Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation

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Chinese Interpreter

by Jim Huen

Interview of Stephen Louie
Chinese Interpreter, 1949 to 1954, US Immigration Office, San Francisco

Angel Island Immigration Station operated from 1910 to late 1940 when a fire closed the Station.  The U.S. Immigration office then moved to a temporary location in San Francisco at 801 Silver Avenue and operated there until 1944 when a new permanent immigration facility was built and opened at 630 Sansome Street.  It was also known as the U.S. Appraisers Building, housing other federal agencies.  This facility is still an active immigration office under its current name United States Citizenship and Immigration Services under the Department of Homeland Security.  Little has been written about these two San Francisco immigration facilities.

In our continuing effort to document and record the Chinese immigration experience to America, AIISF was fortunate to interview the last known living Chinese interpreter Stephen Louie who worked full time at the Sansome Street facility for five years, from 1949 to 1954.   In October 2009, Mr. Louie agreed to be interviewed about his work experiences there.  Here are Mr. Louie’s recollections as he remembers them in his own words.


Jim HuenStephen Louie was born in San Francisco in 1926.  At the age of five, his parents took him and other members of his family to China to live in the Toishan district of Guangdong Province.  He stayed there until 1941 and returned to San Francisco.

His parents did not speak English.  Therefore, when he returned to the United States at the age of 14, his English knowledge was non-existent.  Stephen went to night schools to learn English while working in restaurants and laundries.  

At the age of 18 in 1944, he was drafted into the United States Army and served in the Army Air Corp for two years.  While in training, he was at an airfield where a squadron of air cadets from China had arrived for the same training.  No one in that squadron understood English and he was the only Chinese-American that could speak Cantonese.  He was called to be their interpreter.  However, Mr. Louie cannot speak Mandarin.  Fortunately, one of the air cadets could also speak Cantonese and Mandarin.  Mr. Louie was able to translate from English to Cantonese, and through that cadet, in Mandarin to his fellow cadets, and vice versa.

After the Army service, he went to City College of San Francisco under the GI Bill and obtained his high school diploma.

At that time, the U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) on Sansome Street needed Chinese interpreters to help the heavy influx of immigrants from the southern part of China and Hong Kong.  He applied and was accepted.  Mr. Louie worked there full time from 1949 to 1954.  There were many Chinese interpreters.  At its peak, there were as many as twelve.

The INS occupied the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th floors of the building:  the 9th floor for administration, the 10th floor for examination of the immigrants, the 11th floor housed the male detainees, and the 12th floor housed the female detainees.  Interpreters were not allowed to go to the dormitories except for official business and accompanied with immigration inspectors and/or administrators, and cannot befriend the new arrivals or witnesses.

The immigrants, at that time, were war brides or relatives of US citizens reuniting with their families after WWII.  At times when the influx was heavy, the INS would send teams of inspectors and interpreters to Honolulu to interview the immigrants aboard ships bound for San Francisco.

The interview team consisted of an immigration inspector, who asks the questions, the Chinese interpreter, who translates the questions and answers from the immigrant or witness, and a stenographer, who records the questions and answers on the typewriter.  The interview goal was to determine whether the immigrant had met the legal requirements to enter the United States.  All he inspectors were Caucasian, none was a Chinese.  The stenographers were all females.

Every immigrant was given an interview.  If his or her answers matched that of the witness, the relationship of the parties was established and entry would be granted.  Should disagreements among the answers between the parties arose, a second interview with another inspector would be held.  Should the relationship with the parties still cold not be established, the deportation could be ordered.  Deportations were very few.  Mr. Louie felt that the interview process was very fair.

In the mid-1950s, US immigration policy changed.  Applicants for entry to the United States would be processed at the United States Consulate either in Canton (Guangzhou) or in Hong Kong.  Thus, the number of interpreters was reduced and Mr. Louie left the service in 1954.

From 1954 to 1960, Mr. Louie was hired by the United States Custom Service to administer the Restricted Merchandise Department.  Subsequently, Mr. Louie left to enter the real estate business.

Mr. Louie is now retired, lives in San Francisco, and has one son, a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.   In his spare time, Mr. Louie is active in the Chinese community in San Francisco.  Mr. Louie enjoyed his work as an interpreter, helping the new Chinese immigrants in their search for a better life in America.

Jim Huen is a volunteer with the Angel Island State Park and Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.  He retired from Lockeed-Martin Corporation’s Procurement Division. His family of eight people immigrated from Hong Kong in December 1948 and were detained for three nights at the Sansome Street facility.

Place of Origin
San Francisco, CA

Place of Settlement
San Francisco, CA

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