Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation

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IMMIGRANT VOICES

Imprisonment at Angel Island

by Xie Chuang, Introduction by Judy Yung and translation by Charles Egan

Introduction by Judy Yung

Xie Chuang 謝創 (aka Xavier Dea) was born in the village of Yijing 以敬, Tangkou 塘口, Kaiping County 開平縣, Guangdong Province 廣東, in 1905, the oldest of five children. His father immigrated to the United States when Xie was six years old. He received an elementary school education and began to participate in revolutionary activities at a young age. Soon after he was married in 1923, he was summoned by his father to join him in America. Leaving behind his wife and the revolutionary cause, Xie said he crossed the Pacific Ocean in tears, only to land at Angel Island. In an interview with a newspaper reporter in 1981, he recalled his stay on Angel Island. “I was detained on Angel Island for over forty days, during which I thought of many things. China was oppressed and had been carved up by foreign aggressors. We Chinese immigrants were just as oppressed. I thought if China were to become strong one day, our status would change. Life at Angel Island reaffirmed my patriotism.”[1]

on
Xie Chuang’s Certificate of Identity. (Scanned by Vincent Chin, courtesy of the National Archives, San Bruno.)

 

Upon his release from Angel Island, Xie Chuang settled in San Francisco Chinatown, where he attended St. Mary’s School during the day and worked at his father’s fruit and candy store at night. Thinking that his life lacked political meaning, he decided to leave home and strike out on his own. He moved across the bay to San Rafael, where he started high school and found a job as a live-in houseboy, but a year later, Xie had to give up his education when he became unemployed. He spent the next five years as a rabble-rouser supporting communism in China and organizing Chinatown workers through his involvement with the San Francisco Chinese Students Association, Kung Yu Club 工餘具樂部, Chinese Unemployed Alliance, and the U.S. Communist Party.[2]


In 1930 Xie Chuang was arrested for his subversive activities and thrown in jail. He was released two weeks later after bail of $2,000 was posted on his behalf by the International Labor Defense, a legal organization associated with the U.S. Communist Party. He immediately went back to his political work, helping Chinese laundry workers win their first strike and leading the first mass protest in Chinatown for unemployment relief. In May 1931, Xie was again arrested for his political activities and incarcerated on Angel Island for one year while the International Labor Defense appealed his case. In the end, he was deported to the Soviet Union via Germany.


Xie Chuang stayed in the Soviet Union for three years, touring factories and studying at the Lenin Academy. He returned to China in 1935, taught school in Kaiping, remarried and fathered six children, and led the resistance against Japanese aggression in central Guangdong. Xie was appointed to a number of important government posts after the Communists took control of China. However, in 1958 Xie was purged by leftists for being too soft on landlords and was purged again during the Cultural Revolution. He was rehabilitated in 1979, returned to visit the United States in 1981, and retired three years later with benefits equal to that of a provincial deputy governor. During his retirement, Xie wrote his memoirs, helped overseas Chinese reconnect with their families in China, and used his pension to help educate poor children and provide welfare to the elderly. In 1995 he died of cancer in Guangzhou 廣州 at the age of ninety.[3]


The following story of his second stay at Angel Island is excerpted from Chapter Two of his autobiography, Seas and Oceans Cannot Block an Intention to Serve the Nation 《重陽難阻保國心》, which was published in 1993.[4] It is a rare account told from the perspective of a Chinese radical who was detained on Angel Island for over a year while fighting deportation. It is full of rich details and new information about the food riots, suicide poems, political divisions among the inmates, and interactions with the Chinese Consulate and immigration officials. Written sixty-two years after the event and for an audience in China, it is understandable that errors, misinterpretations, and self-aggrandizements would occur in the retelling of the story. Based on other recorded accounts and research about life for Chinese immigrants on Angel Island, I have noted these errors in the footnotes whenever verifiable.


 

Translation by Charles Egan

Angel Island – what a beautiful name! Yet in the period before the 1930s, in the minds of overseas Chinese in America it was a terrifying place. This island is situated in San Francisco Bay about five nautical miles from San Francisco, and covers an area of ten square kilometers.[5] There are no residents on the island, only navy camps.[6] Transportation to and from the island is concentrated mostly on a single pier. The U.S. immigration station for the West Coast was established on a hillside there. All new immigrants who arrive on the west coast--especially those from the Far East--must come to the station for interrogation and medical examination. Only when the authorities are convinced that travel documents have not been forged will immigrants be allowed to enter the country. As for those foreign nationals awaiting deportation, they are also detained here.

