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Between 1910 and 1940, Angel Island, the port that processed one million immigrants, employed a team of investigators, stenographers, and interpreters. Many of the immigrants coming through Angel Island were from Asia, and interpreters were brought in to translate for the applicant and help the inspector determine if the applicant’s testimony was valid and truthful. With the Chinese Exclusion Acts in effect, many Chinese immigrants were finding creative ways to find ways to work the system and land in the United States. Angel Island investigators evaluated the testimonies from not only the applicant, but also from the applicant-identified family members that had already landed in the U.S. If the stories given by an applicant and a family member didn’t match up, the applicant would be denied entry.
Yet, finding flaws and truths within these stories would not be possible without the interpreters, who had to know a wide array of Chinese provincial dialects. The interpreters had little decision-making power, but were vital in the processing of immigrants. In a series of interviews done in 1976 by Paul Chow, Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim and Judy Yung, interpreters shared their stories of working at Angel Island. The interviewees wished to remain anonymous, due to the delicate nature of their work as interpreters. Interpreters were meant to be impartial, and unbiased within the entire process itself. As we learn more about their lives, we see how difficult it would have been to be truly impartial throughout it all.
Interpreters started out their day by taking the ferry to Angel Island. Most interpreters worked a typical day of 8:30am to 4:00pm, and worked on multiple cases through the day. Their duty was to translate the testimony given by an arriving immigrant, which would assist the inspector in determining the validity of that immigrant’s whole file. For example, some Chinese immigrants would claim family already in the U.S. that wasn’t their truthful family back in China. Some “family members” resembled the applicant quite a bit, so it was difficult to immediately claim invalidity. Interpreters had to tell the inspector what specific dialect the person spoke, and if the person spoke a different dialect than that of their supposed relatives, they were caught in a lie.
Although the interpreter played a key role in each case, they never saw the whole of a case. Interpreters were shifted around, they would hear from one family petitioner, then another interpreter would hear from the actual applicant, then another interpreter would hear from the next family member. Most simple cases had two to three interpreters, but this number went up with the complexity of the stories. If there is a lot of family on record, the testimony can get really long, and require more interpreters. Even if a family member had already given testimony for a previous applicant, they were brought in again to give another testimony, to ensure it matched. Inspectors would check these testimonies to find any inconsistencies, as some would try to fake family connections to get in.
While the process of testifying was elaborate and long, interpreters recalled that it was not intentionally loud or scary. In contrast to the hard-hitting investigators on television dramas, the investigators rarely yelled–rather, they asked many hard questions, bound to trip an applicant up if they do not have their story in place. One interpreter remembered the intricate questions they had to translate:
“Out of most of my cases, they always started out with the location of the village, how the father got back to the village, who met him at the pier. Then they get into the description: How many rows of houses in the village? Was there a fish pond in the front? Was the bamboo fence in the back? Who lived in the house in front of you? What row house you live in? Who lived in the front? Who lived in the back? Who lived in the side? Then a description of inside the house. Of course, the houses were all standardized: the room with the big doorway, the door facing south, small door facing north, something like-that. Did they have a clock? Where was the clock hung? Where was the family altar located?”
The immigrants showed great agency in finding ways to support their communities in the testimonies that all applicants had to go through. Interpreters stated that they often could tell that the cases were false, stating that “on the very nature of the situation, you know that a lot of them were false. We might as well admit it.” But, since it was not the interpreter’s job to make judgment calls, it was up to the investigator to draw conclusions.
While the interpreters were told to be unbiased, some of them still attempted to be kind to the people giving the life changing testimonies: “It wasn’t our jobs, but sometimes they might seem nervous. You just tell them to take their time and answer your question.”
Investigators weren’t the only people with decision making powers, though. In each case, a board sat to evaluate the applicant and the case as a while. A board was comprised of an inspector, a board member, and a stenographer, who took all the testimony down. Even the stenographer could raise their voice if they felt like the investigator was making a wrong judgment. Quite the contrast to interpreters, who stated, “we don’t have a voice whatsoever. We were supposed to be very impartial.” And even in their translation, the interpreters felt as if the investigators could see through any lies in translation.
The interviewed interpreters recalled chief inspector P.B. Jones and the power he held over all investigators. Jones was quite intimidating, and kept the other investigators in check when they would “slip up.” Slipping up could mean incorrectly evaluating a case, or even getting to close to a Chinese interpreter. One recalled,
“If the Chinese interpreters were too friendly with these inspectors, pretty soon they [P.B. Jones and other investigators] might suspect something is going on between you two guys. So I stayed away from them.”
