Mr. Chan’s immigration story and experience at Angel Island
In 1916, Mr. Chan arrived at the shores of Angel Island, gateway to the Golden State and the United States. Born in the Sui Nam village in Sunning of the Toisan District, he was only sixteen years old upon his arrival at the Angel Island Immigration Station. With little education or money, he traveled for thirty-one days across the Pacific with a relative in search of a new life.
Twenty-eight years after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed and six years after the Angel Island Immigration Station was founded to physically manifest Chinese Exclusion, Mr. Chan landed as the surrogate son of his relative. “A relative brought me,” he said. “He was a returnee. It was his second or third trip. I had a relative who had only one son and I was given to that family. He brought me to America so that his son could remain in China."
He came as an American citizen, with papers and a background purchased to prove it. “It was all arranged here. There were places that matched you with papers. They told you how to answer the interrogation questions. My relative helped me and I later worked to pay him back. Lots of money. It was hard then. Including passage and everything, it cost two to three thousand dollars.”
Even seventy years after his voyage, Mr. Chan recalls his journey to America. “The ship was huge. It was turbulent and I got seasick. Steerage was bad, smelled bad. No windows. We saw the waves lap against the ship. There was food but I couldn’t eat. I was too seasick.”
But coming under an assumed name required him to know everything about his new identity. Like many other Chinese immigrants who bought an identity to come to the United States, he was given a coaching book, a guide to all the intimate details of their supposed past life to prepare him for the interrogations. But you had to be careful with it, because if caught with it, it would expose Mr. Chan as a fraud. “You studied it at home and left it there,” he said.
Mr. Chan stayed on Angel Island for a month, but never knew why. He remembers the conditions of his stay. “Men were segregated from the women. There were bunk beds, three tiers. At least one hundred or so people. We went down for meals, we lived in the dormitory. It was quite harried.” He recalls that the food was quite bad. “They were the remainders from San Francisco. The old vegetables they would steam with fat pork… They had bread for sale and you could put sugar in it and eat it. I had no money but others shared with me.” And after he ate, “they took us back to the dormitory. There was nowhere else to go… We were confined to that small space.” But it wasn’t all awful to him. Compared to China, things were different on Angel Island. “Coming from China then, we thought it was clean. Better than what we had in China.”
The conditions on Angel Island were very lonely. “The relative who brought me went on to San Francisco as soon as the ship docked… I didn’t have much to say to the others. I was just a kid…People didn’t even want to talk, for fear of releasing too much information from their coaching book. So no one ever revealed their real names.” More than anything, the detainees were afraid that they would be deported back, most likely from something incriminating them against what they told the immigration officers. “That’s why even in the Tongs [a Chinese crime gang], people do not tell their real names. They’re afraid they will be extorted.”
In order to get off the island, detainees must pass both an interrogation to ascertain their true identity and a health inspection. Mr. Chan remembers both. The interrogations themselves were stressful. Mr. Chan remembers that he was scared, as “the false ones sometimes stayed over a year and got deported.” But the questions were just like the ones in his coaching book. “Sometimes I couldn’t answer and I would say I didn’t know. They would call you in for interrogation. There was an interrogator and a Chinese interpreter. After they finished with you, they told you to get your luggage ready to depart the next morning.”
In multiple instances, Mr. Chan recalls how luckily his way forward was paved through bribing officials. “As long as you paid, they didn’t care…If you paid ahead of time, you had no problems… Those who thought their papers were true and didn’t bribe got into trouble.” And even though having coaching notes was dangerous, sometimes relatives with connections were able to help him, by sneaking him coaching notes. “The guard called my name and gave it to me. I didn’t even know what was going on. Someone up in San Francisco must have paid him. He gave it to me and left. Inside were words that told me that when I went to the interrogation, I was to say this instead of that.”
But the parts about Angel Island that he remembers most was “when the Chinese went down for meals and how disorderly they were. They rushed down and nobody wanted to be caught in the middle. You would get crushed. As soon as the guard called mealtime and the door opened, people just rushed down… Rrrh! Like that… [The guards] would yell, ‘Chow! Chow!’” He also recalls, “the other thing was nobody dared reveal their own identities or too much in conversation. Most people came on false papers. Before, there weren’t any relatives here to send for you; not like now.”
After his month on Angel Island, Mr. Chan stayed in San Francisco for a week, before moving to Chicago with a relative in the laundry business for ten months, before moving again to be a waiter in Washington D.C. He then moved to Philadelphia, where he worked at a restaurant with a dance hall and also took English classes, before returning to San Francisco to get married to Mrs. Chan, settling down in 1927.
Mrs. Chan’s immigration story and experience at Angel Island
Like many Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century passing through San Francisco’s Angel Island immigration center, Mrs. Chan knew that she would have to undergo a comprehensive interrogation before successfully migrating to the United States. However, Chan knew that being “landed”, or being formally accepted as a Chinese immigrant, required more than answering a few questions correctly. It would require her to make everyone around her believe she was somebody else; it would require her to hide the most precious facets of her being: her background, her family, and her faith. Throughout her journey, Chan’s strong resolve to migrate successfully never wavered and she fearlessly endured the journey despite the risks and possible dire consequences.