 

This immigration processing station is in fact a detention center–there’s not much difference between it and a jail. While at the station, Asians (Japanese, Filipinos) and Chinese are kept in separate dormitories. In those years because China was weak and its people poor, the treatment Chinese received at the station was worse than that of the Japanese and Filipino immigrants. As for the time required for processing, Japanese immigrants could leave the station and enter the country within twenty-four hours of their arrival; as for Filipinos, it could take from two weeks to a little more than a month. For Chinese, the quickest was more than a month, and there were those who still did not receive permission to land after periods as long as two years. This is obviously due to China’s weak status as a nation, which has resulted in discrimination against its people. The Chinese were also given worse food and lodging space than the Japanese and Filipinos.


on
Book cover of Xie Chuang’s autobiography, Seas and Oceans Cannot Block an Intention to Serve the Nation.

The Chinese live separately in a two-story brick and wood building.[7] Each floor has an area of about 150 square meters, where three-tiered bunk beds are placed in four rows. All of the windows in the building are sealed with wire mesh. Even the empty yard on the south side, where Chinese immigrants can get air twice a day, is completely surrounded by a wire-mesh fence four meters high. When the immigrants go to the dining hall for meals, guards tail behind to keep watch on their activities. For daily meals, the cooked rice is usually mixed with yesterday’s, and horse is the chief meat.[8] Since the prisoners had no proper recreation, and their activities were limited, gambling became popular. Pai gow 牌九, fan tan 番攤, and mah jong 麻雀牌 gambling games were all available. A few old criminals who had been detained the longest formed a clique and established a little pawn business. They loaned money at usurious rates, thereby exploiting their fellow sufferers.

 

Before the Xinhai Revolution 辛亥革命,[9] many Chinese who came to America to make a living did so because they felt their lives were at an impasse. Bankrupt farmers, small craftsmen, and even a few sons of scholarly families in decline were compelled to debase themselves and cross the sea. Believing that America was the Gold Mountain, they did not hesitate to sell their land and property, even mortgage their own bodies, in order to secure the necessary travel funds to cross the vast ocean. Yet how could they have foreseen they would be stopped by the harsh regulations that America enforced upon Chinese immigrants? Not only were they barred entry to the country, they were deported back to China. More than a few believed there was no outlet for their suffering, and felt compelled to hang themselves at the station. Before they died, some left behind poetry. Their fellow prisoners carved these on the walls, and they accumulated over time until there were more than a hundred. Among them is one poem by a student from Taishan, whose testimony was inconsistent. He was denied entry to America, and so hanged himself. I still clearly remember his suicide poem.[10]

 

走投無路別家鄉,

乘風破浪渡重洋,

一言之差河橋斷,

困囚木屋兩年長.

英雄難過美人關,

進退兩難夜靜嘆:

謝絕浮生僅一途,

冤魂飄蕩莫奈何。


My life at an impasse, I left house and home;

I braved the winds and broke through waves to cross the seas.

Yet with one wrong word, my bridge across the sky was broken;

Now I’ve been imprisoned for two years in a wooden building.

It’s hard for heroes to cross the barrier to America;

Both going forward and back are hard, and in the quiet night I sigh.

I leave behind this floating life–there’s only one road for me now;

My wronged soul is doomed to wander–what else can I do?


From the Qing dynasty 清朝 (1644-1911) to the Kuomintang 國民黨 period (1912-1949), all the officials at Chinese embassies in America fawned on foreign powers for their own self-advancement. They were never concerned with the sufferings of overseas Chinese people. For their part, the U.S. immigration service tried to assuage the anger of the prisoners by frequently inviting pastors from Chinese churches to the island for consolation visits. These pastors promoted the “humanitarianism” of capitalism, “freedom,” “democracy,” and “material civilization.” All of this was just intended to make the prisoners submit completely to tyranny.

