Posted by: Vivian Chau
“Excuse me while I try to remember…about the historical events of Angel Island,” said our tour guide. He sighed, took two deliberate steps and finally squinted at the sun as if to will the words he needed into his mouth. “The Japa—no wait—Chinese immigrants…who came here…sought a better life in America.”
I nearly choked on my sandwich. Probably an overreaction, but as a Chinese-American I felt insulted that this tour guide (volunteer or not) could not remember that most of the immigrants who passed through Angel Island were from a country called China.
I was with members of the ALC on a day trip to Angel Island, where we signed up for a tour of the historical buildings on site. The tour started with a brief history of Angel Island outside the Immigration Station as we sat on concrete steps and ate our lunches.
We finally entered the Immigration Station, trying hard not to inhale too much due to the lead paint on the walls. Maybe it was the lack of oxygen, but hopefully, more due to my excitement, that I felt almost giddy to see the elegant Chinese calligraphy etched into the wooden walls. Sadly I couldn’t read any of it, other than the simple characters for “man,” “sky” and “mountain.”
But seeing the blocks of characters carved so neatly in the walls, visible despite being painted over struck a chord in me. There were people behind them. I didn’t know what they looked like. I couldn’t hear the Chinese dialects and the sound of their voices. But I could see their words carved into the walls—poems that captured their frustration, anguish and hope that they could still make it to the “Beautiful Country”—America.
The romanticized reverie of my thoughts was suddenly interrupted with the jarring voice of our second tour guide.
“While held at this station, the Chinese were very bored—so they carved poems into the walls. Creative, yeah?”
Bored and creative? It was like saying Impressionist art was nothing more than a result of Monet’s bad eyesight.
Could I go so far to call these tour guides racist? I’m not sure—but I do think they were flippant and disrespectful. Their attitude and behavior throughout the tour made me angry that they were given the authority to teach others about Angel Island’s history.
For the other members from the ALC who were with us on Angel Island: what did you think about the tour guides? And what can we do to ensure that future generations visiting and learning about Angel Island come away with something more than the sense that these Chinese immigrants were merely “bored” yet “creative”?
Vivian Chau is a Communications and Program Support Intern at the Asian Law Caucus; she is also a recent Stanford graduate with a BA in Psychology with Honors in Education and a MA in Sociology.