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Angel Island - The "Ellis Island Of The West"

 Alissa Greenberg, Sampan


SAN FRANCISCO - Although they lived almost a century apart, Erika Lee speaks about Soto Shee with warmth, as if she were a friend instead of a historical figure. Soto Shee, the wife of a Chinese merchant, was detained on Angel Island—the immigration station in San Francisco Bay often called the “Ellis Island of the West”—while trying to join her husband in the United States. During her detention, her infant son, Soon Din, grew ill and died. Denied release following her son’s death, Soto Shee hung herself, only to be saved just in time by a station matron. “In the end, she was released. She lived to age 96, ran a restaurant, and had eight children. It’s this great story of perseverance,” Lee says.

This mixture of admiration, empathy, and intellectual interest drives Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, the biography/ethnography/history hybrid Lee wrote with Judy Yung and which Oxford University Press published in September. The book, which explores the experiences of the diverse immigrant groups that came through Angel Island between 1910 and 1940, is both lovingly detailed in its stories and ambitious in its scope.

“In my work I ask, what does it look like if we put Asian history in the center, in focus?” Lee says, “How does that change how we look at America, in general, in terms of culture and who we are?” Lee appeared at Boston's Chinese Progressive Association building recently to speak on these topics, answer questions, and sign copies at a reading sponsored by the Chinese Historical Society of New England (CHSNE).

Long before she became a historian, Lee, the grandchild of Chinese immigrants, witnessed history firsthand. In spring 1989 she traveled to China with her family, stopping in Tiananmen Square on June 1st. The Lees arrived in Hong Kong on June 4th to find a city boiling with distress. “We saw the protests but got out just in time,” she remembers. “It was so powerful to have witnessed those events.”

Lee had been headed toward a career in international business, but her time in China intrigued her. “I took some summer courses on immigrant and California history, and we learned about the exclusion laws [which heavily restricted or barred immigrants from a variety of Asian backgrounds, most notably Chinese, from entering the US]. It made me curious; it made me frustrated. I thought, ‘Hey, this is supposed to be my history. Why haven’t I heard about it in school, from my family, from my community about it? Why haven’t I read about it?’”

These questions led Lee to major in history at UC Berkeley. “As I learned, I got more and more incensed, more and more motivated to become part of a generation that would take control of and uncover our history,” she remembers. “I wanted to be recognized as a major part of history—not just in a ‘we are the world’ sense.”

Lee’s interest in Angel Island started as a personal one: two of her grandparents were processed at the station while immigrating to the US, although their experiences were profoundly different. “I barely ever asked my grandmother anything about it. It was a painful subject,” she remembers. “She was left behind in China—my grandfather couldn’t bring her over at first because of the Exclusion Acts. I had to be careful when I asked about her experience, choosing the right moment and taking notes under the table.”

In contrast, Lee’s grandfather was open about his experience as an early Asian-American. “He was a paper son [meaning a young boy who posed as the son of a family already established in the US] and didn’t feel any need to hide, “ she says. “He raised his family in Buffalo, and I think that was the difference. In San Francisco there were generations of people terrified of raids and deportation, but in Buffalo that fear was mostly absent.” Her personal interest led to a graduate thesis on the Island, which in turn led her to her co-author, Yung.

In 1970, on the eve of the immigration facility’s demolition, one of the island’s park rangers found Chinese poetry written by detainees carved on the walls of its barracks. Yung was among the first academics to understand the discovery’s significance. She and two co-authors published Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants and Angel Island 1910-1940 to much acclaim and attention. “It’s because of her book that people know about Angel Island at all,” Lee said. Lee asked Yung to serve on her dissertation committee, and Yung became her mentor and friend.