 

In May of 1931, after I was arrested by the American government, I was sent to Angel Island. Life for the Chinese prisoners had not changed much, except for the addition of a self-governing association and less gambling. Because the masses there had been subjected to Kuomintang anti-communist propaganda, and had a good impression of Chiang Kai-shek 蔣介石, they instituted a practice of “remembrance meetings” on Mondays to commemorate Sun Yat-sen 孫逸仙.[11] They were frightened of the communist movement. By the time of my arrival at the immigration station, they had already learned from the Chinese newspapers that I was a Communist Party member, and so they didn’t dare approach me. I remained solitary and isolated for several months. Yet I thought to myself, even if I were locked up and isolated, I still should strive to be an effective and useful member of the Communist Party.

 

I sought out a few young people among the mass of prisoners, and got close to them by teaching them English and translating for them. Once we had made friends, I used the “September 18th Incident” in China to teach them that if they loved the motherland, they must follow the road of “Resist Japan for National Salvation”—exactly what the Chinese Communist Party had consistently advocated.[12] After awhile we reached a mutual understanding, and their attitude towards me changed. I took this opportunity to organize seminars and explain to them the essence of the Japanese bandits’ aggression against China and the trends of the developing war. These young people felt they had benefited substantially. With that I just let them spread the news to everybody else. Overseas Chinese are always patriotic and were very concerned by what they had heard. One after another, they entreated me to give a lecture to everyone. Naturally, the Kuomintang clique was adamantly opposed, as they believed that allowing me to talk about these topics was no different than promoting communism. In contrast, the masses held that even if it’s the Communist Party speaking, as long as it promotes “Resist Japan for National Salvation,” it’s a good thing. The self-governing association called a meeting to discuss the issue, and unanimously agreed that I should give a lecture to the assembly during the weekly “remembrance meeting.”

 

on
Comrade Xie Chuang. (Courtesy of Peter Ja.)

Seeing that the Kuomintang had begun to lose favor among the prisoners, I used the platform of the weekly “remembrance meeting” to publicize the Japanese bandits’ ambition to invade China. I pointed out how the Kuomintang had adopted a policy of non-aggression and had prevented the heroes of the 19th Route Army from resisting the enemy.[13] I then elucidated the policies my party had consistently advocated to unite and resist Japan. The masses were extremely happy to hear this, and applauded to show their support. Not long afterwards, the self-governing association held an election. The previous chairman (a member of the Kuomintang clique) was defeated, and I was elected. Once I took over the reins of leadership, I focused on the urgent desire of the masses to improve their living conditions and treatment on the island. The members and I gradually concluded that we had to take some form of action before the authorities would negotiate. We decided to rise in revolt on the day when the food was the worst. After we entered the dining hall, at a prearranged signal everyone began to throw plates, knives, and forks at the guards. The guards were completely unprepared, and were so scared they rushed for the exits to escape. There was rubble all over the dining hall, with knives and folks scattered in disorder. We sounded the retreat and withdrew our forces. Immediately upon returning to the dormitory, we called an emergency meeting. We reckoned there were two possible responses forthcoming: first, the ringleaders would be immediately arrested; and second, the immigration authorities would be forced to negotiate with us. Under these circumstances, we resolved that if the authorities wanted to arrest someone, then the organizers of this action should take the initiative to assume responsibility. Two core members and I immediately indicated that if anyone was to sit in jail, it should be us, and that we would definitely not implicate the masses. If the authorities wanted to negotiate, then we would raise the following conditions: (1) no more rotten rice or horsemeat; increase the supply of vegetables; eating implements must be sanitary; promote hygiene; (2) the exercise yard should be opened to prisoners three times per day, each time for three hours.[14]

 

The next day, the superintendent of the immigration station invited us to send representatives to negotiate. Everyone elected me to represent them. I was only too glad to attend in my role as chairman of the self-governing association. The negotiations had only just begun when the superintendent offered me a bribe. He professed that he first wanted to improve the quality of my treatment, and so every day I was to be provided with three Western meals, two apples and two oranges, and one pack of cigarettes. I immediately declared that I had not come to solve my own problems, but that I was representing all the Chinese prisoners. I said that I could only represent everyone’s wishes, and that if he would not accept that, then we would struggle to the end. The superintendent saw that my attitude was resolute, and he could only agree to the conditions we had proposed. The negotiations a success, the masses were overjoyed.

