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Mr. Milton Lee was born in a village named Sai Ke in Toi San in 1924. He attended school for about two years in his local village before coming to America. His family consisted of his mother, older brother, and his father. His father, who was already established in the United States at that time with the status of a native born citizen, often sent money home to support the family.
In 1931, at the young age of seven, Mr. Lee and his mother set out on a momentous journey to America. He boarded a train that reached places such as Bon Won, Sine Wyi, and Kon Won before arriving in Hong Kong. After spending some days in Hong Kong, Mr. Lee and his mother finally embarked on the President Wilson anchored on the Hoo Loong side. Once on board, Mr. Lee and his mother had to undergo a medical exam where examiners flipped a paper clip over their eyes to determine the condition of the eyes. Their total journey took about twenty days. Mr. Lee and his mother were transferred to a little tugboat. “It was windy and the wave was a splashing at us and that included our luggage…and we were told to prepare for cold days, you know, because we came from the tropical area.”
Once on Angel Island, Mr. Lee and his mother were placed in separate gender-based living quarters. “The first thing we did was march up to the hospital. And the reason why we went to the hospital the first night was there was a…a death on the ship. So that person, we didn’t know what caused him to die or what was it, so the first night all the passengers who were immigrants were sent to the hospital. Next morning, we were told to ah…who has bowel movement should have a stool exam. So that was what I remember, the stool exam. They gave us ham and egg, we didn’t like ham and egg, because we never tasted ham. After a couple of hours of that and some have stool, and some don’t so I don’t remember what I have or not. I remember the older people who’s on the ship, who didn’t have no stool and they was just borrow from the neighbor, you know. They say, ‘yes I have it.’ See that’s all they do. Although they don’t speak no English or anything at all.”
The men’s quarters were racially separated; Chinese, Filipinos, and Caucasians all lived in different rooms and only caught glimpses of each other through the wire mesh. There was little to no interaction between the men of different races. The beds in the living quarters were not assigned and Mr. Lee was free to choose any empty bed; since there were no other children, he chose one that was close to that of a man he knew from the same village. Bedding, which included a mattress, pillow, and toiletries, was all provided. Because he was the only child, young Mr. Lee spent many days playing by himself for entertainment. A toy car constructed from a metal can, marbles, and a phonograph with only Cantonese opera music were the only “toys” that were readily available. Due to the fact that men and women were separated, rarely did Mr. Lee receive the chance to see his mother; in fact, it was only during dining hours when Mr. Lee caught glimpses of her. The dining options mainly consisted of Chinese meals, and since Mr. Lee’s father knew some of the cooks, he was able to sit at the “corner table” and would sometimes receive an extra dish. In terms of recreation, Mr. Lee observed how older men would play mahjong and poker. Sports that utilize a ball, such as “Sai Kai Bo, “Jun Sang Gi Bo,” and “Bok Bin Bo” were also widely popular among the men.
In general, the atmosphere was amicable in the barracks. Most people only stayed for a short time and Mr. Lee recalls no arguments or animosity fostered among the men. Yet, tragic events still occurred. There were stories that traversed through the barracks about suicides committed by both men and women in which they hanged themselves. For many, the agony of waiting and having nothing to do was unbearable and overwhelming. There was no organized activity among the individuals he saw, and the recreational yard that was fenced in was simply an empty lot. There was also barely any interaction between the immigrants and the guards due to the language barrier, yet the guard would leave his door open between his office and the room so that Mr. Lee and the guard could see each other.
Fortunately for Mr. Lee, he only spent three weeks there due to the speediness of his interrogation process on Angel Island. His mother had to wait another week before she was finally released. Others who were less lucky spent much longer; the longest stay on record was close to two years after many appeals of deportation rulings; those years of waiting were often still fruitless.
The time at which the immigration officers called was a harbinger of the individuals’ fate. According to Mr. Lee, “if they call you around eleven, eleven thirty [in the morning], that signifies you’re able to come into San Francisco. If they call you around three thirty or four o’clock that all signify that you are in San Francisco. If they call you around early in the morning which is around eight or nine o’clock, you’re gone. They send you back.”
Mr. Lee stated that even though the government at that time enforced the Chinese Exclusion Act, he does not blame them for what they how they treated him, “It is just what the immigration regulation requires you to do. That’s it. Yeah, I don’t see no hardship there. They didn’t do anything wrong to you.” He said, “We didn’t come here as a criminal people. It was economic, to get a better life, that’s all.” He called the whole immigration process “hocus pocus” for the Chinese to have to pass through all of their interrogations.
At last, after Mr. Lee left Angel Island, he was picked up in San Francisco by his brother and then went to local schools. He settled in San Francisco and went on to work at Pacific Gas & Electric for thirty-eight years.
This article is based on a transcript of an interview with Milton Lee conducted by Judy Yung on December 15, 1990.
Hannah Pan is originally from the Bay Area and wrote this article in 2020 when she was a sophomore in college on the East Coast. She started becoming interested in Angel Island and its immigration narratives when she first visited in middle school. She started summarizing some stories a few years ago and is excited to continue her work with AIISF!
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