never get in, and many new arrivals encounter prejudice, whether they’re “legal” or not.
It seems crazy to think of my father-in-law as “lucky” for arriving when he did, enduring detention on Angel Island, and living in difficult conditions for much of his life. And yet, in some disturbing way, he was.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org