 

In February 1932, the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco informed us by letter that Consul General Ye Keliang 葉可梁 would personally come to visit the station to console the compatriots. The self-governing association discussed the matter, and unanimously agreed that on all previous occasions the Consulate representatives had superficially promised to alleviate our difficulties and suffering, but in fact had never honored their commitments. Ye coming this time would most likely be equally insincere. We wanted to think of a way to expose his false benevolence and false righteousness, and to put him in an awkward position. As expected, Ye arrived punctually, in the company of a clergyman. He repeated his hackneyed platitudes about how the Kuomintang government was concerned about overseas Chinese. All of us angrily interrogated him: why was it that--one year after the Consulate had promised to intervene with the immigration service to improve our living conditions and treatment--still nothing had happened? Ye explained that this kind of issue had to follow diplomatic channels to be resolved. Everyone snorted in contempt at Consul Ye’s hypocritical and bureaucratic answer, and retorted, “How could we dare to trouble the Honorable Consul? Recently, after we undertook a forceful act of resistance, we got the immigration authorities to concretely improve our living conditions. So why do we need to go through any so-called diplomatic channels? Obviously you are just making excuses to put us off.” Ye immediately replied, “In a word, you are now in the American sphere of influence, and in future must under no circumstances act provocatively.” This reply laid bare Ye’s true purpose in coming here: all he wanted was to placate us and keep us from again causing any trouble with the immigration authorities. So everyone rebuked him and demanded that in the future Ye never again use blandishments and affected manners to dupe the masses. This made Old Master Ye ashamed and speechless. At that point, the masses again questioned him, “Disaster is imminent, so why doesn’t the Kuomintang government support the resistance of [General] Ma Zhanshan 馬佔山 in the northeast, and [General] Cai Tingkai 蔡廷鍇 in Shanghai?”[15] Ye replied, “These are great matters of state, and must not be discussed recklessly.” Everyone indignantly criticized the Kuomintang for only looking out for itself, without any concern for the life and death of the common people. They also said the non-aggression policy towards the Japanese will only result in calamity for the nation and its people. This shamed Ye Keliang into anger, but faced with the righteous anger of the masses, he did not dare show it. We just saw his face turn red and then white. It was really laughable. The clergyman who accompanied Ye never said a word; no words could have released the Honorable Consul from his embarrassment. Eventually the two men dejectedly beat it back to San Francisco.

 

Ever since I was arrested again and detained at the immigration station, the U.S. Communist Party had never stopped working for my release. They arranged for the International Labor Defense to appear on my behalf. In order to avoid the danger that I would be executed by the Chiang Kai-shek regime if returned to China, an appeal was lodged in district court insisting that I had the right to reside in America, and opposing my deportation. Of course the district court did not agree to their demands. They then brought the suit to the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet how could the Supreme Court allow the number one most prominent Chinese political offender to be released? As before, the suit failed. Lawyers for the International Labor Defense, realizing that there was no possibility anymore for my permanent residence in America, came up with a plan to apply to the Supreme Court for permission allowing me freedom to travel abroad. At the same time, the Central Committee of the U.S. Communist Party--through the American Federation of Labor--sent out an appeal to the working masses to launch demonstrations in every major city to protest my deportation to China by the authorities. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court, influenced by the mass protests, was forced to rule that I be given freedom to travel abroad. The U.S. Communist Party obtained permission from the Communist International for me to go to the Soviet Union. At that time the Soviet Union and Germany had diplomatic relations, and so after going through diplomatic channels, I was able to travel to the Soviet Union via Germany.

