Everyone has heard of Ellis Island and the Irish, German, French, British, Scandinavian and other European immigrants, but we don’t hear much about the other immigrants: Angel Island and the Asians. As you’re studying modern Chinese or American history, take some time to find out more about the massive immigration from Asia to California and other west coast locations.
Chinese experience was very different from the experience of European immigrants. Neither group had it easy, any more than the original immigrants to America, the Pilgrims or the Jamestown settlers, had it easy, but the Chinese in particular had a more difficult time gaining entry and finding success once they got to America.
Here’s a very brief timeline:
- 1850’s Gold rush and a huge influx of Chinese immigrants
- 1860’s Transcontinental railroad meant many jobs for Asian immigrants
- 1870’s Tough economic times and Chinese driven from jobs and towns throughout the west
- 1882: Congress passes the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring new Chinese immigrants, because of job shortages in America (but only Chinese were excluded)
- 1906: San Fransisco earthquake and fire destroys records of Chinese immigrants, prompting the Chinese to pretend other Chinese were family members, thereby gaining them entry to the US
- 1906-1943: Chinese were held for weeks or even years at Angel Island until officials were satisfied that they really had business in America. Even then they were denied citizenship
- 1943: Chinese Exclusion Act repealed and Chinese allowed citizenship
Read Landed by Milly Lee for a true life story of a young Chinese boy seeking to come to America with his father.
Young Chinese would come to America as “paper sons”, which meant they were the sons of their patrons only on paper. They had to study hard to learn all the details of their “adopted families” lives and homes so they could answer questions put to them by American officials upon reaching Angel Island. Make a study book of your family details. Include the number of windows in your house, the number of rooms, which direction your bedroom window faces. How far it is to the neighbor’s house and who the neighbors are. What school do you go to and how far away is it? Who is your teacher and what grades did you get last year? Write down all your family members including cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents for three generations. How much of that do you have memorized off the top of your head? Now what if you had to memorize your best friend’s information instead of your own? How hard would that be?
Coming to America Exploration
Find out what jobs Chinese immigrants might find once they got to America. Why do you think they wanted to leave their homeland in the first place if America was so difficult?
Find Angel Island on a map of California. What information can you find out about it online?
The U.S. Constitution requires the congress to establish a “uniform rule of naturalization”. What do you think that means? Has the congress always followed the Constitution? Why do think this is so?
- America is currently having big problems with immigration. After you have discussed what underlying principles should guide our government in immigration policies, discuss the current situation with your kids and what you think should be done now.
- Almost every American has ancestors that immigrated from somewhere else. Do you know when your ancestors stepped off the boat or crossed the border and where they were from? See if you can find out.
- During the years between 1850 and 1920, what was going on in China that made so many immigrants want to come to America?
- What other immigration points besides Angel Island and Ellis Island existed in the 1800’s and 1900’s? Put them on a map of the U.S. If you live near enough to an entry point take a tour.
- Learn more about the gold rush and the transcontinental railroad.