Dong Kingman, the internationally renowned artist, was born in Oakland Chinatown on March 31, 1911. When he was five years old, his father sold his clothing store and moved the family to Hong Kong. When he was 18 years old, his father decided to send the children back to the United States.
The following chapter, “Arrived But Not Landed,” taken from Dong Kingman’s autobiography, Paint the Yellow Tiger, describes his experience at the Angel Island Immigration Station.
We wish to thank Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. for allowing us to use this chapter.
We arrived on the S.S. President Grant in San Francisco on April 26, 1929, but did not land. The immigration officials would not let us go ashore. Instead, they shipped us to Angel Island for detention.
They examined our documents, looked us over carefully, and believed there were enough reasons to keep us for questioning. Those were the years when the anti-yellow sentiment was running high.
They kept men and women in separate quarters, mothers from their male children, husbands from their wives.
Angel Island, in the middle of San Francisco Bay next to Alcatraz, was the equivalent of Ellis Island on the East Coast. Both were detention centers for illegal immigrants.
The photograph in my identification papers were taken when I left Oakland at age of five. It was now 13 years later. Naturally the photograph and I looked different.
They grilled us incessantly day after day. They asked insignificant questions which were significant for them. How many steps do you have in front of your house? What did your mother have for breakfast? What is the name of your grandmother? They checked my answers against those of other members of my family.
After two months of daily interrogations, we were relieved to hear that we were allowed to leave, including Janice with her false papers. All could leave, that is, except me – I who had a genuine document!
I was shocked to be left on hold, and scared because of the uncertain future.
What were they going to do to me? Put me in jail or send me back to Hong Kong? Both were frightful prospects. Watching my family leave with other passengers on the ferry for San Francisco while I remained behind barb-wired windows was like a stab in my heart. What was going to happen to me? The thought chilled me to my bones.
After supper that evening, I dragged myself slowly along the corridor from the dining hall to my cell. There might be other detainees in other building, but none in mine. I was all alone by myself in a big 100 foot X 500 foot cell, which could hold as many as 300 to 400 people at one time.
I sat by myself staring at the empty bunks. Not a sound, not a single soul. So quiet and so lonely. So unfair to treat me like an outcast or criminal. I was born in Oakland. Where was my birthright?
“Ten o’clock,” I heard a voice say. “Lights out.”
Darkness made things even more unbearable. I lay in bed, but I could not sleep. The only chink of light was the blue crescent in the sky through the barbed-wire windows, bright one moment, cloudy another, playing hide and seek with the San Francisco fog. Once in a while, a lonesome foghorn could be heard in the distance. “Oh my God, why did they let Janice my sister to, and not me with my genuine paper?”
“Where is justice in this world of ours?: I kept thinking.
Anger subsided as my body relaxed, and my thoughts went quickly back till I could see my father waving goodbye at the Hong Kong pier. When he had wished us good luck, he had turned his head away quickly to hide his tears. I remembered the good times my father and I had together, and the comradeship between us. But, all that was far away. There was no turning back to the life in Hong Kong Central. I was certain of that. What would tomorrow bring?
Out of deep despair came hope. There was still hope that I might be released, and when it does, oh, if it comes, there will be so much I could do and will do with my life.
I had been drifting aimlessly in my years in Hong Kong. No ambition, no direction. Life is so precious. When I become free, I promised myself, I will work hard to make every moment count so that someday I might become president of a corporation, owner of a bank, or director of a syndicate, if I was not a great artist already. I knew I could, if I put my mind to it, and, if I could only be free to work in a free country like America.
The bell woke me up from my dreams. Sunlight shone through crevices of the windows. It was time to get up, to have coffee, doughnuts, and above all, to face the world.
I held my head high as I walked the same corridor to the dining room. I felt like a new man, strong, determined, and resolute. Life had been too easy for me in Hong Kong. I would not know how to handle a job opportunity even if I were given one.
I said to myself while sipping my coffee and nibbling my doughnut, “I would be a happy man, a very happy man even if I had to work as a dishwasher or a waiter, and could do a little painting on the side, only if I could be free. There is so much I could do as a free man in a free country.”
Two days later, the immigration officer called me to his office.
“I put you on hold,” he said, “because I am waiting for the doctor to come to examine you.”
“You had a scar on your upper left eyelid,” he said. “Your photo shows it, but you don’t have it now. That’s why we are putting you on parole evidence till further notice.”
“How could I still have the scar after thirteen years?” I reasoned. “I got the scar falling off a high chair when I was two years old. I am eighteen now.”
The doctor came to examine my eyelid the next day. He did not tell me anything, one way or another.
When Friday came, the ferry was again leaving for the weekend to San Francisco. Some released detainees and immigration officials were going home to spend the weekend with their families.
Thank God, I, too got on that ferry.
The ferry went past the rocky island of Alcatraz. San Francisco Bay was filled with pleasure yachts, mostly white, some in bright colors, criss-crossing each other back and forth between the city and Sausalito. Fishing fleets were heading home with their day’s catch. The skylines of the city were gradually coming into view. Only an occasional flying seagull interrupted the peaceful scene. What a beautiful painting this would make, I told myself.
I painted the picture later and called it Friday Afternoon in San Francisco Bay. The first picture was stolen from an exhibition. So I painted the same subject a second time. It won a prize.