Interrogations of Chinese Immigrants at Angel Island
Like Ellis Island in New York Harbor, Angel Island in San Francisco Bay was an entry point for immigrants in the early 20th century. The Angel Island immigration station processed small numbers of immigrants from Japan, Italy, and other parts of the world and was the key place of interrogation and detention for immigrants from China (“Angel Island Over View, CD-ROM). Angel Island in 1910 to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882 and renewed in 1892 and 1902. Despite Chinese contributions to building the American West before 1880, the U.S. enacted laws prohibiting the migration of Chinese laborers after 1882 and accepting only merchants, teachers, students, and the families of American-born Chinese. These were then 105,465 Chinese in the country, mostly in California. Under the Naturalization Law of 1790, Chinese immigrants were considered “aliens ineligible to cintizenship,” but those born in the U.S were citizens under the 14th amendment. Modeled in its procedures on Ellis Island, Angel Island was an outpost to sift the migration stream but also a barrier to bar Chinese save those who fit the exempt categories or were related to U.S citizens (“Angel Island Overview”, CD-Rom).

Chinese immigration, after being shut down for many years by governmental legislation and an anti-Chinese climate resumed quickly after 1906. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed most immigration records in the city, allowing many resident Chinese to claim U.S citizenship and many others to claim to be “paper sons.” Chinese Americans who returned from visits home and reported births of sons and daughters thereby created slots, which were often used to bring in immigrants who masqueraded as sons or daughters. By this strategem, thousands of Chinese skirted intended American exclusion (“Male Detainees at Angel Island”, CD-Rom). These paper sons and paper merchants increased the number of Chinese immigrants by an unbelievable rate. It was this supposed population explosion that would lead the United States to investigate all incoming Chinese immigrants. Being wary of the impossibility of so many legitimate children of U.S. citizens of Chinese descent, the department of immigration and naturalization sought out to verify that these people were indeed the true sons and daughters or the actual businessmen that they claimed to be. Therefore it was against this historical background and under these particular auspices that the interrogations at Angel Island were carried out from 1910 to 1940. These interrogations were by no means fair, nor were they based on any other legal or practical precedent.
While unreasonable detentions were already the norm, the act of interrogating immigrants to the extent that the Chinese were interrogated was unheard of in history. These interrogations were intricate and detailed, and designed to ensnare unwitting Chinese immigrants seeking entrance into the United States. The interrogations not only presented a hurdle for incoming immigrants by prolonging their detention at Angel Island and increasing the bureaucracy required to process Chinese immigrants, but would deeply scar the Chinese landing in the United States. Moreover, the traumatic experiences at Angel Island coupled with other practices following the detentions such as raids of Chinatown during the Red Scare of the 1950’s led to a persistent fear of deportation by landed Chinese. The interrogations were more than just simple interview questions about one’s village or parents, rather they were, taken as a whole, another method to exclude the Chinese from America.
The entire interrogation was loosely structured, but by no means were they regular or fair. After being held at Angel Island on a writ of habeas corpus, Chinese immigrants were interrogated by a Board of Special Inquiry which was composed of two inspectors, one of which was the Chairman of the Board, a stenographer, and finally an interpreter. This board was not held to technical rules of procedure or evidence as used in other federal courts but rather was allowed to use any means it deemed fit under the exclusion acts and immigration laws to ascertain the applicant’s legitimacy to enter the United States (Lai, 20).

Like immigrants at Ellis Island, immigrants at Angel Island were put through inspections were more difficult, often extending over several days (“Angel Island Barracks”, CD-ROM). Immigrants at Angel Island underwent stringent exams and rigorous interrogations. Any signs of communicable diseases like trachoma or hookworm, both common in Asia, or of undesired traits meant denial of entrance (“Medical Processing”, CD-Rom). Chinese immigrants also underwent detailed legal inspections. Officals questioned them about minute aspects of their lives in China, including the number of steps leading up to their houses. Answers given by immigrants were compared with those provided by family members and friends to the same questions. Small discrepancies meant exclusion and deportation (“Interrogation”, CD-ROM).

