Angel Island Detention Centre

Angel Island Detention Centre, Male Barracks

Historically, migrating from China overseas has seldom been trouble-free, but for those who decided to cross the Pacific in the hundred years from the mid-nineteenth century, the obstacles were many and far-reaching. The immigrant-processing centres which sprang up along the coasts of North America and Australasia testify to the hardships faced by hopeful Chinese immigrants – for whom these detention stations were first established. [1] Today, surviving sites of border control constitute a 'built archive' of Chinese migrant experiences. They serve as an important reminder of western nation states' racialised exclusion of Chinese migrants, but they are also monuments to the myriad struggles against this exclusion.

Chinese labourers, once highly sought-after, were formally barred from entering the U.S. in 1882 after the Californian 'Gold Rush' dried up. [2] The first purpose-built detention centre on the North American West Coast opened in 1910, primarily to process these now-illegal Chinese migrants, on Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay. The vast majority of the 175,000 Chinese migrants who did enter the United States between 1910 and 1943, when the 'Exclusion Act' was repealed, either as 'merchants' or as descendants of American-born Chinese (truthfully or not), were held at Angel Island while their applications were considered. Detainment on the island often lasted many weeks – in some cases, years.

Angel Island was considered a suitable site for an immigration station given its close proximity to San Francisco, but the island also has a long and interesting history. Native Americans grazed their cattle there until they were driven off by the Spanish in the 1780s (hence Isla de los Ángeles); during the American Civil War, the island was fortified against Confederate forces and a military garrison was maintained there throughout the nineteenth century; Japanese and German POWs were briefly imprisoned there following the Second World War; and, in 1955, Angel Island was designated a National Park, quickly becoming a hugely popular destination for tourists and walkers.

As a symbol of the historical injustices suffered by the United State's immigrants, the Angel Island Detention Centre continues to loom large in the American popular imaginary today. In 2009, Barack Obama declared a national 'Angel Island Day' (January 21st) to commemorate 'the Angel Island immigrants who endured so many hardships'. [3] Over the last decade, the Immigration Station on Angel Island has been conserved as a memorial to migrant experience. The barracks have been partially restored, there is a museum and daily tours of the site. Poured-concrete steps have been inscribed with the words 'LONELINESS', 'COURAGE', 'DETERMINATION', and so on. And there is now a memorial stone in Chinese where the flag-pole once stood.

I visited Angel Island many times in the summer of 2012. Departing San Francisco from Embarcadero 'Pier #39', the ferry passes Alcatraz to the east before arriving at Ayala Cove which is nestled in the north of Angel Island. ('Welcome to Angel Island State Park', 'Wood Fires Are Prohibited!'...). [4] In the early twentieth-century, Ayala Cove was widely known as 'Hospital Cove' owing to the quarantine station which operated there between 1889 and 1946.

From the dock area, it is a 40-minute hike to the Immigration Centre. The climb is fairly steep, through oak and eucalyptus – itself a migrant from Australia and Tasmania. Walking along the island's north-ridge, San Francisco is simultaneously near and far: tantalisingly visible on the horizon but ever-distant, the sea being much too wide and dangerous to swim.

Belvedere and Sausalito from Angel Island's NorthridgeThe trail takes you alongside a 10-foot high fence with barbed wire and down past a row of cottages where the Immigration Guards had lived. (These are now burned out –-apparently intentionally in the 1970s as part of a film set for 'The Candidate' starring Robert Redford). The compound is segregated: the hospital is on the right, the male barracks in the centre, and an outhouse for women and children positioned nearer the shore. The Bell Tower used to include a dock which reached a quarter-mile out to sea, but this has since disintegrated. A chain link fence marks out the 'recreation area'– about one eighth of a football pitch – for three hundred or so detainees.

Historians have struggled to put together a complete picture of detainee-life on Angel Island. There have been some wonderful oral histories written of the island [5] since the 1970s, but sadly there are few still alive with first-hand experience of detainment there. As regards textual sources, the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley contains several immigration inspectors's diaries (see, in particular the 'Chinese in California' collection); and both The Ethnic Studies Library (also at UC Berkeley) and The Chinese Historical Society of America Museum in San Francisco's Chinatown have fascinating photographs of the centre, mainly from the 1920s. However, many official documents were lost in a fire in 1940 which ravaged the centre's administration building. It was therefore particularly momentous when a large collection of testimonies from the detainees' own perspective was rediscovered in the form of many hundreds of poems which had been carved into the barrack-walls during their incarceration.

First written in black ink, these poems were quickly painted over by immigration officials who considered them to be graffiti. Undeterred, the poets began carving around the outlines of the poems and hollowing out the centres to create an impression of each word. The maintenance crew were again ordered to cover up the writing and to fill in the words with putty before applying a new coat of paint. Ironically, it was precisely this attempt to obliterate the poems which served to protect them from deterioration over the next hundred years and, remarkably, now that the putty itself has crumbled, over two hundred poems remain.

'Detained in this Wooden House', author unknown. Poetry carved into the walls of Angel Island Detention CentreThe Angel Island poems are perhaps the earliest literary expressions of Chinese immigration to the United States, poignantly evincing a deep anger, sorrow, and frustration. As historical sources, they defy conventional evidential categories. The poems demand that we consider buildings as text – and that textual sources can be found outside the traditional archive. Methodologically speaking, this becomes more significant when attempting to excavate the lives of previously overlooked subjects, subjects who might not leave traces in other (paper-based) historical material. The walls of the detention centre served physically to confine Chinese migrants, but they were also crucial sites of poetic resistance.


Andrew P Diver
PhD. Candidate
Faculty of History
University of Cambridge

Added February 2014

(All photographs A. Diver 2012)


1. Though smaller numbers of Japanese, Korean, Philippino, Russian migrants, and even fewer Europeans, were also detained on Angel Island.

2. Under the 'Chinese Exclusion Act' of 1882.

3. B. Obama, 'Presidential Proclamation - National Angel Island Day', Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, January 20th, 2010. [Available online:, Accessed: January 30th, 2013].

4. On clear days you can see Alcatraz prison's parade ground, lighthouse, and water tower. The island was occupied by Native American rights activists in the 1960s. Geraniums and fig trees grow there now.

5. For example, see the 'Angel Island Oral History Project' conducted by the late Him Mark Lai and Judy Yung. (Ethnic Studies Library, Berkeley CA. Box 2 file 4.)