by Connie Young Yu
During the 100th anniversary commemoration of the Immigration Station, AIISF President Buck Gee paid tribute to the founders of the Angel Island restoration and preservation effort, particularly Connie Young Yu and Christopher Chow, who were in the audience.. This article explains how the Immigration Station was saved from destruction.
Connie Young Yu is the vice-president of the Chinese Historical Society of America and a founding member of the Angel Island Immigration Station Historical Advisory Committee.
When park ranger Alexander Weiss related to George Araki what he saw on Angel Island, the professor recalled his grandmother, a picture bride from Japan, saying her first steps in America were on the wooden wharf. In 1970 all that remained on the site were the deteriorating barracks. Araki and photographer Mak Takahaski went to the island to photo-document all the calligraphy on the walls.
Takahashi’s photographs were shared with students and community groups and jolted memories of older Chinese who had been interrogated and detained. Angel Island was never the symbol of liberty that Ellis Island was. The Exclusion Law made all Chinese suspects and disputed cases were taken from arriving steamships to the Island for questioning. Coming to America was a test of courage and determination, and those who struggled didn’t want to talk about it, much less remember.
A young journalist and filmmaker, Christopher Chow, set out to reclaim this history. He said all Asian families had some connection to A.I. I knew of my maternal grandmother’s long detention and her court case. Chris asked me to join him in researching more evidence of the human toll of Exclusion so dramatically set on Angel Island. Our findings would uncover a significant chapter of America’s immigrant past and better inform our future policies on immigration. But with the growing community interest and imminent destruction of the barracks, we had to act before it was too late.
Chris called together a few of us active in the Asian community for a meeting with John Foran, Assemblyman of the 16th district. Sponsored by Foran and adopted by the California Assembly August 29, 1974, Resolution #205 gave us official initiative. We of the Angel Island Immigration Station Historical Advisory Committee (AIISHAC) worked on plans for the interpretation and preservation of the site. On January 1, 1976, a report was given to the Department of Parks and Recreation, signed by Christopher Chow, Chairman, Paul Chow, Connie Young Yu, Philip Choy, H. Mark Lai, Lawrence Jew, Henry Der, George Leong Suey, Ling-Chi Wang and Po Wong. Governor Brown subsequently signed a bill appropriating $250,000 toward the restoration project, and Philip Choy was appointed architect.
Paul Chow, president of AIISHAC in the following decade, broadened support and tirelessly led tours of the barracks. A monument, donated by Victor Bergeron, was dedicated in 1979 at the base of what was the dreaded Administration Building and a boatload of former detainees came to tour the barracks that once imprisoned them. Their feelings of shame and bitterness were replaced with pride to be shared by younger generations.
Our biggest challenge, reflects Chris on how it all began, was official indifference to our history, and if we didn’t keep making waves, the barracks would have been lost.
Activism did indeed save this legacy. Long before our committee spoke out, before Ranger Weiss saw the writing on the wall, there was activism at work: when the first detainee carved a poem of grief and protest, when another organized the Liberty Association, and when the widow of an American citizen about to be deported appealed in court. They were the true activists who set the course and showed us the way.
top right photo: Connie Young Yu with her mother, Mary Lee Young.middle left photo: Alexander Weiss during Memorial unveiling.