To give a general idea of the structure of the interrogation, an inspector gave a brief description of the line of questioning he took: He started by getting the data on the applicant himself: his name, age, any other names, and physical description. Then we would ask him to describe his family: his father – his boyhood name, marriage name, and any other names he might have had, his age and so forth. Then we would go down the line: how many brothers and sisters described in detail – names, age, sex, and so forth. Then we would have to go into the older generations: paternal grandparents; then how many uncles and aunts and they had to be described. Then the village: the district, how many houses it was composed of, how arranged, how many houses in each row, which way the village faced, what was the head and tail of the village. Then the next door neighbors. Then describe the house: how many rooms and describe them What markets they went to. Find out about the father’s trip: when he came home, how long was he home, did he go to any special places, and describe the trip from his village to Hong Kong (Lai 112).Therefore it is clear that there was a semi-rigid structure to the line of questioning that the inspectors took. However, within the interrogation structure, inspectors were free to deviate and ask about anything that they felt might elucidate the true status of the immigrant. In the end, applicants were usually asked around two to three hundred questions, but in some cases were asked upwards of a thousand (Chen 107).
After interrogating the witness, the board usually sought out other witnesses. These extra witnesses were usually composed of family members or business partners. Often times white witnesses would be brought in to testify for the Chinese immigrant in question. Usually the questions reserved for these white witnesses were notably shorter than the questions asked of Chinese spouses or relatives. After taking the statements of relatives and acquaintances, interrogators brought the immigrant back in and began to examine and further question slight contradictions in statements between family members and the immigrant. “It is suggested that the examining officer closely follow the examination already conducted, clearly developing any variations which may appear”(Letter from immigrant inspector to Commissioner of Immigration).
The time it took to take the testimonies of all parties involved usually ranged from three to four days. The length of the interrogation was exacerbated if the family members were located in some eastern city such as Chicago or New York. In these cases it was necessary to correspond back and forth and have family members or other available witnesses provide testimony to the Immigration Service offices in those cities and transmit the files back to San Francisco (Clauss 65-66). The collective testimony was anywhere from twenty to eighty pages depending on the case but usually averaged forty or fifty pages of typed testimony (Chen 107). By this time if a decision by the board could still not be reached the case would be suspended for ten days, in which more data would be gathered. In this period, letters from acquaintances might be gathered from members of the community who knew the family of the immigrant. These acquaintances would testify to the fact that, indeed the family was expecting a member to arrive on a certain day on a certain ship. However, more importantly, these letters often spoke of the family’s good standing in the community. These letters usually written by white businessmen, were written in the hopes that the board would be convinced of the status of the immigrant and allow that person to land. The underlying tone of the message, however, was one of recommendation. The white man was vouching for the Chinese family in these letters, stating his personal knowledge about the family. It was not sufficient for the Chinese family to state that in fact they were expecting relatives to arrive in America. The board required a more trustworthy source – which meant a white man. These letters usually extolled the virtues of the Chinese citizen such as honesty and many times Christianity, which were held in high regard by a white America and especially a white Special Board of Inquiry. After all the supplemental information, including the “letters of recommendation,” was received and reviewed a decision was made. If the decision was admittance, the detainee was allowed to land at once. However, if the decision was deportation, the detainee had five days to protest this decision. His or her case would be retried and he or she would be reinterrogated. These appellates however, had to stay on Angel Island while awaiting for their appeal hearing. It was here that some would stay in upwards of two years, waiting to hear from the board (Clauss, 50). What is most striking about this however, is that the final decision of allowing Chinese into the country was based not so much on the word of the Chinese family as it was on a “trustworthy” white man. The immigration and naturalization service clearly knew that many Chinese immigrants were using false claims to gain entrance into the United States. Inspectors were already aware of the fact that many of the Chinese entrants after 1906 were fraudulent. “. . . many Chinese began to return to this country and they claimed to be coming back as natives. As a matter of fact, it would have been humanly impossible for most of them to be citizens because there were not many Chinese women over here” (Lai 112).
