The following article, “Christmas Eve at Angel Island,” was written in December 1927 by Edna Deu Pree Nelson, who was the editor of the Foshay Spot Light, a monthly publication of a utility company headquartered in Minneapolis. She accompanied a friend on a visit to San Francisco and wrote this article for her company’s magazine. We want to thank her niece Marilyn Felland for submitting this article to AIISF.
Readers should note that in the 1920s it was still common to refer to Chinese and Chinese Americans as “Chinamen”, a term many find offensive today. While Ms. Deu Pree Nelson uses this term in the article, she projects a sympathetic view toward the detained Chinese. Since there are relatively few accounts of life at the U.S. Immigration Station on Angel Island, we share this article in the spirit of adding another layer of interpretation to the documentation of the Angel Island story.
Christmas Eve At Angel Island
by Edna Deu Pree Nelson
I have no idea how “Peace on earth good will to men” looks in Chinese, but it is quite possible to say it in that language, and have it understood. It is done regularly each Christmas eve at Angel Island, that stretch of land, - the immigration station of the Pacific Coast – that lies midway of San Francisco Bay. Angel Island is to the West what Ellis Island is to the East, but it is much more attractive to the eye, and the congestion is not there. Neither are the crowd; even on the busiest day one finds freedom to stretch and fresh air to breathe and plenty of beauty to look upon, - hills, tropical flowers, trees, grass and a long quite pier.Not quite on Christmas eve though, as anyone who went that way on the evening of evenings would soon discover. For the visitor, the pilgrimage begins with a rough half hour boat ride from pier five in San Francisco to the Island. The government vessel is small and in December the Bay is often choppy, sometimes uncomfortably rough. But that is part of the sport. Once within the capacious building where the festivities are to be held one will find a merry group already busy with the preparations. In fact, contributing their energy to the welfare of the alien is nothing new for this industrious company.
On this particular Christmas eve the boat had brought to the Island a fresh boat load of aliens. It was later afternoon, and the group, old and young Chinese, were a dejected lot as they set their feet on the pier and sorted out their luggage. They shuffled their way up the path without seeing the beauty of their surroundings. California palm trees, pepper trees, green lawns, a eucalyptus covered hill were lost on them. Their eyes were set moodily ahead, and they entered the receiving room as hopeless people who expect the worst.
Certainly it seemed that fortune had not been kind to them. What of this talk of “good will to men,” when on Christmas eve they faced the certainty of Christmas in a detention station? If they thought of Christmas; if they knew its meaning they took no cheer from it as they dropped their packs and answered, through interpreters, the questions put to them by the examiners.
But, morose as they were, they could not fail to see about them indications of an unusual stir. A great many people were running about carrying oddly shaped bundles and garlands of evergreen which they festooned about the rooms. They laughed often and heartily and seemed in particularly good spirits. Gradually, in spite of themselves, the newcomers brightened, brightened as a cold man when he sees a fire, or a hungry traveler when he sees food. There seemed to be great preparations for a distinguished guest. It must be a very great person. Indeed, these energetic people who whistled and sang and laughed must expect many guests.
A tall American woman in black was directing the preparations. She had wide pleasant blue eyes, and a friendly smile. Suddenly sheturned to the huddled group of immigrants, stretched out her hands and smiled on them. An Interpreter stood at her side.
“Tell them,” she said, “that we are glad they have arrived in America on Christmas eve. Tell them that we are their friends and that while they are here, we want to make their lives happy."
As the Interpreter repeated her words, a cheer burst spontaneously from the throats of these tired travelers, and an old Chinaman, who oddly enough wore a black sombrero, bowed very low, Soon in some miraculous way they too were stringing garlands of evergreen and hanging bright stars and Chinese bells, and brightly colored cards on an enormous tree. Before long the dining room had been converted into a gay reception room, with red Chinese lanterns hung cheerily from the ceiling and Chinese wind bells tinkling whenever a breeze struck them, and the whole atmosphere filled with a spirit of festivity.
Numbers seemed to make little difference. There were already on the Island several hundred immigrants, and the hundred and fifty new arrivals meant preparations for that many more; but no one made anything of the problem, and they were included quite as though they had been expected for days.
There came the moment when two interpreters, one Chinese, the other Japanese, interpreted first to the Japanese, then to the Chinese the story that every American and European child knows, the store of Jesus and the manger and the wise men, the shepherds and the angels. They must have told it very simply because these Orientals caught its meaning and they responded as one, with a great shout of joy.
They sat in the dining room, facing the tree and the hand organ and listening like children, their faces eager for every crumb of music that came from the miniature instrument. A soloist sang old familiar Christmas carols, those same tunes that awaken one early on the morning of the twenty-fifth of December, sung by carolers in the deserted streets. In the midst of the singing some Chinese boys, with the curiosity of youth, crossed the room to examine quite unabashed the strange wooden box that gave out such pleasant harmonies. They had their Chinese stringed instruments and later they played and sang, looking like wise men from the East in their loose coats and slippered feet.
After the singing came the motion pictures. When the immigration station and boats were flashed upon the screen those who knew their surrounding applauded with vigor, and the picture of the Japanese mountain Fujiyama brought storms of clapping, and whistling. Whatever they liked they applauded, just as an American audience would. If a baby started to cry they cheered, good-naturedly; when it stopped they repeated their applause. The end of the picture brought forth so much applause that it was a long three minutes before they could be stopped.
They did stop it; finally, and the presents and candy from the tree were distributed. There were handkerchiefs, toys games, dolls. Each Chinese woman got an American doll, which she prizes above all other gifts. The children shrieked with joy over their presents, and began at once to play with them, and to stuff their cheeks with candy.
When the last present with delivered to its owner, someone tried to take flashlight pictures. The Orientals were not sure what had happened when the explosion came. But they were too aware of the friendliness of those about them to be frightened, although their faces were a study. While they waited for the smoke to clear some tittered nervously, and when at last they understood, they looked from one to the other and burst out into real laughter.
They filed back to their quarters a little intoxicated by all that had happened, each clutching his or her gifts, some chattering their sentiments, other crying their thanks, some weeping a little, the new arrivals deeply touched by the thought that they were the great and important guests for whom all this preparation had made.