I was at the Westin St. Francis last week for the 30th anniversary dinner of the Angel Island Immigration Station
Foundation. We were honoring the half-million immigrants who passed through the now-defunct federal immigration station on this tiny island off the San Francisco shoreline so many years ago, seeking fortune and freedom in the United States.
From 1910 until the station shut down in 1940, the tired and hungry poured into this “Ellis Island of the West” from 84 nations, but mostly from Asian countries — above all China. The station was set up, however, not to welcome the new arrivals but to keep them out, in accordance with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
Jewish immigrants came through Angel Island as well, albeit in much smaller numbers — mainly in the 1920s from Russia to escape the Bolshevik Revolution, and between 1938 and 1940, when German and Austrian Jews crossed Asia to flee the Nazis. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society opened a San Francisco branch in 1915 and was able to make the Jewish immigrant experience at the station much easier than that suffered by the Asian arrivals, who were detained longer and turned back more readily.
As a reporter in the Jewish media, I’ve been to many events honoring immigrants. But they were all organized by Jewish groups — the JDC, HIAS, Soviet Jewry rescue organizations, Jewish federations.
Here, the faces were different. The clothes were different — red, the Chinese color representing luck, was everywhere, and many of the women were resplendent in silk. The cities were different — the “old country” was not Warsaw or Odessa but Harbin, Guangzhou, Hong Kong.
But the stories and the family dynamics were the same. I walked into the banquet hall behind an impossibly tiny, white-haired woman wearing silk trousers, white socks and low-heeled sandals, escorted on all sides by what could only have been her passel of grandchildren, all talking excitedly over each other while the guest of honor turned her head to and fro, beaming in pride. She could have been my great-grandmother. I expected her to dig into her pocket and whip out Coffee Nips for the kids.
Over cocktails I chatted with AIIFS executive director Michael McKechnie, himself the grandson of Scottish immigrants who arrived in the 1850s and homesteaded “in the hoots and hollers of Kentucky,” as he described it.
Though Angel Island’s story is largely one of Asian dreams for a better life, McKechnie told me the foundation is expanding its mission to celebrate all of the ethnic groups that passed through its portals. The night’s four honorees hailed from China, Russia, Mexico and India, he pointed out.
As we sat down to the meal, I was still surprised when television personality and event emcee Jan Yanehiro announced, “Tonight we’re going to honor the Jewish experience,” before ushering onto the stage Cantor Sharon Bernstein of San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, who led the somewhat confused audience in the candlelighting, motzi and Kiddush.
Next up was event co-chair Linda Frank, who introduced Alla Efimova, St. Petersburg native and director of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, to accept the foundation’s educator award. “We’re all kvelling with pride for her,” Frank told the audience — and then had to stop and explain “kvelling.”
No translations were needed when Lit Ng Jr. stepped up to accept the philanthropist award on behalf of his father, 82-year-old Lit Ng, who arrived at Angel Island as a 6-year-old with his father in 1939. Ng left school before seventh grade to help support the family, but in 1962 he founded the first Monte Mart supermarket in Salinas, a small empire he sold to Albertsons on his way to making his fortune.
Today, Ng gives back in a big way. He’s built seven hospitals and 45 schools in rural China, part of a growing wave of Chinese American immigrants who, like Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe, look to support their people back home once they’ve made it in America.
Watching the video that night of Ng and Sintao, his wife of 64 years, visiting one of the Chinese hospitals they funded, I thought of the soup kitchens and Jewish community centers built recently in Poland, Russia and Ukraine by the children and grandchildren of shtetl immigrants.
Different faces, same stories.
Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.