Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation

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Meet Angel Island Immigration Station Volunteer Docents Elizabeth and Joe Chan

For the past 11 years, Elizabeth and Joe Chan have conveyed the story of Angel Island immigrants to thousands of visitors.  Renowned for their thorough knowledge of this historic site, Eliz and Joe provide a comprehensive and compassionate picture of this unique American immigration station. This is the first in a series of articles about the volunteers and staff at the U.S. Immigration Station, Angel Island.

Tell us a little about yourselves, e.g. where you grew up, went to school, your professions, and family

My name is Joe Chan.  A corn-bred Hoosier, I was born in Ft Wayne, IN, earned a Bachelor of Arts in social work at Indiana University and a Master of Arts in management from Webster College.  Born in China, my father immigrated to the US at the age of fifteen through Angel Island; he was a restaurateur for fifty years.  My mother was born in Detroit, MI and went to China with her family in 1931.  When she returned to the US in 1940 to marry my father, she was detained on Angel Island for a weekend even though she held a US passport.  My maternal grandmother was detained on Angel Island in 1917 when she immigrated to the US to join her husband in Detroit.  My wife, Eliz, and I have two children: son Chris, a patent attorney, and daughter Cyndy, a journeywoman sheet metal worker.  Through Chris and his wife, Melody, we have two grandchildren -- Callamei and Cathan.  I served thirty years in the United States Air Force as a pilot, staff officer, squadron commander, and air attache.

I, Eliz Wong Chan, was born & raised in Louisville, KY, attending Manual High School and the University of Louisville on a work/study scholarship.  I also earned a Master's degree in guidance and counseling from Southwestern Oklahoma State University.  There were six children in my family and I was the third one.  Mom & Dad operated a Chinese hand laundry and later a Chinese American restaurant. The whole family helped out in their businesses.  I remember ironing, packaging, sorting and handling the laundry with my sister to earn our weekly allowance.  When I entered high school, we moved out of the downtown to the suburbs.  It was such a change: I learned at the age of 15 to ride a bike and take walks through the neighborhood.  Later, in the restaurant, I served as Dad's hostess by seating customers and handling carryouts.  I was determined to earn a college degree so I wouldn't have to marry my parents' choice of a husband.  I earned my BA in chemistry/biology with a teaching certificate.  I was about to graduate when I met Joe on a "blind date" and decided to stick around in Louisville while we dated through the winter months.  We got engaged in February and married in August before he returned to Indiana University (IU) to finish his BA.

We lived in IU's married housing while I worked as a department manager at the local shopping center.  We had a fun life with my Falcon convertible and steaks and hamburgers from his parents' restaurant in Muncie, IN.  Joe graduated in the spring of 1966 and we worked briefly in his dad's restaurant while waiting for Joe's USAF pilot training assignment to Laughlin AFB, TX.

How did you become interested in the Angel Island Immigration Station?

Joe: As a former United States Immigration Station, Angel Island, detainee, my mother was invited to the annual AIISF benefit dinner as a guest and my wife and I accompanied her.  That's when I learned of the Angel Island volunteer docent program.

Eliz: Joe answered an announcement in the San Francisco Chronicle for docent training at Angel Island.  Both sets of our parents & my oldest brother had come through Angel Island.  We had looked up our parents' records in the National Archives in San Bruno  and made copies for our families.  Joe volunteered as a Angel Island docent while I was still working with the US Secret Service in San Francisco. I joined when I retired in 2004.

When did you become a volunteer/docent and what training did you go through?

Joe: I'm a graduate of the 2002 Angel Island Docent Training Class consisting of five(?) consecutive Saturdays learning about the history and beauty of the island.

Eliz: I retired from government service and took the 4-week training class at Angel Island to become a docent.  I chose the Immigration Station as had Joe because our parents had come that way.  Every spring after we return from Sun City, AZ, we do a refresher class on the latest information concerning the Immigration Station.

What are some of your memorable experiences as a docent?

Joe: Introducing visitors to a bit of American history they may have never heard before.  Meeting former USIS detainees and their descendants.  Bonding with family members through our Angel Island heritage ... both my father-in-law and my mother-in-law were also former detainees.

Eliz: I was really happy when the entire Immigration Station re-opened to the general public.  We came back to Angel Island for the February, 2009 grand opening (we normally spend the winter in Sun City, AZ).  It was a big thrill when my family (all 6 siblings) and their families came for the unveiling of the plaques last summer. We purchased plaques for my parents and Joe's parents.

What are some interesting stories that you’ve heard from visitors?

Joe: A man born in Chile who was detained with his family in the Administration Building.  An American Chinese who was detained at the US Immigration building on Sansome Street in San Francisco during the early 1950s and went through the same procedures that were practiced at USIS, Angel Island, from 1910 to 1940.  Our lawyer's father and our dentist's mother were detained at USIS, Angel Island.  A former detainee who remembered playing volleyball in the Chinese men's exercise yard.  Another former detainee who showed me the line on a wood post indicating how tall he was while housed in the downstairs Chinese men's dormitory.

Eliz: The stories that Chinese & Japanese people have of their families during WWII.  We've visited Manzanar and Tule Lake, the two Japanese internment camps in CA, and Topaz, AZ where the Japanese were also interned.  Many non-Asian visitors believe that Japanese were interned on Angel Island during WWII and we have to distinguish between the WWII "internment" and the much broader "detainment" of many Asians during the exclusion years on Angel Island.

How do visitors feel at the end of your tours?

Joe: Aghast at how such racial prejudice in US immigration policy could have happened.  Speculation as to whether history is repeating itself with this nation's recent opinions about immigration.  Appreciation for what their forebears went through to immigrate to our great country.  Where's the bathroom?

Eliz:  Many Americans do not know the story of Asian immigration and are quite surprised to learn about Angel Island.  Others have read about the Chinese story of Angel Island through Lisa See's best-selling novel, "Shanghai Girls".  Visitors are glad of today's more open ideas of race relations.

What would you like to see done to improve the visitor experience at the Immigration Station?

Joe:  We should stay with docent-led guided tours instead of self-guided tours with docents stationed on each floor of the barracks merely to answer questions. 

-- Provide a feedback mechanism to our visitors so we can improve our interpretation.  Perhaps just giving them a USPS mail address, email address, and phone number so they can respond later ... at the end of the tour, visitors are usually too rushed to catch the shuttle bus/ferry boat.

-- More signage at the ferry terminal and snack bar so visitors can figure out what to do ... buy a tour ticket, walk, catch the shuttle, forget it - there's not enough time, whatever.

Eliz:  I prefer the guided tour of the Immigration Station with a docent over the self-guided tour of the Immigration Station.  I think each individual needs to get answers as the question arises.  Visitors can hurry themselves along, never understanding the "what" or "why" of the inscriptions on the walls.  Later, if asked what they you saw or heard - they don't know what happened.
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