 

In May, 1932, I finally left capitalist America for a working-class country–the Soviet Union. The day I was to leave the country, I was transferred under escort from Angel Island to a police station in San Francisco. The commander of the station declared to me, “Henceforth you must never return to America. If you do, you will not only be fined $5,000, but also be sentenced to five years in jail.” Laughing, I said, “Wait until I am the honored guest of the American Soviet, then I will certainly visit this country again.” This angered him, and he scornfully said, “Now that you are off to the Soviet Union to seek refuge with Stalin, do you think you can muster 100,000 Red Army troops to attack us?” I said, “The Red Army of the Soviet Union will never invade other countries; it is a people’s army that will only defend socialism and the sacred national territory.” Faced with such a thoroughly obstinate person as me, who dared to go toe to toe with him, the police station commander seemed completely at a loss. So he promptly ordered policemen to escort me to the German passenger liner. Once I was on board the ship, I saw countless masses of workers there on the pier to see me off, holding up placards with slogans and red flags that billowed in the wind. I felt a surge of emotion, and my eyes filled with hot tears. Again and again I waved my hands to acknowledge them. As the ship cast off to begin its journey, the masses of workers on the shore continuously called out martial slogans. I stood respectfully on the deck and raised my hand in salute to my dear class brothers. When all traces of them disappeared from my eyes, in my mind I silently called out, “Goodbye, Comrades! Goodbye, America!”

 


[1] Transcript of an interview with Xie Chuang for Unity newspaper, San Francisco, CA, 1981, in possession of Gordon H. Chang.

[2] In 1927 Xie Chuang co-founded the San Francisco Chinese Students Association to support the communist movement in China through street rallies and mass meetings. In 1928 he became the leader of the Kung Yu Club, which focused on organizing Chinatown workers. After the Great Depression hit, he established the Chinese Unemployed Alliance to organize mass demonstrations in Chinatown and participate in citywide hunger marches.

[3] Him Mark Lai, Chinese American Transnational Politics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 182; “Xie Chuang,” Guangzhou Local History, http://www.gzsdfz.org.cn/dqzt/jcgcdy/201106/t20110626_3615.htm (accessed March 21, 2013); Mary Fong and Peter Ja, email correspondence with Judy Yung, February 22 and 25, and March 4, 2013.

[4] Xie Chuang, Chongyang nan zu baoguo xin [Seas and Oceans Cannot Block an Intention to Serve the Nation] (Guangzhou: Hua’nan Shifan Daxue yinshuachang, 1993), 20-25.

[5] Angel Island is three miles away from San Francisco, and its area is 1.2 square miles or 3.1 square kilometers.

[6] The U.S. Army, not the Navy, occupied Angel Island from 1863 to 1946.

[7] The detention building was made entirely of wood.

[8] Pork and beef, not horse, were the chief meat.

[9] Also known as the Chinese Revolution of 1911, the Xinhai Revolution overthrew the Qing dynasty and established the Republic of China under the control of the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) in 1912.

[10] Although many Chinese detainees heard about suicides at Angel Island, less than a dozen suicides have been documented. A few poems memorializing Chinese who died while in detention have been found, but this is the first known poem written by someone who committed suicide. The poem has not been found on the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station.

[11] The Kuomintang (KMT) was founded by Sun Yat-sen shortly after the 1911 Revolution. It was a major political party in the 1920s, when it worked closely with the Soviet Union and Chinese Communist Party (CCP). After Sun’s death in 1925, however, his successor Chiang Kai-shek mounted a vicious attack on the Communists, nearly wiping them out from their base in Jiangxi Province. In 1949 the CCP defeated the KMT and assumed full control of mainland China. Chiang and the KMT retreated to govern the island of Taiwan.

[12] Also known as the Mukden Incident, on September 18, 1931, the Japanese army chose to sabotage a few feet of track on the South Manchurian Railway line as a pretext to attack Mukden and subsequently occupy Northeastern China. Chiang Kai-shek, intent on fighting the Communists, chose not to resist while the Communists and overseas Chinese communities advocated a united front to resist Japanese aggression.

[13] Following the Mukden Incident, Japanese troops attacked Shanghai on January 18, 1932, bombing, burning, and killing soldiers and civilians alike. Against Chiang’s orders, General Cai Tingkai’s Nineteenth Route Army resisted, fighting valiantly against superior forces for thirty-four days before retreating.

[14] Other Chinese who were detained on Angel Island in the 1930s remembered that the exercise yard was usually kept opened all day.

[15] Against Chiang’s policy of non-resistance against the Japanese, General Ma Zhanshan and his troops fought back heroically at Mukden and General Cai Tingkai did the same in Shanghai.

Place of Origin
Kaiping, Jiangmen, Guangdong, China

Place of Settlement
unknown

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