Born in Yen Tsun, Toisan on November 18, 1908, Chan was eighteen years old when she began her journey to San Francisco in 1926. She had just completed her education at True Light School, a Christian grammar school in her native Canton City. Her religious education there had an enormous impact on her for the rest of her life. Her father had migrated to the United States a few years before but had not been able to bring her along. Although he had a farm in Novato, California, Chan recalls, “My father had many children and was too poor to send for me.”
When Chan was sixteen years old, her father found a husband for her and she agreed to be married. With a mere photograph of her future husband, Chan turned to her faith and asked, “God, is this the right man for me?” Chan believed he was dependable, as God “told me this person is modest, sincere, and loyal.” With her faith propelling her forward, Chan memorized the coaching book her father had sent her after buying her papers, and at eighteen she sailed across the Pacific on the President Lincoln towards the United States.
Having memorized the coaching book, Chan successfully took on the identity of a village girl while she sailed on the President Lincoln for 21 days. Chan’s seasickness made the journey arduous, as she ate very little throughout her entire time on the ship. Trying to maintain her secret identity, Chan kept to herself and did not socialize much with the other women, choosing instead to only talk to a relative (her second mother’s daughter-in-law) and one other woman. She remembers not being able to read on the ship because her village girl paper identity was illiterate. Still, Chan claims she “didn’t feel [the journey] was difficult” and that “we were free to come and go (about the ship)”.
Chan didn’t stay at Angel Island for very long and was landed soon after she arrived. Her interrogation experience went smoothly as Chan was confident about answering all the questions correctly. “I knew all the answers. It was like a school exam for me.” Chan recalls her overall experience at Angel Island as not being difficult for the most part, although there is one thing that she remembers disliking about Angel Island: the food. “The food was very poor. The food on the island was frozen. We Chinese were used to fresh things.” Nevertheless, Chan persevered through every frozen meal at Angel Island and was “happy to come [to Angel Island] because I wanted to see my parents again.” For Chan, the adverse and harsh conditions at Angel Island would be worth the struggle once she was reunited with her family in their farm.
Life after their arrival
Mr. and Mrs. Chan began their life together after getting married in 1927 in San Rafael, CA. When they arrived in Novato, they worked together on a farm that they rented. Six years later, they were able to buy the farm using the money Mr. Chan had saved while working as a bus boy and waiter in Philadelphia. The Chans bought ten acres of land, and Mr. Chan worked to clear all of the shrubbery off the land.
They eventually grew their own vegetables, raised 6,000 chicken and sheep, and even had a horse on the ranch. Their daughter, Josie, recalls riding her horse through the ranch and stopping at the apple trees so her horse could eat an apple. The property was like an estate and very beautiful, with big, expansive lawns and goldfish ponds on both sides. There was even an atrium in the house with a waterfall. During the Great Depression, Mr. Chan continued to work on his farm, with help from his white neighbors.
The Chans raised their family on this ranch. They had four children: brothers Wilson and Barry, and daughters Josie and Vicki. Another child passed away when she was just one year old after she fell into a goldfish pond on the ranch. The Chan children have many fond memories of growing up on the ranch. The children went to school in a one-room eight grade schoolhouse across the street from their ranch. Josie even brought her dog to school with her! Mr. Chan used to haul water across the street to the school every day because there was no running water there.
They ended up in Novato for a couple of different reasons. One was because Mr. Chan had a fondness for the area after being taken there shortly after being released from Angel Island. Another reason is because Mrs. Chan’s parents owned a duck farm about a mile away from their own chicken farm. She was finally able to be reunited with her family. The elder Chan’s duck ranch was much larger than the chicken ranch. There used to be a separate house just for the crew that worked on the duck ranch, which sent ducks to San Francisco and Hawaii.
The Chans’ ranch served as the site of many social gatherings for the family and their friends. Family friends from Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco would come to their ranch for parties and picnics. As adults, the Chan children returned to the ranch every Sunday evening with their own families for family dinners. The Chans had thirteen grandchildren total. Through the years as property taxes increased, the Chans eventually sold off half of the ranch.
Mrs. Chan became a missionary when her children were grown and leading their own lives. She completed three trips around the world and was often gone about a year at a time for these trips in which she tried to get people to join the church. Oftentimes, she would go alone or bring just one other person with her. Mr. Chan was retired and stayed behind on the ranch as it was closing down.
Mrs. Chan eventually moved from the ranch and bought a condo in Oakland Chinatown in the 1990s, living in Oakland for at least ten years before her death in 2004. Her daughter Josie jokingly recalls that her mother was the “mayor of Chinatown,” for she was quite popular in the community. When Mrs. Chan was no longer able to attend the Presbyterian church she was a part of any more, her friends would go to her condo to see her. Mrs. Chan was extremely religious all her life.
“My life has been hard,” Mrs. Chan says, “But thanks to God for taking care of us.”
Special thanks to Josie Beal for her remembrances and use of family photographs. The original interviews with Mr. and Mrs. Chan were conducted by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim and Judy Yung in 1989.
Rachel Shuen is a volunteer with AIISF, wrote about the Chans’ post-immigration lives and consolidated the two stories by Austin Li Long (Mr. Chan) and Ivonne Gonzalez (Mrs. Chan) which they wrote in 2014 when they were Yale externs at AIISF. Grant Din interviewed Josie Beal in 2014 to learn more about the Chans’ lives in Marin County.