by Lia Dun
During our interview, Marian Louie Seiki recalled a family visit to Angel Island in the 1970s: the Immigration Station was still in a state of disrepair, with the buildings falling apart and only a few posters and pictures compared to the exhibits that are there today. Nevertheless, the immigration station had always been a place of personal interest to Marian—her mother had been detained on the island for three months in 1939 at the age of 17—so on Mother’s Day, she brought her whole family to the island for a picnic.
At the immigration station, her mother stopped in front of one of the buildings. “She pointed inside,” said Marian, “and told me, ‘This is where we ate. This is where I stayed.’ Then the tears started to fall, and I stood there thinking, ‘What have I done?’” Her mother quickly composed herself, and they never spoke of the instance again.
“I’d say that’s my most powerful memory about Angel Island,” said Marian who, along with her friends Myrna Yee and Jennie Choy, is now a docent at the Angel Island Immigration Station. I had the opportunity to interview these three ladies at their Friday knitting club.
The friends became docents together three years ago. Each has her own personal connection to the island’s history.
For Jennie, her mother was American-born but was sent to China at the age of 9 to be educated. She returned to the US at 16 and despite her US citizenship, was forced to pass through Angel Island. Of course, her picture at 9-years-old did not look like her 16-year-old self, and it was only through a set of fingerprints she had voluntarily left at the age of 9 that she was able to confirm her identity and re-enter the United States.
Jennie’s husband’s aunt was not so lucky. Like Jennie’s mother, she left the US at a young age and upon returning as a teenager, was barred from entering the United States because the photo she had left as a child did not match what she looked like as a teenager. Unfortunately, because she did not have a set of fingerprints on file, she was detained at Angel Island and interrogated again. She was eventually released from the detention center and reunited with her parents, three sisters, and brother in San Francisco.
Myrna’s family has a long history in the United States and in the Bay Area. She has found documentation of her ancestors in the United States dating back to the 1880s’ and estimates that her family has been in San Francisco longer than that. “At least the 1860s,” she told me.
For Myrna, volunteering at Angel Island has given her the chance to explore the breadth of the detainee experience on Angel Island. Myrna’s own father came through Angel Island as a young boy. “He remembers playing ball with other boys,” she said. In contrast, she noted, “Many older detainees had sad memories of being confined.” All three women have different things they like to highlight when leading tour groups.
Marian carries a page from her mother’s interrogation, a transcript of which she found in her mother’s file at the National Archives. For student groups, she uses questions from this page, along with sample questions from one of the displays, to quiz the children and demonstrate the ways in which interrogations were set up to trick the Chinese—her questions include, “How many windows are in your house?” and “Which direction does your front door face?”
For the most part, students cannot answer these questions which sometimes leave parents chuckling and saying, “These kids should be deported.”
Myrna is partial to the story of Lum Wun Hoy, whose daughter donated the suitcase Lum Wun Hoy had brought from China to the exhibit at the immigration station. Lum Wun Hoy’s parents had originally bought papers for her older sister so that she could marry a man already in the US, but shortly before she was supposed to leave, Lum Wun Hoy’s sister was kidnapped. Not wanting the papers they had bought to go to waste, Lum Wun Hoy’s parents sent her to the US in her sister’s place. She used the time aboard ship to memorize the copious coaching notes about her new identity and paper family. Upon her arrival, she was detained on Angel Island while she and her paper family were interrogated. Upon her release, she met and married her husband, Ah Foon, and they settled in Oakland Chinatown. At the time, Lum Wun Hoy was eighteen years old.
Jennie also has her own style of leading tours. During our interview, she pulled out her iPhone. “I asked a Cantonese speaking man to read one of the poems carved in the wall so that I could record it,” she said, holding her phone up to my ear, “and if I have a small enough group, I play the recording for them.”
On her iPhone, Jennie also has scans from her parents’ immigration files. She showed me her father’s Dollar Steamship ID and the photo taken of him on Angel Island when he was 13.
Jennie’s father came to Angel Island with his mother and sister. During the physical examination, he was diagnosed with hookworm. After days of interrogation, his mother and sister were allowed to leave Angel Island, but he was forced to stay to receive hookworm treatment. For three weeks, he remained alone in the men’s dormitory before he was finally permitted to join his family in San Francisco.
“I like to end my tours with President Obama’s National Angel Island Day Proclamation.” Jennie pulled this up—again on her iPhone—and read it to me:
“One hundred years ago, the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay opened for the first time, and an important chapter of the American narrative began. It would be written by those who walked through the station's doors over the next three decades. From the cities, villages, and farms of their birth, they journeyed across the Pacific, seeking better lives for themselves and their children. Many arrived at Angel Island, weary but hopeful, only to be unjustly confined for months or, in some cases, years. As we remember their struggle, we honor all who have been drawn to America by dreams of limitless opportunity.”
Marian, Myrna, and Jennie all agree that there is a shortage of docents, especially on weekdays, because of the ferry schedule, and that more can be done to make people aware of Angel Island’s history.
“It should be publicized more like Alcatraz,” said Myrna. “A lot people aren’t aware that [Angel Island] exists. We need hotel flyers, more programs. If you tell more people about it, they might be interested.”
The ladies have already set out to remedy this problem and to share their work at the immigration station with those who cannot make the trek out to Angel Island. They have researched and made presentations about Angel Island at the YMCA, the organization Square and Circle, and various Bay Area churches. They also love to give guided tours for schools, clubs, organizations, and family pilgrimages.
“We really go beyond the call of duty,” Jennie joked. “Make sure to add that to the profile.”
For the three women, preserving the history of Angel Island is of upmost importance.
“We wanted to make sure history gets passed on,” said Myrna. “There’s really no mention of the Chinese experience on Angel Island in textbooks or American history classes.”
Marian holds a similar viewpoint. “I wanted to honor my mother,” she said, “and make sure this experience is not lost.”
Jennie agrees with the importance of teaching the next generation about Angel Island’s history but gave a slightly different reason for becoming a docent. “They twisted my arm,” she told me with a grin and a glance at her two friends.