Unfortunately, this great divided power structure was deepened by the racial hierarchies occurring in the workplace. Investigators tended to be white, while interpreters were Chinese. The Chinese interpreters were still often seen as foreigners, and there may have been suspicion held on their allegiance. Casual and positive relations between the positions were few and far to come by, even when some Asian investigators got hired.
There were not just divides between white investigators and Chinese interpreters. There were also class systems at hand, and not all Chinese people at Angel Island were on the same playing field. Chinese workers were also present in the kitchen, but rarely interacted with interpreters, and even went in on different boats in the morning. And, apart from actual translating, interpreters rarely saw the conditions of the applicant immigrants: “I didn’t see any of the barracks. Surprise, the whole year, the only thing I saw was the interpreter’s room, the hallways, the board room.”
Despite the class divides within the diversity of Chinese people within Angel Island, interpreters were occasionally offered bribes. They tried not to take them, since they had no decision making power, but one interpreter recalls, “If you didn’t accept, they think you find it too little. And they say you’re uncooperative. And no love for country or countryman.” Some interpreters would even receive Lai See (traditional Chinese red-envelopes, filled with money), to emphasize the connection between Chinese people and to offer respectful money. More often than not, though, the detainee would ask the interpreter if the inspector would take bribes. Interpreters would try to warn the applicant not to do so, saying, “Oh, no, no, no, Don’t waste your money.”
Although cases were rare, interpreters were also called to translate under special conditions. These conditions included riots within detainee communities. In one instance, kitchens were accused of buying bad, low-quality rice, and the applicants rioted in anger. Interpreters were called in to calm people and smooth the situation out. While it was a high-intensity situation that resulted in no change, the detainees’ protest also again shows major agency, this time in speaking up over their living conditions. An interviewed interpreter also recalled tensions within immigrant detainee communities. In another instance, a woman was caught stealing all the soap. When she refused to confess, the other applicants staged a riot that again had to be calmed by interpreters.
Interpreters were also needed when applicants sent their objections to court to appeal. Around half of applicants were denied the first time, and many appealed, since they had a better chance of landing after going through the process. This does not mean that the appeal process was easy, though. It was costly, and detainees weren’t well informed about the process–they had little contact with their attorneys or outside family members, aside from the letters that the petitioner could write. Interpreters were assigned to scan these letters, to ensure that they did not include any coaching information for the attorney. Yet, because the interpreters were not required to directly translate, but rather just give the letters approval, the interpreters often let them through: “Even if there was coaching information, you pretended not to see it.” Interpreters often knew when applicants were playing the system, but rarely spoke up on the matter.
This may be because of the nature of the work they were doing. The interpreters interviewed did not have a major stake in the work; for them, it was a temporary position. One stated that, “You weren’t learning anything. It’s just like people in translation business. They never like to stay in translation.” Further, some interpreters didn’t believe in the surrounding culture of immigration, how the laws were passed, and how the applicants were treated. At the end of the day, interpreters saw the struggle of the immigrants passing through Angel Island, and had to personally recount the stories of many of them. They directly translated the lives of many applicants that wanted so badly to immigrate to the United States, and some interpreters felt deeply for these people. In the interviews conducted years later, an interpreter recounted his true feelings about the immigration system:
“There’s no question in my mind, but the Chinese immigrants who came through Angel Island really went through quite an ordeal. There’s no doubt about it. The fact that you’re incarcerated so long and put up with all that testimony and so on… [W]e’re Chinese. We only had a Chinaman’s chance. It was all because of the Exclusion Act.”
Anonymous interpreters, interview in English by Judy Yung, Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Paul Chow. May 8, 1976, Oakland. Angel Island Oral History Project, AIISF.
Sammie Wills is a mixed-race Pilipina student at Stanford University. On campus, she is majoring in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity and she organizes with progressive communities such as the Stanford Asian American Activism Committee (SAAAC). Within SAAAC, Sammie and other students have launched Tracing Movement, a project that works to document the immigration stories of API communities at Stanford. Their first trailer is here! Apart from Sammie’s on-campus organizing, she’s also invested in critically examining intersectional identities and LGBTQ API activism.
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