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Past Issue
21 May 2001

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 2, No. 21

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Angel Island and Ellis Island

Historian Ronald Takaki describes Angel Island and other omissions in the saga of how Asian Americans arrived in this country and made their homes here in spite of racial prejudice.

by Jerome F. Winzig

Most Americans know about Ellis Island, the immigration station within sight of the Statue of Liberty in New York City's harbor, where millions of new arrivals were processed. Far fewer know about Angel Island, the immigration station within sight of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco's harbor, where new arrivals were also processed.

There are several differences between the two islands. The majority of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island were Europeans, and they were processed within hours or days. In contrast, the majority of immigrants who passed through Angel Island were Asians, and they spent weeks or months on the island.

But the enduring difference is ignorance about Angel Island. Ronald Takaki talks about that ignorance in the 1998 revision to his book, "Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans" (Little, Brown and Company; Boston, Massachusetts; 1989, 1998). Takaki says that E. D. Hirsh's book, "The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy," lists Ellis Island as one of the terms that every American should know, but simply omits Angel Island.

That omission is just one of many that Takaki describes as he tells stories of how Asia's contribution to American history is treated. Many Americans do not know that Asian immigrants were prohibited from becoming American citizens under the "white-only" restriction of the 1790 Naturalization Act, which was not repealed for 162 years. Only after its repeal in the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 were many elderly Japanese Americans finally able to become U.S. citizens. Many other Asian Americans died as legal aliens in their adopted country.

Asian Americans have been in America for over 150 years. Yet Takaki describes how, when he went to school in the Midwest, other students and professors would ask the young Ronald how long he had been in America and where he learned to speak English. "In this country," he would reply. Sometimes he would pointedly add, "I was born in America, and my family has been here for three generations." Sadly, Takaki's experience is still all too common among Asian Americans.

Chinese immigrants contributed greatly to California's development. In the 1860s they constructed networks of irrigation channels and miles of levees, dikes, and ditches in the fertile San Joaquin and Sacramento River deltas. They also helped build the trans-continental railroads; in the 1860s the Central Pacific Railroad employed 12,000 Chinese -- 90 percent of its entire work force. Japanese immigrants helped build California's agriculture. As early as 1910, they produced 70 percent of California's strawberries. By 1940, they grew 95 percent of the state's fresh snap beans, 67 percent of its fresh tomatoes, 95 percent of its spring and summer celery, 44 percent of its onions, and 40 percent of its fresh green peas.

In 1913, the California legislature sought to halt this success by preventing Japanese immigrants from owning land. When the immigrants tried to cope by listing the land in the names of their American-born children, the legislature cracked down further, making it illegal for aliens ineligible for citizenship (by definition, anyone who wasn't "white") to "acquire, possess, enjoy, use, cultivate, occupy, and transfer real property."

In 1929, Rabindranath Tagore, the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, was hassled when he applied for entry into the United States from Canada and encountered racial prejudice in Los Angeles. Angered, he cancelled his tour and returned to India, commenting caustically, "Jesus could not get into America because, first of all, He would not have the necessary money, and secondly, He would be an Asiatic."

Takaki's stories are a powerful lesson in the remarkable diversity that is America. He reminds us that Asians have been a majority of Hawaii's people for nearly a century. The largest Chinese community outside of China is in New York City. Asian Americans outnumber African-Americans in California. Half of all current immigrants entering the United States are from Asia. Asians are the fastest-growing ethnic minority group in the country.

They have truly become part of America. As Takaki says, "Their dreams and hopes unfurled here before the wind, all of them -- from the first Chinese miners sailing through the Golden Gate to the last Vietnamese boat people flying into Los Angeles International Airport -- have been making history in America. And they have been telling us about it all along."

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