A second reason why the Chinese were interrogated was due to the fact that the new immigrants were all alleging that they were actually citizens or potential citizens, rather than aliens. Therefore the immigration station had to test the validity of these claims of citizenship status (Lai 111). The intent of the Board of Special Inquiry at Angel Island was to deport or exclude as many prospective Chinese immigrants as possible. Under the aegis of seeking out the truth and separating the legitimate immigrants from the spurious claims, the immigration service sought to exclude the Chinese. This is obvious from the type of questions asked and the circumventing of traditional rules of procedure. The type of questions were often based on previous knowledge concerning the village. After these inspectors had worked thousands of cases, they had gained a clear knowledge of what some of the major villages looked like. With this knowledge of the village layout, they asked questions that were purposefully wrong to entrap immigrants. The attention to detail as well as the dubious lines of questioning were merely used as cause for exclusion. A secondary reason motivating the immigration service at Angel Island was performance. The more people they proved guilty of false papers then the more efficient that they seemed. Chinese immigrants being landed would only draw criticism from the public. Therefore they would prefer as many Chinese deported as possible because this would enhance their image as being thorough and completely dedicated gate keepers. The job then provided ample personal motivation to the interrogators to be especially adamant against the entrance of Chinese. This is clearly evidenced by the interrogation process, in which the underlying intent was to not find the truth but to exclude as many Chinese as possible.
Interrogators asked questions even after one had said no, or stated that they did not know. In this way they could catch contradictions when they finally answered the same question phrased in a different form. From here they could further question immigrants on why they did not answer the same question the first time. This type of questioning was extremely common for those claiming to be sons or daughters of U.S. citizens or partners in a business. The motive of the interrogation: to trick Chinese immigrants into contradicting themselves and thereby give sufficient reason to have them deported. The usual response to why immigrants had answered wrong was that they did not understand the interpreter the first time. Other interesting excuses were often given, usually stating that the person testifying was extremely nervous. On several occasions, letters were sent to the Board of Special Inquiry by people who had testified, trying to explain a blunder or a hesitation in their testimony as being caused by an accident on the way to Angel Island causing them to be nervous or a sickness in which they were extremely tense and could not think or concentrate on the questions. The lapses in memory usually occurred because of the copious amounts of information many of these immigrants had to memorize from their coaching books. The validity of the excuses cannot be ascertained, but it was more than likely that many of the excuses and letters written to the Board of Special Inquiry attempted to concoct an illness or an accident in which to explain their failure during the testimony. Certainly some of the claims such as misunderstanding the interpreter might have been genuine and there was a definite, palpable anxiety for immigrants before entering an interrogation. However, many of these excuses were used when there were major contradictions dealing with obscure information during the interrogation. It seems unlikely that a sudden bout of illness or anxiety would lead an immigrant to remember every other minute detail about his or her life but forget one and then have the presence of mind to remember that question from the interrogation to write about it in a separate letter. Therefore, the letters and excuses were probably more often used to cover up mistakes made in the interrogation rather than to explain real events causing anxiety or memory loss.
Minor discrepancies were not enough to deport immigrants. The length of questioning and the detail contained therein, however, was enough to almost cause a contradiction between the testimony of the intended entrant and the corroborating witness testimonies in every case. Questions asked of relatives concerning the minutiae surrounding the family, village and house were bound to lead to inconsistencies with the testimony presented by the detainee. From this point the Board of Special Inquiry had to determine which contradictions were major or minor. This is a highly debatable and arbitrary subject. With an example such as knowing the names of your neighbors in the village, the board needed to determine whether or not this was a major fact or merely a minor fact. We could argue that this was superfluous information but the board and the interrogators could argue that anybody who is familiar with their own village should know their neighbors. Therefore deportation based on inconsistencies could be seen as an extremely subjective activity.
Since almost all cases had discrepancies each case’s inconsistent testimony had to be weighed. In the end it would be the subjective nature of the board in determining which contradictions were major and which were minor. This determination of major or minor would serve as a basis for which Chinese could be landed or deported. In a final estimation, it must be said that the Board of Special Inquiry made attempts to be fair and based their decisions on what they felt was a fair evaluation of the evidence.

