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China - Guangdong, Guangzhou to San Francisco, CA

1940 | David Leong | Male | 11 and under

Filed under: ,

Angel Island immigrant: No

Place of Origin
China - Guangdong, Guangzhou

Place of Settlement
San Francisco, CA

David Leong’s story is an amazing one. While he traveled across the Pacific at the age of eight with his distant aunt and cousins, upon arrival in San Francisco he had to go to Angel Island by himself because his relatives were U.S. citizens and not detained. He managed to pass the interrogation process and be released to rejoin his father.


David Leong was born in a village in Canton (now Guangzhou), China in 1932. While David was one of four children, initially he was the only one of his siblings to immigrate to America. On the trip, David was accompanied by his distant aunt and her family, who were American citizens. His parents put eight-year-old David on the boat for America to join his father, who was already in the United States. Young David had little interest in moving to America; he said his father “was sort of a stranger…because [he didn’t] see him that often”[1], and at the time he would have preferred to remain with his siblings in China.

Conditions in China prompted David’s parents to send him to America. When David was four or five, the Japanese began attacking his family’s village, forcing them to move to Macau. Several years later, David’s family moved back to their village in Canton, only to move back to Macau in the mid 1930s when the area again became turbulent.

David came to the United States in 1940 as a paper son, the son of a son of a native. He used false papers his father had purchased, and he had to familiarize himself with his fake story and family history. He also had a set of “coaching papers,” which described where he was living, how many siblings he had, his father’s name, and other basic family information.

David brought little on his voyage to America; he recalls only bringing his clothes and about five dollars in American money. While the journey started out rough for David, who was seasick for five days, the latter part of the voyage was more enjoyable. David remembers watching flying fish in the water and observing swimming Hawaiians off the Hawaiian coast. On the ship, David slept in a bunk on the lower deck. He passed the eighteen-day sea voyage playing with his four cousins with whom he was traveling.

While David’s aunt and cousins — American citizens — disembarked at San Francisco, David was sent on to Angel Island. His only impressions of the Island had been formed from stories he had heard; rumor had it that ghosts inhabited the latrines. David recalls being afraid to leave his bed at night, warned by older Angel Island inhabitants that there were “people walking around there that shouldn’t be there.”

David Leong's Certificate of Identity, which he received when he was released from Angel Island

David Leong’s Certificate of Identity, which he received when he was released from Angel Island

David slept in a small wire bunk in a large, hall-like room with, he estimated, between thirty to fifty others. David recalls feeling very lonely at night, but during the day he passed the time playing with other young boys. Time was relatively unscheduled; those on Angel Island were free to do as they pleased, except when they were called in for questioning. Besides playing with other boys, David remembers venturing out to a nearby grocery to buy sardines and spam, as he found the food in the Angel Island cafeteria unappealing.

Three to four weeks after arriving at Angel Island, it was finally time for David’s interrogation. He entered a small, sparsely furnished room with just a desk and several chairs. There, a Caucasian interrogator, assisted by an interpreter, peppered him with questions about his parents, siblings, and birthplace. While David wouldn’t describe the interrogation as kind, he wouldn’t describe it as particularly rough, either. The pressure in the room during interrogation was palpable, but David was well prepared; he had been well coached in China about the information he had to memorize for the interrogation.

David and his catch in 2007

David and his catch in 2007

On paper, David’s name was Chan Way Tong. The initial interrogation lasted just thirty to forty-five minutes, although David underwent two or three interrogations before leaving Angel Island.

When David learned he passed the interrogation process, he remembers feeling proud. But reuniting with his father was a somewhat strange experience, as his father felt like a stranger to David.

After Angel Island, David attended school through ninth grade at Burbank Junior High School in Berkeley (its site is now used by the Berkeley Adult School).

David then held many different jobs before becoming an optician in 1953.

Eventually, David’s whole family immigrated to the United States. His two sisters settled in San Francisco, while his brother ended up in Montreal.

David with his family in 1991

David with his family in 1991

As an adult, David returned to Angel Island to “see what it is like.”[2]  While visiting provided David a chance to relive his experience on the island, he does not recall all that much about his immigration as an eight-year-old boy. For David, not remembering “is the worst part about it.” Nevertheless, David was moved when he read about the adversities some endured at Angel Island: “some of the hardships that some people have in Angel Island — that is really something.”

David believes it is important that future generations learn about Angel Island. After all, “it is part of history.” He told AIISF, “I’m just an average citizen who helped my late wife raise four kids,” but we greatly appreciate the time he spent sharing his experiences with future generations.


Kelsey Owyang and Olivia Pollak, AIISF interns, prepared this story based on an interview by Christine Trowbridge for the Pacific Regional Humanities Institute at U.C. Davis in 2005. Mr. Leong reviewed his story in 2015.

[1] Leong, David. “Oral History Project, Angel Island.” Interview by Christine Trowbridge. Pacific Regional Humanities Institute. EScholarship, University of California, 10 June 2005. Web. 1 June 2013. . Page 2 of 12.

[2] Leong, David. “Oral History Project, Angel Island.” Interview by Christine Trowbridge. Pacific Regional Humanities Institute. EScholarship, University of California, 10 June 2005. Web. 1 June 2013. . Page 12 of 12.

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