OAKLAND -- Li Keng Wong, 87, a resident of Piedmont Gardens retirement home in Oakland, was 7 years old when she emigrated from China to the United States in 1933. Before they could enter the mainland, she -- along with her mother and sisters -- were held and interrogated at the Angel Island Immigration Station for five days.
Wong tells of the first night she and her mother and sisters spent on Angel Island in a book she wrote called "Good Fortune: My Journey to Gold Mountain" (Peachtree Publishers, 2006):
"It was dark, so I couldn't see much of the island. The bathrooms were a brief walk from the sleeping compound. We washed quickly and quietly, splashing ourselves with cold running water. Then we dashed back to the barracks. Our metal cots had thin mattresses and dull green blankets. Lights were out by nine o'clock. In the strange, scary darkness, I wondered what tomorrow would bring."
On Dec. 2, 1933, the day of their release, Wong said to her mother:
"Yee, I'm so happy to leave this jail. Angel Island is terrible. It is no place to put newcomers to Gum Saan (Gold Mountain)."
Wong's experiences on arriving to the United States, where her family settled in Oakland's Chinatown, are also documented -- along with many other immigrants' stories -- by the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF), which is a nonprofit partner of the California State Parks and National Park Service. "The impetus in founding AIISF was to preserve the history of the Angel Island Immigration Station and renovate the buildings," said Grant Din, AIISF's community relations director and an Oakland hills resident.
"The barracks was abandoned for many years and about to be torn down."
In 1970, a park ranger named Alex Weiss happened upon the abandoned building and discovered Chinese writing carved into the deteriorating walls of the barracks.
"He took his findings to some Asian-American professors at San Francisco State University who looked at the writings and discovered hundreds of Chinese poems," said Din, whose maternal and paternal grandparents came through Angel Island.
"This sparked interest in preserving the building and its history and led to the formation of the Angel Island Historical Advisory Committee."
The committee's dedication paid off. In 1976, the state allocated $250,000 to restore and preserve the barracks as a state monument. In 1983, it opened to the public for the first time. Members of the committee decided to continue their efforts to preserve the site and educate about its history through the AIISF.
"Our mission today is to preserve the building, which was nearly falling down when it was first rediscovered, and to find stories of the people who went through the station," Din said.
"We already have 110 stories posted on our website under the 'Immigrant Voices' project."
The station was open from 1910 to 1940 when the federal Chinese Exclusion Act was in effect. The United States passed the act in 1882 as a way to keep cheap Chinese labor out of the country -- scholars and merchants were exempt. The act was repealed in 1943. Most of the immigrants coming through Angel Island were Chinese or from other Pacific Rim countries such as Japan. Unlike Wong and her family, not all immigrants who landed on Angel Island stayed just five days.
"Most people were there for weeks, months or even years, while officials questioned them about their family relationships to see if they were eligible to enter the United States," Din said. "There were even reports of suicides among the detainees."
Women had separate barracks and eating rooms from men, and conditions were crowded, with sometimes 180 people in a room, sleeping on three-tier bunks. Wong described the conditions in her book:
"We were in a large, rectangular hall with metal cots lined up inside. The windows and doors were barred by chicken wire. Lights hung down from the high ceiling. Despite the lights, the building was dark, bleak, gray and depressing. I felt as if I were in a prison. Doors were locked shut with guards standing outside."
Upon arrival, the Asian immigrants were forced to disrobe for minute examinations at the hospital -- where there was a separate entrance for European and non-European immigrants. Din said Asians complained about the food -- which was not what they were used to in their native lands.
"After detainees staged a food riot, things got better and officials hired Chinese cooks," Din said.
Din emphasized that it's not just immigrant voices from China and Pacific Rim countries that the foundation hopes to document, but everyone who passed through Angel Island at that time. Din encourages people to write their own stories, but said the AIISF has volunteers and interns available to interview people and write their stories.
Other ongoing projects on the island include the Immigrant Heritage Wall with family plaques honoring ancestors who came through the station. Federal, state and private funds totaling about $14 million are being used for further preservation projects, including the historic hospital building.
"We are establishing the Pacific Coast Immigration Center, which is more than just a museum -- we envision historical and narrative exhibits, artifact displays, as well as contemporary stories and performing artists," Din said.
About 30,000 people visit the Immigration Station each year, but Din would welcome more.
"When people go, they're always amazed," Din said. "You can make a day of it by taking a bike ride around the island and seeing some of the Civil War-era buildings. There's also music in the summer and campground facilities."
Wong, who graduated from UC Berkeley and taught elementary school for 35 years, is proud of the book she wrote, which is used extensively in middle school curriculums in the United States and in other countries.
"It's one way for people to learn about an immigrant family -- how they struggled and how they survived," said Wong, who raised two children in San Leandro with her husband, Roger, and has three grandchildren and four surviving siblings in the Bay Area. "If I can change the thoughts of people, even one person, who may have some prejudice, I've done a good job. We are all brothers and sisters under the color of our skin."
For more information visit http://www.aiisf.org.