By Kathleen Wong & for the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation's Summer 2004 newsletter.
It’s just past 10 a.m. on a sunny Thursday morning, and I’m standing on the deck of the ferry that motors between Tiburon and Angel Island. It’s a spectacular day to be outside. A heat wave sun sparks diamonds on the water, and the distinctive skyline of San Francisco shimmers in the distance.
We’ve left the mainland only a few minutes before, but the hump of the island already looms dead ahead. Its oak-covered hillsides reappear like the Cheshire cat as the sun dissolves the bay fog on its shores. I see wheaten grass, a few yacht masts, and a wooden pier to welcome the ferry.
The sight of it all sends my already unstable stomach into fluttery overdrive. For once I’m not seasick, but nerves have made me just as ill.
I’ve come to the island today for a once-in-a-lifetime event: the chance to get back in touch with my family’s Chinese roots, and to settle a mystery surrounding their long-ago arrival in the United States. In case this weren’t exciting enough, my little journey of discovery will be filmed by a professional camera crew as part of a new public television series known as the History Detectives.
I’m about to hyperventilate at the prospect of having my reactions recorded for national television when the ferry bellies up to the pier. The engine grumble dies away, and we knock gently against a line of rubber bumpers. The passengers swarm downstairs, and tramp eagerly across the gangplank. I’m not feeling well as I step onto solid ground, but then remember it could be worse. My forebears probably felt even edgier when they landed here almost a century ago.
This fact--that they disembarked on the island after traveling by ship from China--is nearly all I know about my family’s connection to Angel Island. Growing up, my father had told me that his parents entered the United States through this “Ellis Island of the West.” They had passed the stringent interrogation process designed to keep as many Chinese from entering as possible, and eventually landed in San Francisco as citizens of the United States.
But my grandparents weren’t the first members of our family to make it to the shores of Gold Mountain. Years before my MaMa and YehYeh arrived, Dad said, my great-grandfather had arrived and later died on Angel Island.
These were tantalizing legends indeed for anyone with the faintest interest in history. I had always thought of myself as in that camp. Yet somehow I had failed to press either my father or my grandparents for more details of these events.
True, some of that ignorance could be chalked up to bad timing. I was only two years old when my grandfather suffered the massive stroke that robbed him of his speech and vitality. He died before I left elementary school. His wife, my grandmother, passed away when I was still in high school. Still, the fact remained that I had been too preoccupied with my own life to interview them when I had the chance.
In one of life’s strange twists, this ignorance was what had landed me on the History Detectives show. The producers planned to film a segment about Chinese immigration into California, and wanted to work with someone who didn’t know much about this piece of family history. They got my name from Katherine Toy, executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. I fit the bill embarrassingly well.
Walking onto the island, I am flagged down by Ross, the producer. I stand out from the the sneaker-and-backpack crowd in my dress and flimsy sandals. He bundles me into a rented SUV, and we take the meandering road to the immigration station buildings, located on the other side of the island.
I had visited the island years before with my family. We had gone for hikes, and picnicked while looking out onto San Francisco Bay. But I don’t remember ever visiting the immigration station.
We stop outside the men’s barracks, where we will be filming, and walk inside. The stairs to the second floor are old and creaky, and I hurry upstairs in case they decide to collapse beneath my weight. Ross leads me into the narrow dormitory room where the crew is filming. Despite the sunshine struggling in through the dirty windowpanes, the room has an air of loneliness and despair. Peeling yellow wall paint and ragged floorboards only strengthen the impression.
I search for the poems that I know cover the walls, but don’t see them. Then a technician adjusts a light, and I blink in amazement. Thrown into relief by the peeling paint, thousands of characters suddenly materialize like an army of ghosts. They stand in neat rows along every wall, carved higher than I can reach. Their presence, the expression of a hopeful people’s dreams and sorrows, is strangely comforting.
Before I have a chance to meet the crew, History Detective Wes Cowan drawls, “you’re about to start the longest day of your life.” He turns out to be right. We spend nearly two hours filming the opening scene, where I ask the detectives to find any evidence they can of my grandfather and great-grandfather’s presence on the island. Each phrase is filmed multiple times, from every possible angle. Despite the repetition, the attention of the camera still makes me uneasy.
