ndInterrogations of Chinese Immigrants at Angel Island
Chinese immigration, after being shut down for many years by governmental legislation and an anti-
Chinese climate resumed quickly after 1906. The major earthquake and fire that occurred in San Francisco
lent the Chinese immigrants a window of opportunity to regain entrance to America. Immigrants could now
claim, without proof, that they were indeed the son or daughter of a citizen or a partner in a legitimate
business. 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 unde!
r 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 C!
hinese. 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 were 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).
Nevertheless the lines of questioning were generally the same for all immigrants. The questions usually
started with personal information then proceeded onto family information, village information, and then
finally information on the home. Within these groupings there were multiple side questions concerning
details of the family or village. Immigrants were aske!
d extremely detailed and far ranging questions within these side questions. They were asked questions
similar to the questions Jow Yick faced in 1909 in case #1424, “Is she (your mother) a small footed
woman?” or “Is any body of water near or within sight of your house?” Other questions concerning the
village became increasingly detailed. In the case of Ung Shee, case #16778/2-12, the husband had to testify
on the entire village and all the particulars of the inhabitants of each home. In one instance the inspector
asked the husband of Ung Shee whether or not the woman in the third house and fourth row of the village
had bound feet. In Ung Shee’s case, detailed questioning about every family in every house was continued
up until the seventh row of the village. Her husband also endured questions such as, “Do you cross a stream
going to the market?” and “How large is the bridge over that stream?” as well as other questions such as,
“Did your brother have a picture of yourself in !
his house?” (Box 1211 National Archives). This however, was not far from the norm for most immigrants.
To give a general idea of the structure of the interrogation, an inspector gave a brief description of the line
of questioning he took:
We 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 exacerbate!
d 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. In the case of Ung Shee, a letter was sent stating that her
husband was, “. . . sober, industrious, and reliable.!
. .” (letter written by W. B. Cooper). Another letter written on behalf of Ung Shee’s husband stated, “In
behalf of Mr. How, I beg to state that I have known him for a number of years and believe him to be a
straight forward, honest, Christian Chinaman, and is doing well in his business in this city” (letter written
by M. J. Allen). 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 detai!
nee 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 (Dorgon
1A). The appeals were usually successful as the percentage of total applicants deported on the basis of the
testimony alone was anywhere from four to five percent (Chow interview). Therefore there was recourse
for those not initially granted entrance into America. 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). Takaki also
points out that if every claim to natural born citizenship was valid during this period then every Chinese
woman living in San Francisco would have to have had eight hundred children (236). Therefore American
interrogators were not oblivious to the impossibility of the entire situation. This would serve as the basis for
much of their work. A second reason why the Chinese were interrogated was due to the fact that the new
immigrants were all alleging that they were ac!
tually 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 (Chow interview). 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. As Paul Chow, an Angel Island activis!
t, points out, the immigration service was a punitive department. The more people they proved guilty of
false papers then the more efficient that they seemed (Chow interview). 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.
The dockets for alleged sons of natives or business partners were always the fullest. This showed the
immigration service’s knowledge about the false papers and also attests to their vigilance in interrogating
them. The testimony required and the number of supporting documents and corroborating witnesses were
much greater than those of students or natives of Hawaii. Students from China were almost unanimously
allowed in with very little questioning. Alleging that one was a student was much more difficult than
posing as a son or partner in a business. This is probably the reason why students were expedited through
the entire process at Angel Island. The purported sons of citizens or partners in business were examined
with particul…..ar scrutiny. These interrogations were particularly strenuous and the questioning extremely
detailed. Examples abound of tricky questioning such as this line of questioning from docket #19431/1-2
(Box 1211 National Archives):
Q. What is his occupation? A. I do not know.
Q. Did he tell you what his occupation was? A. I did not ask
him and he did not tell me.
Q. Did he tell you he was a business partner of your husband? A.
Yes; he said he was in business with my husband, and that when he
departed he left the business with my husband.
Q. Why a moment ago, did you state that you did not know what the
native of the nature of the business was? (67).
As demonstrated in this excerpt, 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. In this sample we see again 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.
There were usually only a few good reasons why an immigrant was not landed excluding health and mental
reasons. Many were excluded the first time but were allowed in after appealing the decision. Reasons for
deportation usually consisted of major discrepancies in the testimony of the immigrant and that of the
family. As one inspector stated, “. . . I remember a case of a boy whose father was bringing him in. He said
his mother was so-and-so, but his father said his mother was so-and-so. He wasn’t landed” (Lai 110). A
good example is the case of Woo Yuen Fong, docket #19480/5-9. His testimony was incomplete
concerning his brother’s family and some key village information. He did not know the date of his brother’s
marriage or what his brother’s wife’s name was. He also answered certain questions and when followed
later with the same question framed in a different form (as seen above) he answered, “I don’t know.”
Therefore A.B. Morgan, the Chairman of the Board of Special Inquiry!
, stated, “The demeanor of this applicant while giving testimony has been very unsatisfactory. He has been
evasive in his replies to questions, and has repeatedly stated that he does not remember, whereas, if his
claim was bona fide, it is quite evident that he would know the facts upon which he has been called upon to
testify” (Letter written by A.B. Morgan).
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. As A.B. Morgan stated, Woo Yuen Fong!
should have known certain facts but which facts he should have known were highly arbitrary. What
Morgan felt was important might not have been to Woo. 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. However, it must be noted that
interrogators could never be completely fair as the intrinsic nature of an interrogation is subjective.
Investigators asked questions that they thought were relevant. The Chinese were at the mercy of these
interrogators as they were the ones who determined what exact questions were asked. The variability in the
questioning during an interrogation and the freedom allowed to the interrogators shows evidence of the
completely subjective nature of the interrogation. Even though the judgments were often fair, the placing of
Chinese immigrants through this entire process was by all accounts unfair. The process and treatment of
Chinese immigrants at Angel Island was not endured by any other immigrant group. Therefore even though
decisions were usually made on a thorough and f!
air analysis of all the evidence, the process that the Chinese underwent was unparalleled.
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
immigration station. 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 a!
bout 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 Ame!
rican 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.
Allen, M. J. Letter written to Board of Special Inquiry on behalf of Lee Yuen How,
December 10, 1917. Docket #16778/2-12, Box 1211, U.S. National Archives.
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:
Briarcliff Press Inc., 1982.
Cooper, W. B. Letter written to Board of Special Inquiry on behalf of Lee
Yuen How, December 11, 1917. Docket #16778/2-12, Box 1211, U.S. National
Dorgon, Michael. “Chinese Recall Grim Island of Despair.” San Jose Mercury
News. 5 Nov. 1990: 1A, 9A.
Hing, Bill Ong. Making and Remaking Asian America Through Immigration Policy,
1850-1990. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1993.
Immigrant Inspector. Letter to Commissioner of Immigration, December 31,
1917. Docket #16778/2-12, Box 1211, U.S. National Archives.
Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung. Island: Poetry and History of
Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940. Seattle: University of
Washington Press, 1991.
Morgan, A. B. Letter concerning Woo Yuen Fong case, September 20, 1920.
Docket #19480/5-9, Box 1211, U.S. National Archives.
Takaki, Ronald. Strangers From a Different Shore: A History of Asian
Americans. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1989.
United States National Archives. Records of the Immigration and Naturalization
Service, San Francisco District. Arrival Investigation Case Files 1884-1944.
Box 1211, December 12, 1917 – December 19, 1917.
Yung, Judy. Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco.
Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995.