Meet Angel Island Immigration Station Volunteer Docent Sam Louie
1. Tell us a little about yourselves, e.g. where you grew up, went to school, your professions, and family
I grew up in San Francisco's Chinatown and never knew that my parents were detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station -- because they never ever spoke about it. It wasn't until after my mother passed away in 2003 (at the age of 98) that I found her "coaching book" which my father had prepared. Knowing what she had studied in preparation for her interrogation, I went down to the National Archives in San Bruno and found a 43 page transcript of her actual interrogation. It was at the Archives that I discovered that my mother was detained at the AIIS along with 3 siblings in 1936. I also found out that my father was detained at the AIIS in 1916 when he first arrived in America as a "paper son" at the age of 14.
Two sisters and I were later born in San Francisco. We all attended elementary school in Chinatown. I eventually became a teacher and an administrator with the San Francisco Unified School District. My last assignment before I retired was as the Principal of the same school I attended as a child!
I've been happily married to my wife, Jennie, for the last 42 years. We have 2 grown sons, Scott and Jeff, and one perfectly adorable granddaughter, Somerah.
2. How did you become interested in the Angel Island Immigration Station?
After I found out that my parents and siblings were detainees at the AIIS, I wanted to see the place. To be honest, I didn't even know that the AIIS on Angel Island existed. I knew of the Immigration Station on Sansome Street in the City, but not about the one on Angel Island. When the opportunity arose to become a possible docent there, I immediately volunteered.
3. When did you become a volunteer/docent and what training did you go through?
I went through a year of shadowing the rangers and other docents as they led tours, all the time convinced that I would never be able to remember all the information that I needed to know to become a docent. I was also impressed with how each guide was able to be an "interpreter" and tell the story as they saw fit -- according to the needs and interests of the visitors . . . and with no canned spiels.
Louie Family reunion on Angel Island, 2011.
4. How long have you been a docent?
I've been a docent for the last two and a half years. During the last year, I've taken a special interest in the Chinese poems that were carved on the barrack walls. I know that had these poems not been discovered, the AIIS would still be a boarded up and be an abandoned building today. The poems are a vital part of the immigrant experience and our Chinese heritage. It is the story of the Chinese immigrants told in their own voice -- their hopes and dreams, their sacrifices, their hardships and their courage.
5. What are some of your memorable experiences as a docent?
My first and most memorable moment was the first tour that I led independently. What made it even more special was that the tour was for MY family! We were holding a Louie Family Reunion at the AIIS. There were over 30 family members in attendance. Other than my brother (who was an AIIS detainee when he was only six years old and remembered "nothing"), none of the family had been to the AIIS; only a few even knew of its existence. This was not just a family reunion; it was a Louie Family roots experience for all. We even wore special Louie Family Reunion T-shirts for the occasion.
6. What are some interesting stories that you’ve heard from visitors?
I love leading groups, especially those with members who had family or relatives as detainees -- people who are trying to connect with their past. I especially like it when they are accompanied by the younger generations of their families -- most visitors have no idea of the discrimination and harsh conditions that their ancestors went through, mostly because these ancestors never spoke about the AIIS experiences.
On a few occasions, I was fortunate to meet an actual detainee. During the Centennial Celebration, I met "Mr. Lee" who remembered being a detainee when he was only nine years old. He remembered making a mark on one of the posts in the men's barracks to indicate how tall he was.
My favorite visitor was a lady that I saw in the women's quarters. She was standing in front of a banner of a Chinese mother and a baby (Lum Wun Hoy and Baby Lena). We had been telling all the visitors the story of how Lum Wun Hoy had come to American in lieu of her kidnapped sister to marry an Oakland merchant. The lady then informed me that the baby on the banner was her -- she was Lena!
Docent, Sam Louie.
7. How do visitors feel at the end of your tours?
Many of the visitors are amazed to learn about the harsh and discriminatory conditions that the immigrants had to endure. They were totally unaware of this sad part of our history. It is my hope that they will gain a better appreciation of the hardships and sacrifices that the immigrants had to suffer though in order to give their future generations a better life.
8. What would you like to see done to improve the visitor experience at the Immigration Station?
I like giving tours to student groups. Many of them come well prepared by their teachers. To insure that all students get the most out of their AIIS experience, the AIIS Foundation and park staff should have updated curriculum materials for the teachers. These materials should be available online to teachers before their classes come for the tour.
Many of our visitors are Chinese speaking. Unfortunately none of the current AIIS staff and volunteers are fluent in Chinese or other languages. Hopefully we will be able to recruit and train foreign language docents in the future.