Touched by an Angel Island
In the late 1970s, all the buildings that remained on Angel Island were going to be demolished because they were in such disrepair.
Then a park ranger wandered inside one of teetering wooden structures and made an amazing discovery—poetry on the barracks walls. Not written, but carved into the wooden walls using classical Cantonese techniques.
Local scholars and preservationists found out about the discovery and organized a committee to preserve the buildings—and the island with its dark history.
Angel Island is the largest island in the San Francisco Bay and the lesser-known West Coast counterpart to Ellis Island in New York. But while Ellis was welcoming to immigrants from Europe, Angel Island became an unwelcoming place of interrogations, detention and denial for those from Asia.
In 1882, the U.S. passed The Chinese Exclusion Act that was designed to keep immigrants from China out of the United States—unless, of course, they had money.
“If you were Chinese and came in by boat travelling first class, they let you right in,” says Michael McKechnie, executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and 1980 MBA graduate. “Second class, you were taken over to Angel Island and interrogated.”
While the actions of Angel Island aren’t a highlight of U.S. history, the site is an important marker of the country’s growth and worth saving. Today, Angel Island—located within view of both Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge—is a state park like few others. And it’s McKechnie’s goal to save it.
“We’ve raised $40 million to renovate the immigration site,” he says. “And we’re finishing the second large building transforming it into a museum and The Center for Pacific Coast Immigration.”
It’ a challenge, he admits, but he credits the same spirit of perseverance that first brought the Chinese to America with saving the site that was created to keep them out decades earlier. “The Chinese were fearless about working hard. The members of our board are five and six generation Chinese Americans and now top attorneys in major firms.”
McKechnie can’t share their past, but thanks to the art carved from misery that has had a much bigger impact on McKechnie’s own sense of mission, he can help preserve it.