Although both of their first works concentrated on Chinese immigrants, Lee and Yung widened their focus for their current book, exploring the tribulations of a variety of the Island’s immigrant groups, from Russian Jews and the pogroms to Indian Sikhs and British partition. Although understanding the experiences of these groups was complicated for Lee, she says she had no trouble remaining invested. “It’s more than just a Chinese interest, even though that’s my ancestry. I’m an immigrant historian, and I’m interested in all aspects here—foreign relations, homeland politics, conceptions of race. The personal connection is an entry point, but only that,” she explained.

That personal connection is part of what keeps Angel Island from becoming too dryly historical. Although both Lee and Yung are professors, they decided early on that they didn’t want their book to be purely academic. Instead, they chose a dynamic format of alternating history, stories, and photos. “We wanted it to be accessible to the public but still intellectually rigorous,” Lee said. “We wanted to really engage people while telling a national—not just Chinese or Californian—story.”

To reach such a lofty goal, Lee and Yung needed connections and help—it would take a great deal of labor to track down the stories the authors wanted to tell. They established an advisory board comprised of colleagues in their academic field and at the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation to help find interview volunteers, comb through community newspapers, and locate other sources. “We had people calling from all over saying ‘I have a story,’” Lee recalls.

Oxford University Press expressed interested in the project from its start and planned to release the book in time for Angel Island’s 100th birthday this past summer. Beginning with a centennial celebration on the Island in July, Lee and Yung embarked on a national speaking tour, with proceeds from books sold benefitting Island preservation.

Readings at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, the Museum of Chinese in the Americas in New York City, and more afforded Lee and Yung the opportunity to meet some of the families whose stories their book tells, including the descendents of Soto Shee. “One of her sons shared her story with us,” Lee said. “We finally got to meet him in San Francisco at a reading. And, well, she had eight kids, so every stop we made, in Seattle, LA, Portland, and DC, there was a grandchild showing up. It was wonderful to meet all of them and see her legacy. ”

Lee’s Boston reading attracted a diverse group. A Suffolk University professor brought his “Asian in America” class; Mary Lee Hood, one of the first Chinese women to move to Brookline in the 1960s, came to learn more about what her mother’s immigration experience might have been like; and several members of CHSNE came to discuss genealogy research. The talk was personal and academic, historical and current. Lee discussed the Island’s history; recounted stories of failure and joy in the lives of Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Korean, and Filipino immigrants; read some of the Island’s barrack poetry; and discussed immigration sentiment and policy.

“The way we learn it, Ellis Island let in 12 million immigrants on the way to the American Dream, largely from Europe. Comparing the Ellis Island story to Angel Island helps us answer the question: Is USA still a country of immigrants, helping to adhere to the American dream? Or is it a gatekeeper country that builds fences?” she asked.

Later, the political became personal as members of the audience (all of whom asked to remain anonymous) shared their immigration stories. One woman told of a relative arriving illegally, as a paper son, in the late 1800s. “So many of us have this background, all these stories, but we don’t know them, even in our community,” she said. “My brother says, “Why are [illegal immigrants] fighting the government? It’s the law, you don’t fight it.’ And I said, ‘Excuse me? Who are we to talk?’”

Lee agreed, pointing out that 10% of undocumented immigrants today are Chinese and Filipino. “Talking about immigration and Angel Island forces Americans to confront race and immigration in a new way,” she said. “In 2008, 407,000 travelers were detained by the government for periods between 37 days to 10 months. In contrast, Angel Island detained 300,000 travelers over a 30-year period. This is still very much an ongoing issue.”

Afterwards, Lee expressed her satisfaction with the reading, as well her interest in the far-reaching strands of stories that connect the country’s coasts. ““Presenting in Boston brought together a lot of great themes,” she said. “Even here, some people have connections to Angel Island. It really demonstrates the national scale of this story and the way people from this Pacific gateway dispersed across the country.”

For this reason, Lee insists, although Ellis Island is the better-known narrative, Angel Island’s story has equal weight. “These are stories that are routinely ignored or excluded from what we think of as American History, with capital letters. To insist that these are important factors of American History is part of what I’m working toward.”

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