Angel Island

Angel Island:

Same place, a different time

(This article appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Image magazine, a print publication of Silicon Valley Community Newspapers. Photos are courtesy of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and John Poimiroo.) 

By Sandy Sims

The ferry slowly pulls away from Tiburon. Toddlers stand on parents’ legs, little noses pressed against windows. Older children and the captain’s Labrador retriever climb stairs to the upper deck where passengers brave cold wind as we sail the mile over Raccoon Strait to Angel Island State Park. There, some will hike, some will ride bikes, some will take the tram tour around the island. I’m taking a Segway tour. 

Early in the 1900s, groups sailing to Angel Island had a much bigger stake in the trip. This was the Ellis Island of the west, where immigrants from Asia, South Asia and Russia were processed, including picture brides from Japan.
Photo courtesy of Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation

But the largest and most discriminated-against group to land on Angel Island were the Chinese, who left an endearing mark—sad and angry poems carved into barracks walls at the Immigration Station. This is what I most want to see.

When our ferry arrives at Ayala Cove, I search out Freda, a small, muscular, young woman with bright eyes and a quick smile. She teaches me how to ride a Segway.

AI_-_Segway_-_SF_SkylineLean on my toes to go forward, on my heels to go back, turn the handles in the direction I want to go. She has me practice up hill and down hill. Even though I fear I’ll mess up and fall, Freda says I’m doing fine.

Off we roll passed bike rentals and the café—which, by the way, has excellent food—and then by the Visitors Center deeper in the cove.

AI_-_Ayala_Cove_2 (1)

In the late 1800s this building was a Quarantine Station, where ships from foreign ports were fumigated, and immigrants suspected of carrying diseases were kept in isolation. 


As we glide over the five-mile, paved road that circles the island, I gain confidence on my Segway, and we pick up speed. Fun.

I’m surprised when Freda says this island—the biggest in the San Francisco Bay—has played a part in much of U.S. military history. We pass Camp Reynolds, built in 1863 to protect gold and silver shipped through Raccoon Strait to help finance Union Troops during the Civil War. AI_-_Camp_Reynolds (1)

We stop on the south side of the island where the view of the bay, San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge is spectacular. While I concentrate on balancing with my feet, Freda turns and points up to Mt. Livermore, once a Nike Missile Site. At 788 feet, this is the center and highest point on the island (named in honor of Caroline Livermore who fought to create Angel Island State Park). Visitors hike and bike to the top.

AI_-_East_Garrison_-_Sailboat (1)

As we round the east side of the island to Quarry Point, we glide through eucalyptus trees, Monterey pines and the beautiful Fort McDowell, built in1910. Thousands of WW1 and WW2 soldiers were processed here to and from their next assignment, as well as in and out of the Army. POWs arrived here before being sent to prison camps elsewhere in the country.


At the hospital, Freda and I get off our Segways—carefully. My feet are thankful to walk a little. We wander in the ruins. I swear I hear the bustle of starched nurses’ uniforms, or was it the wind in the trees?

Back to our Segways, I step straight on without hesitation, as Freda taught me, and we roll up hill toward the Immigration Station at China Cove.

The pathway from the road down to the station is too steep for a Segway tour, or even a person with walking difficulties. But after I say good bye to Freda back at Ayala Cove, I pick up the $5 shuttle at the café and return to the station.

I climb the covered stairwell to the barracks, opting for the $5 self-guided tour. There is also a $7 docent-led tour. (Best to check ahead on availability.)USIS_-_Barracks_Women_1 (1)

Here in the first dorm a cluster of bunk beds shows how detainees kept meager belongings. On one lower bunk sit two pair of tiny embroidered shoes, which I’m sure belonged to a toddler. But a booklet next to the shoes tells the history of the Chinese practice of foot binding, which included the eventual breaking of bones, to reshape the foot so it would ideally fit into three-inch shoes like these. Women would have born the difficult voyage with such deformed feet.

But more difficult were U.S. Chinese Exclusion laws that lasted from 1882 to 1943. Meant to stop Chinese immigration to the U.S., the laws did not pertain to those who had a father who was a U.S. citizen living in this country. And women did not have a separate citizenship from their husbands or fathers. This loophole spawned paper sons and daughters. Those who purchased papers indentifying them as children of American fathers.

311-47_three_women (1)Some 170,000 Chinese immigrants came to Angel Island. Many were paper sons and daughters. Average detention here was two to three weeks; some stayed for several months; a few remained for nearly two years. Many were sent back to China. A peaceful group, the only outlet for their anger was poetry they carved into barracks walls.

At first, I only see a board display of poem translations in the barracks. But when I look closely at the walls, there they are. Faintly visible Chinese characters, painted over many times. Words of despairing young men’s shattered hopes.USIS_-_Barracks_Calligraphy_1

Some translated poem excerpts:

“ … Don’t say that everything within/ is Western styled/ even if it is built of jade, it has/ turned into a cage.”

“… My heart trembles at being deported back to China./ I cannot face the elders east of the river.? I came to seek wealth but instead reaped poverty.”

“ … America has power, but not justice./ In prison, we were victimized as if we were guilty./ Given not opportunity to explain, it was really brutal./ I bow my head in reflection but there is nothing I can do.”

On the ferry ride back to Tiburon, as toddlers sleep in parents’ arms, I think about this quiet peaceful island, the site of family fun, bike rides and picnics. How fraught with fear and emotion it must have been in earlier times with soldiers going to and from war and immigrants enduring long, harsh internments.

If you go:

For information about shuttle service to the Immigration Station call the Cove Café at 415-435-3392

For Segway and tram tour times and rates – (Segway tours are for ages 16 and above only.)

Ferries to Angel