Angel Island’s abandoned building reborn as a brand new museum

After seven years of renovation, a former hospital building on Angel Island becomes a brand new museum. (Photo: Han Li)

Angel Island, the former immigration station used to examine and control Chinese immigrants' entry into the United State during the Chinese Exclusion Act, will open its brand new museum to the public in fall 2021.

In the early 1900s, tens of thousands of immigrating Chinese were detained on the island. Only after passing the strictest scrutiny through interrogating questions and invasive health screenings were they allowed entry to San Francisco.

The new Angel Island Immigration Museum sits on the site of a former hospital building. After seven years of renovation, the two-story building details the immigrant experience in its showrooms.

Edward Tepporn, the Executive Director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF), hosting tours of the new museum on Angel Island. (Photo: Han Li)

Edward Tepporn, the executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF), explained that the preservation of the building is “to make sure that all of us, and future generations are still able to learn from these histories, to empathize with these histories, and to understand the connection with these histories to what’s happening today.”

He noted that the new museum embodies both the suffering and pain experienced by immigrants as well as their strength and resilience. AIISF raised funds for the renovation and will help maintain the museum.

Various exhibits explain U.S. immigration laws and policies from the 1800s to the present day. Photos show the shocking and harsh medical examination process for Chinese immigrants: all were asked to strip their clothes and stand in a row, exposed and without dignity.

“Hopefully, regardless of where you were born, what language you speak, everyone is treated with respect and fairness in this country,” Tepporn said of the goal of showing the history.

The entrance on the first floor also restores the history of the hospital entrance design. (Photo: Han Li)

The first-floor entrance restores the hospital’s historical design. Two separate entrances were designated as “European” and “Non-European.” Racist immigration authorities separated Asians and Europeans because they believed that only Asians carried diseases.

Across the street from the museum, the historical landmarked former detention barracks continue to be an attraction for tourists and students on field trips. AIISF restored the barracks over twenty years ago.

The historic Chinese Monument, located outside of the museum, is open to the public now. (Photo: Han Li)

It is worth mentioning that the public can now access the Chinese Monument located outside of the museum. During renovations, this monument that was erected in 1979, was closed off. The monument reads “別井離鄉飄流羈木屋 開天闢地創業在金門” — “leaving hometown drifting and detained in wood houses, overcoming difficulties and make a career at Golden Gate.”

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The Chinese language version of the story appeared on the World Journal on August 9, 2021.

Bilingual journalist. San Francisco-based.