Angel Island: Haunting history in the middle of S.F. Bay

ANGEL ISLAND – You may find yourself on a ferry to this island with three sugar-fueled fourth-grade classes. You may find yourself watching a herd of blue-shirted Montessori preschoolers scamper across the deck. You may find yourself feeling claustro-phobic as the boat chugs the half-mile from Tiburon.

And you may ask yourself: Well, how did I get here?

My plan was to spend a pleasant, relaxing day on the largest, most woodsy of the islands dotting San Francisco Bay, taking the first ferry out from Tiburon at 9 a.m. and chilling until the last ferry back at 3 p.m.

The plan had been to escape the hum and bustle of the city, the traffic, the clang of the cable cars and rumble of Muni buses, and take in the natural beauty of the island, its beaches and coves, its verdant trails, its history as both an immigration station and a Cold War-era Nike missile site.

The plan most assuredly had not been to spend it amid high-energy kids and their helicopter parents storming the beachhead at Ayala Cove like troops at Normandy. Nor was it planned to get that '80s Talking Heads song stuck in my head, but some things in life are beyond control.

So, once ashore, a choice had to be made.

I could do what other ferry riders planned, which was to get as far from the little ones as quickly as possible.

Shawn Boom, a tourist from Minnesota, had his playlist on his iPod cued up and ready to go for a trail run up Mount Livermore, the island's highest point at 788 feet. Robert Durie, from Kansas City, Mo., had rented a bicycle and planned to circumnavigate the island on the paved Perimeter Road.

Stephan Arana and Nicole Kissinger of Sausalito were going to an overnight camping site on a secluded ridge far southward. And a group of women, brandishing trekking poles, sought the hinterlands for a daylong hike.

Or I could embrace the mass of humanity and tag along with clumps of students to what is the main attraction of Angel Island – the U.S. Immigration Station, where as many as 175,000 Chinese immigrants were detained for weeks, sometimes months, in prisonlike conditions between 1910 and 1940 as part of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was repealed in 1943.

I finally chose not to shy from the crowds and to follow what looked like the brightest and most well- behaved students – fourth-graders from Mr. Warner's history class at Marin Country Day School – hoping to perhaps learn something about a dark and shameful discriminatory period of American history.

The trails and beaches, not to mention the Cove Cafe, would still be there should an escape plan be needed later in the day.

Fortunately, the 11/4-mile walk from Ayala Cove to the immigration station on the island's northeast tip was just strenuous enough to take the edge off the kids' field-trip hyperkinesis.

Along the way, I got a glimpse at the strange mixture of native and nonnative trees. There are eucalyptus and Monterey pine, planted by the Army more than a century ago, rubbing branches with native oak, madrone and bay trees reclaiming their space.

I also experienced the first of many gorgeous views – the wealthy enclave of Tiburon to the north and the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to the west, in this case.

Upon reaching the immigration station, my first thought concerned the incongruity of such a beautiful site overlooking the sparkling bay serving essentially as a prison for immigrants seeking a better life on America's shores.

The yellow-painted wooden barracks perches atop one bluff, the white hospital (currently being renovated) looms on the another.

What's missing, like a gap-tooth smile, is the administration building that once was sandwiched between. This is where the interrogations took place, where thousands of Chinese immigrants (and people of a few other nationalities, as well) were deemed either suitable for entry as relatives of U.S. residents or deported to their countries of origin.

The building burned down in 1940, and by 1946 the rest of the station was abandoned and left to decay.

Only after the site was declared a state park in 1963 did officials take steps to preserve the remaining buildings and, several years later, discover some hidden history therein.

That's what Sam Louie, the interpretive guide leading the school tour, explained as the Marin Country Day kids slouched at picnic tables outside the barracks. Louie has become a master at engaging students during his presentation, since a trip to Angel Island is something of a rite of passage for every Bay Area fourth-grader.

"This was supposed to be Ellis Island of the West," Louie told them. "Who knows what Ellis Island is?"

Hands shot up.

"There was a famous lady there. Who knows who that was?"

The kids, in something of a call-and-response exercise, shouted out, "Statue of Liberty."

"Right," Louie said. "It was her job to stand near the harbor and basically say, 'Welcome to America.' It'd take you two, maybe three hours at most and then, hey, you're in America."

He paused for effect.

"Angel Island, on the other hand, was a little different. The job of the Angel Island immigration station was basically to say, 'Stay away. We don't want you.' "

A boy in a green sweatshirt and Giants baseball cap asked, "Why?"

Louie proceeded to lay out the history of Chinese laborers in California, how they first arrived after the Gold Rush, later were put to work building the railroads and, by the time of the implementation of the Exclusion Act in 1882, were seen as taking jobs away from native-born citizens.

He explained the "paper sons" era, after the 1906 earthquake. When citizenship records were destroyed in the subsequent fire, it enabled some Chinese to invoke the "native exception" to the Exclusion Act and bring "relatives" over from China.

"They'd first bring in the alleged father, sit him down and ask all these questions," Louie said. "It'd take days. Then they'd bring in an alleged son, and the son better answer the same way, or you're gone. Sent back.

"So the father would write down all questions, like the name of maternal grandmothers, all this stuff, and they'd both have to memorize it. Sometimes, they'd still be detained months."

