For nearly 80 years, many Chinese immigrants were barred from entering the country through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law to bar people from this country on the basis of race or national origin. To circumvent the law, a number of Chinese immigrants adopted false "paper" identities in order to join family or start new lives. The Immigration and Naturalization Service tried to counter the use of paper identities by setting up an elaborate detention and interrogation camp at Angel Island.
From 1910 to 1940, Chinese immigrants who made the monthlong boat ride to the U.S. were held at the Angel Island Immigration Station, where they were detained for weeks -- and sometimes years -- in crowded wooden barracks while their identities were scrutinized. Fear and indignancy came to be associated with detention at Angel Island, and for decades, the Chinese-American community was shamed into silence about its first-wave immigration experiences.
Bay Area multimedia artist Flo Oy Wong confronts this silence through her latest exhibit, "made in usa: Angel Island Shhh," mounted in the same Angel Island barracks that housed Chinese male detainees (Wong's mother and older sisters were held in the station's women's barracks). The exhibit consists of 25 rice sacks sewn onto American flags, embellished with sequins and hand-painted text listing the detainee's name, date of arrival, and the paper identity assumed in the immigration bid. The award-winning Wong based each flag on the experiences of an actual detainee, making "Angel Island Shhh" a seldom-taught lesson in American immigration. Even more remarkably, Wong personally interviewed each detainee (or a relative), and tape recordings and boxes of stories derived from these conversations -- sometimes the last time that aging ex-detainees spoke about their Angel Island experiences before their deaths -- are part of the exhibit.
"Angel Island Shhh" sponsors Kearny Street Workshop and California State Parks host the opening festivities on Saturday from noon to 3 p.m., which includes guided tours of the exhibit and immigration station, as well as speeches by one-time detainees and Wong. Bring a picnic lunch. "Angel Island Shhh" is on display through Sept. 23 in the Men's Barracks of the Angel Island Immigration Station, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, pending availability of docents; call the Angel Island office for details: 435-3522. Admission to the exhibit and opening day is free; fees for ferries to the island vary -- call 435-2131 for Tiburon ferries, 773-1188 for ferries from S.F., Oakland, Alameda, and Vallejo. For exhibit details info, call Kearny Street Workshop at 543-0520 or go to www.kearnystreet.org.