I’m tired and stiff by the end of the scene, and it’s still only lunchtime.
We head outside to eat lunch and get some fresh air, then return to the barracks to film a few more stock sequences. Wes Cowan looking at poetry characters. The camera zooming in on me. The detectives conferring over the case.
Finally, as the sun begins to set, the scene I have been waiting for arrives. I get to find out what the detectives have turned up, and will hopefully say something intelligible in front of the camera.
This being TV, the producer has completed the actual research weeks ago. The director is essentially recreating the process for the camera. Yet I have no idea what they are going to tell me; they want to capture my reactions to the news on tape.
The scene is set up before I arrive. To my right and left stand the two History Detectives; in front of us are studio lights and the cameraman. They start filming, and the detectives tell me they’ve succeeded in finding some information about my family. I know this already, but my heart starts pounding hard anyway.
Wes Cowan tells me they weren’t able to find any evidence that my relatives wrote the poetry on the barracks walls. This doesn’t bother me; I knew most weren’t signed and that their authorship continues to stymie scholars. Then detective Gwendolyn Wright tells me they were able to locate the immigration records of both my grandfather and grandfather. I start to sweat beneath my wool sweater and the hot klieg lights. I’m astonished that they were able to find my great-grandfather’s records even though we didn’t know his name.
She tells me my grandfather likely didn’t write any of the poems because he made it off the island within a couple of weeks. I’m genuinely glad, and smile. Then she tells me my great-grandfather’s records indicate he did in fact die on the island as my father had said. His application to enter the United States was rejected. During his appeal, he had succumbed to a heart ailment and died at age 42. The news is upsetting, but I’m too uncomfortable in front of the camera to look very unhappy.
Then they hand me an amazing gift--photocopies of my grandfather and great-grandfather’s immigration records. I open one envelope, and look into the eyes of my grandfather at age nineteen. He is the spitting image of my father.
I barely have time to register this before Wes Cowan hands me a glossy, black-and-white photo enlargement of my great-grandfather’s immigration picture.
His hungry black eyes consume the 90 years separating our lives in an instant.
The shape of his face, the jut of his jaw is hauntingly familiar. “He looks just like my grandfather,” I manage to croak. Despite the fisheye lens inches away, I start to weep. Long after the director calls cut! I’m still sniffling. The jumble of emotions--sadness for his death, the shock of recognition, elation at finding his name and picture--is too raw and overwhelming to stifle at once.
When the filming is all over, I rush outside to read the files. I flip through the pages fast, greedy to know more. In the transcripts of the interrogation interviews, I read the names of long-dead relatives, and the village that had sheltered my family for generations.
Then I come across some rough diagrams of the family village in my great-grandfather’s files. The details it contains take my breath away. In the center of a walled rectangular courtyard were the three small buildings where the extended family slept. My great-grandfather and his wife lived in one boxlike house, itself attached to the house that housed his brother’s family. The buildings on either side included a sitting parlor and empty room, and the rooms of his parents and another brother. A stream, a bamboo thicket, storage rooms, and toilets completed the diagrams
I surprised myself by grasping what the shaky lines of this sketch really meant. The design resembled that of a traditional Chinese family compound, something I thought I had seen many times before on, of all things, a movie screen. Like many Chinese Americans, I had flocked to see major films from China such as “Jou Dou” and “Raise the Red Lantern.” Along the way, I had absorbed details about historical Chinese life that I didn’t learn from any of the history classes I had taken.
Now, in my mind’s eye, I can see my family moving about the bare dirt streets of the compound. The men wear queues, and long white shirts with billowing sleeves. The walls and building roofs are topped with tile to shed rain. Pigs and water buffaloes used to till rice fields laze about, sometimes even wandering within the family quarters. Inside, the women prepare yet another meal, while the breeze whisks smoke from their cooking fires across a landscape of shimmering green rice fields.
For the first time, I can see a shadowy line across the Pacific connecting me directly to the life and culture of China. I have a history and a heritage in a land I have not yet visited. My inheritance spans two continents and countless lifetimes. On the boat ride home, I look west across the water toward China, and catch myself grinning like a fool.