The percentage and number of Chinese that were excluded due to the interrogations was not truly notable. What is of note, however, is the entire debacle that the Chinese had to endure in trying to enter America. The interrogations openly flaunted sacred American principles such as fairness and equality – the Chinese at Angel Island were guilty until proven innocent. Not only did the burden of proof fall on them, decisions concerning their deportation were made using interrogation tactics which were without precedent. The treatment of the Chinese was also in disparity with that of all other immigrant groups. The history of Chinese immigrants at Angel Island compared with that of immigrants at Ellis Island shows a stark contrast in conditions and treatment. The supposed “Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island never copied Ellis Island in all regards as treatment of immigrants diverged greatly. European immigrants at Ellis Island were never suspected of entering illegally. Most importantly they never underwent intensive interrogations like the Chinese did. Many of those at Ellis Island remember the confusion of being rushed through cursory medical, legal, and mental examinations while prospective Chinese immigrants at Angel Island waited patiently for their interrogation dates (Yung 64). Interrogations were never carried out for other immigrant groups in courts of law or in any other immigrationstation. There was simply no precedent for the type of treatment the Chinese withstood. The significance of these interrogations lies not in the numbers that they turned away but in the scars that they left on the Chinese people. The difficult experience at Angel Island combined with the rigorous interrogations imbued a constant fear of immigration officials. This fear led many Chinese to remain silent about their immigration experience. The difficulty of the interrogations and the treatment of Chinese at Angel Island was but one of the factors which made the Chinese live in persistent fear of deportation. Other immigration tactics continued on after Angel Island was closed such as raids on private homes, restaurants, and other businesses during the 1950’s which left many Chinese with a violated sense of privacy and legitimacy as United States citizens (Hong 75). Since many Chinese did have something to hide, and many did enter illegally, and because of the intense level of deportation enforcement directed at them, many Chinese lived in fear and remained silent about their experiences, trying not to incriminate themselves (Hong 75). Therefore Angel Island’s legacy did not end once the immigrant was landed, but remained with them throughout their lives. The Chinese were constantly reminded through the immigration and naturalization service’s tactics even after 1940 and the closure of Angel Island immigration station that they truly did not belong here. The long lasting impact that the detention and interrogations had on Chinese immigrants is immeasurable, but it had a profound effect on the lives of Chinese immigrants as it led them to alter their lives as U.S. citizens in the hopes that they would not be subject to immigration official tactics or more importantly deportation. The interrogations can be extrapolated out to the level of American governmental policy. After the exclusion acts, America had effectively cut off the Chinese population, but with the resurgence of immigration following 1906, America attempted to seal the cracks in the wall by establishing the interrogations and the immigration station at Angel Island. Looking at the interrogations from this perspective, it is clear that the institution of Angel Island was simply another effort in a concerted plan to exclude the Chinese from America. Even though an accurate measure cannot be made of how successful Angel Island detention center was at deporting paper sons and merchants, due to the uncertainty of who were legitimate sons and merchants and to the interrogators inability to discern the truth, the mere presence of such a detention center was a sign for the Chinese to “keep out.” Effective or not, the interrogations bring an interesting and extremely diverse form of exclusion to American immigration policy. By examining the interrogation process and the interrogations, we gain insight into the soul of America’s Chinese policy between 1910 and
1940. America would finally end the interrogations when it needed the Chinese in World War II. It was this interim period, from 1910 to 1940, that would be the defining moment for many Chinese immigrants as they discovered first hand through the halls of the detention center at Angel Island and in the hearings of the Board of Special Inquiry, that America did not want them as much as they wanted America.

Chen, Wen-Hsien. “Chinese Under Both Exclusion and Immigration Laws.”
Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Chicago, 1940.

Chow, Paul Q. Interview with author, March 25, 1996.

Clauss, Francis J. Angel Island: Jewel of San Francisco Bay. Menlo Park:
Hing, Bill Ong. Making and Remaking Asian America Through Immigration Policy,
1850-1990. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1993.

.Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung. Island: Poetry and History of
Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940. Seattle: University of
Yung, Judy. Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco.
Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995.