Filmmakers Focus on Angel Island in Exploring Chinese Immigration History

Filmmakers cast their lenses on Angel Island, which operated as the West Coast Ellis Island and acted as the entry point for Chinese immigrants from 1910 through to 1940. Through works debuting later in May both through broadcast and through online streaming, audiences will see another side of the American immigration story.

While celebratory lore often surrounds the history of Ellis Island, the Angel Island Immigration Station typically is not only a lesser known part of U.S. immigration history, but the island also carries a much darker past that’s rooted in racism.  In “The Chinese Exclusion,” a documentary, Emmy-winning filmmakers Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu take account of “economic, social, legal, racial and political dimensions” represented in the attitudes of the day and the practices carried out on Angel Island, according to The Daily Mail. In “Pacific Gateway: Angel Island VR,” filmmaker Felicia Lowe preserves a personal element of history through a documentary focused on the entry point into the United States taken by both her father and her grandfather, according to The San Francisco Chronicle.

Angel Island, located just a few miles north of San Francisco and around 390 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, today operates as part of the California State Parks System. But from 1910 to 1940, immigration officials processed around 500,000 immigrants on the island, including the majority of the 175,000 Chinese immigrants who arrived in the country in the time period.

“While immigration agents at Ellis Island were admitting most European arrivals within a few hours, the objective on Angel Island was to exclude new arrivals,” The Los Angeles Times reports. Chinese immigrants in particular were singled out and “routinely held in crowded, dirty conditions.”

For many of the immigrants, lengthy interrogations by officials ended in denials immigrants then appealed. Most of these immigrants ultimately gained admission through claims of family connections already living in the United States.

“This is not simply an immigration story,” Burns said of his film in a discussion with professional peers. “It is the American immigration story.”

Sadly, “The Chinese Exclusion” is more than simply a dramatic title. In 1882, President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law that wasn’t repealed until 1943. The law “banned workers from the Middle Kingdom and ended naturalization for Chinese nationals.”

For filmmaker Lowe, exposing the history of Angel Island to a wide audience comes at a particularly opportune time as the “timing of talking about immigration is at the very top of the mind now,” she says.

“The Chinese Exclusion” is set to air as a PBS documentary on May 29. “Pacific Gateway: Angel Island VR” is scheduled to make its streaming premier May 28 through a Facebook 360 “American Experience” stream.