Background absorbed, the Marin Country students entered the barracks and were told not to touch the walls that are in varying stages of disrepair but to be sure to look closely.

Dank and dark, the main barracks for men had 200 internees stacked like cordwood on triple bunk beds. Feeling oppressed and depressed, the men turned to carving poetry in Cantonese onto the walls, as many as 50 poems in this main barracks alone, Louie said.

"They were lonely, sad, homesick, couldn't figure out why they were locked up in here," he added. "They needed to express how they felt."

The Marin Country Day kids were almost preternaturally quiet. Some looked as if they were actually reading the poems, mumbling words to themselves. Louie pressed on.

"The men did this until, one day, an immigration official came through and said, 'Who's been graffiti-ing our walls? The nerve of you.' Just like at school with your principal, you'd get in trouble, right? First thing (the officials) did was putty over all the carvings and paint it. We know between 1910 and 1940, these walls were puttied over and painted at least seven times, seven different colors."

In time, however, the paint faded and the putty shrank and flaked off, allowing the poetry to be discernible once more. Louie led the group to a portion of a wall near a window that looks over the bay. He clicked on his flashlight and ran the beam down and right to left.

"This is a poem called 'Random Thoughts Deep at Night,' " he said.

Before Louie could continue, a girl asked, "Is that in Mandarin or Cantonese?" "Cantonese," he answered, chuckling. "I can't read Chinese, but don't tell anybody."

Turns out, about a quarter of Christopher Warner's class speaks some Mandarin, having studied it as an elective, along with Spanish. So the kids really did seem to be following the flashlight. For those nonspeakers, Louie pushed a button on a panel, where a recording translated the poem to English.

It reads, in part:

The floating clouds, the fog, darken the sky

The moon shines faintly as the insects chirp

Grief and bitterness entwined are heaven sent

The sad person sits alone, leaning by a window.

"Every time I hear this poem, I think about a guy standing right here looking out the window, wondering about his freedom," Louie said. "But despite their harsh treatment, they still came for the chance for a better life."

Near the tour's end, Louie stopped in front of another poem, clicked on the flashlight and shined it on a specific Cantonese character.

"Who knows what that means?"

"Wood," a boy shouted.

"Wooden," a girl corrected.

"Right," Louie said, training the flashlight on the character below it. "What about this?"

"House!" several kids answered.

"The Chinese nicknamed this 'Wooden House,' " Louie said. "It's not really a nice term because, in China at that time, nobody lived in a wooden house. Brick or stone, never wood. The only wood structures were reserved for animals. They felt they had been turned into animals."

The class was silent, perhaps letting the imagery sink in. Louie lightened the mood at tour's end by joshing with the group.

"You're the best class I've had today," he said. "Well, you're the only class I've had today."

More schoolkids would be coming – and soon – but the Marin Country Day minions left, posthaste, to eat lunch.

I, on the hand, had other parts of the island to explore. The North Ridge Trail leading two miles up to Mount Livermore is a must-do. Dense with vegetation and not too steep, it leads to the summit, where there are picnic tables. I returned via the Sunset Trail, where nonnative trees have been removed to give hikers a great view of the bay.

Back at Ayala Cove, picnic areas are plentiful, and the Cove Cafe has outdoor seating. On weekends, the Cove Cantina Oyster Bar opens and offers free live music.

One must mind the time, because if you miss the last ferry back to Tiburon (or San Francisco, if you choose that starting point) in the late afternoon, you're stuck there with no food or shelter.

The blue-shirted Montessori kids were already waiting when I arrived at the dock for the return trip. They seemed subdued, perhaps experiencing a mass sugar crash. Two of the three fourth-grade classes were also aboard the ferry, still chattering away.

Durie, the tourist from Kansas City, was there, too, with his bike. He was smiling broadly.

"I did about 1 1/2 laps around the island," he said. "I didn't see a lot of people. It was great."


Angel Island State Park, east of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco Bay, is accessible by ferry or private boat. Ferry service runs from Tiburon ( or San Francisco ( Hours vary; check the websites.

Rules: Bicycles are allowed on Angel Island; riders must wear helmets. Bike rentals are available seasonally. Dogs are not allowed on the island; service animals excepted. Roller skates, rollerblades, skateboards and scooters are prohibited. Charcoal grills or camp stoves are permitted in campsites, but no wood fires are allowed. Travel after sunset on the island is prohibited in some areas for park security and public safety.

Camping: To reserve overnight campsites, call (800) 444-7275 or visit

Boating: Slips at Ayala Cove are available, first-come, first-served from 8 a.m. to sunset.

Tours: The Angel Island Co., park concessionaire, offers Segway tours and tram tours. Check website ( for cost and times. The Immigration Station is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. Cost is $7 for adults, $3 for children.


From Humboldt Bay on down to Coronado, California boasts plenty of islands, many habitable and welcoming to tourists, some remote and forbidding.

Over four weeks, we are visiting four of the more noteworthy and popular islands for tourists.

Last Sunday: The Farallon Islands, 27 miles west of San Francisco

Today: Angel Island in San Francisco Bay

June 30: The Channel Islands off Ventura and Santa Barbara

July 7: Santa Catalina Island, 22 miles southwest of Los Angeles

To catch up on Sam McManis' island series, go to

Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.
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