Ferry to Angel Island provides a direct route to history

Advocates say loss of service from SF will make it hard to visit key Chinese immigration site

Under the lush, rolling hills and waterfront views of Angel Island lies a history less suitable for photos: the story of thousands of immigrants, many of them arriving from China, who were detained and often subjected to traumatizing treatment on their journey to the United States.

Left out of the country’s collective immigration narrative, these experiences were largely ignored by history until 1970 when a park ranger discovered Chinese poetry on the then-abandoned Angel Island Immigration Station, which led to its restoration as a museum.

“Not knowing what was happening, people were anxious. They didn’t know the status of their fate. Those things got expressed in poetic form,” said Erika Gee, a planner at the Chinatown Community Development Center whose own grandfather arrived in the Bay Area through Angel Island. “The community realized this is important. It’s not only our history of immigration, it’s also a valuable resource, a first-person testimony.”

That history is set to become less accessible, local history experts and advocates say, with the proposed termination of the ferry route from San Francisco to Angel Island from Blue & Gold Fleet.

Facing declining ridership, increased operating costs and plummeting revenues even before the pandemic, Blue & Gold Fleet submitted a request to the California Public Utilities Commission on Sept. 10 to discontinue passenger trips from The City to both Angel Island and Tiburon.

Though other ferry companies offer trips from San Francisco to Tiburon, Blue & Gold Fleet is the only operator that runs direct service from The City to Angel Island. Without it, visitors must first travel to Tiburon or hire a private water taxi, both too costly or too lengthy for many.

Edward Tepporn, executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, said roughly half of the island’s visitors take the direct ferry. Many of those day-trippers are students on a school trip who are able to take advantage of the easy, affordable ferry route to learn this history.

Some Chinese immigrants waiting to learn their fate carved poetry in the walls of the barracks at Angel Island. (Courtesy Russell Nauman/Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation)

Some Chinese immigrants waiting to learn their fate carved poetry in the walls of the barracks at Angel Island. (Courtesy Russell Nauman/Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation)

The loss of the Blue & Gold Fleet route would be a significant blow to visitorship, according to Tepporn, which would then hobble the foundation’s ability to fund the educational programs and restoration projects across the immigration site.

“We just strongly believe there has to be direct service from San Francisco to Angel Island,” he said. “Not having that is similar to not having direct service from Manhattan to the Statue of Liberty.”

Akin to Ellis Island

Angel Island was akin to Ellis Island, a coastal gateway to the country — just on the opposite coast.

But those who study the history of Angel Island say there’s another key difference: the celebration and joyful welcome of many immigrants to Ellis Island was not replicated for many who struck land on the West Coast.

That’s especially true for those arriving from China, who accounted for roughly 175,000 of the 500,000 people who struck land at Angel Island between 1910 and 1940.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 made the mere arrival of many of those passengers illegal. Only an exempt class, which included teachers, merchants, diplomats and students, were permitted to emigrate to the United States, an attempt by the government to ban the arrival of Chinese workers.

After an arduous journey by boat, many of the Chinese immigrants were promptly held in cramped barrack conditions, subjected to violating strip searches and health screenings in front of their fellow travelers and interrogated for weeks, if not months, before hopefully being permitted to enter.

“So often when we think about U.S. history and immigration, what immediately comes to mind is Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty and how our country has always welcomed immigrants to our nation,” Tepporn said. “But it’s important to remember there’s a period of history that’s repeating itself where our government is actively trying to exclude certain groups from immigration to the U.S.”

The former Public Health Services Hospital Building has been renovated and will open in 2021 as the Angel Island Immigration Museum. (Courtesy Russell Nauman/Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation)

The former Public Health Services Hospital Building has been renovated and will open in 2021 as the Angel Island Immigration Museum. (Courtesy Russell Nauman/Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation)

‘Little impact’

Blue & Gold Fleet spokesperson Sue Muzzin told the Examiner in December the company believes there would be “little impact” on the ability of interested individuals to travel to Angel Island, as it would remain accessible by water taxi or by ferry from Tiburon.

Ferries carried a total of approximately 130,000 passengers to and from Angel Island in 2019, a 12 percent drop from the year prior and indicative of a years-long decline in ridership.

“We have enjoyed and been proud to provide service to Angel Island. The decision for Blue & Gold to file an application with the CPUC to cancel service to Angel Island State Park and the City of Tiburon was a difficult business decision to make,” she said more recently.

Pam Wong, the executive director of the Chinese Historical Society of America, says taking away direct access to the island from San Francisco would, in fact, have a very negative impact on those who could no longer afford the increased time or expense of the journey.

Though Wong runs a museum that chronicles Chinese exclusion and the story of Angel Island in The City, she says “place-based learning” serves a different purpose. It allows individuals to be in the same space as their ancestors or other members of their community. Many who use the ferry to visit Angel Island may not otherwise be able to make the trip, she said.

“Being in the place serves a value of its own,” she said.

Advocates from the Immigration Station Foundation and others who want the ferry to continue running plan to write letters to elected officials and members of the Public Utilities Commission before the request is up for a formal hearing in front of Administrative Law Judge Hallie Yacknin in coming weeks.

Yacknin’s decision, along with any other proposals put forth by members of the commission, will then be discussed and voted on in a public meeting shortly thereafter.

Gee emphasized the importance of learning this history in order to avoid repeating it.

Since the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic, San Francisco’s Chinese and Chinese-American residents have yet again experienced xenophobia, hate speech and exclusion.

“People should be able to see this and know that our fears of the other, immigration and quarantine, those were issues that were wrestled with in the early 20th century, and they’re still issues that we’re wrestling with today,” she said.


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