For anyone who has ever taken the short ferry ride across the Bay to Angel Island, thinking back on that trip may call to mind memories of a pleasant afternoon spent amongst sprawling nature, spectacular views, and a few quaint old buildings from a bygone era. But for San Francisco artist Thomas Chang a day spent on Angel Island evokes an entirely different type of response. While Angel Island consists of several small collections of buildings, it is those from the Immigration Station that captivated Chang's imagination and razor sharp artistic commentary. So much so that Chang spent several years volunteering as a docent on the Island, giving "interpretive" tours to school groups and interested tourists who found there way to the little outpost in the Bay. It was his time spent on Angel Island and in particular his experience of being trained as a docent by the park staff which led him to produce his latest body of work, "Orientalism," which is currently on display at Lisa Dent gallery.
The history of Angel Island is one of those shameful tales of America at its worst that have a way of somehow escaping the history books. Built in 1910 on the Bay's largest island, the Station was meant to be used as a waystation to detain and quarantine immigrants coming into the States from points west of the Pacific. However, unlike its companion to the East, Ellis Island, the experience of immigrants coming through the station was not the brief happy induction that most European immigrants experienced. An economic downturn coinciding with a rising number of Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the first federal action taken to limit immigration based solely on nationality or race. Angel Island's Immigration Station was built for the specific purpose of enforcing this act by strictly regulating which Chinese immigrants would be granted admittance to the country and which would be summarily sent back.
While the average immigrant passing through Ellis Island was there for only a few hours, Chinese immigrants at Angel Island were normally held for two to three weeks, and some for months or even years. During this time the immigrants endured squalid living conditions and underwent grueling interrogations meant to flush out "paper sons," those who were attempting to enter the country with falsified family information or documentation. The lucky ones were eventually allowed to enter the country, while those who failed to pass muster were boarded on the next ship East. This unequal treatment of Chinese immigrants continued until 1943 when the Exclusion Act was finally repealed. The Station then fell into disrepair until the early 1970s when it was partially restored and opened as a museum. And what we are left with now after this sordid, complicated past is a chapter of America's history of racial inequality and the complex dilemma of how best to represent that history to the public.
"When I first saw the immigration station it struck me as a very significant historic place which had been turned into a Disney-esque playland" was Chang's first reaction to spending an afternoon on the Island. He had heard about the Immigration Station through local media and felt compelled to look into this local landmark of Asian American history. And while he recalls thinking the Island, "cold, beautiful, and peaceful" on his first visit, it was the quasi-realistic scenes of daily life set up in the Immigration Station which provoked his first strong reaction. The wax figurines used to recreate the immigrants experiences at the station "seemed sensationalistic" and to have "very little basis in fact." For instance, a woman figurine with long braided hair who sits atop the bunks in what was once the women's barracks was modeled after a historic photograph of the site – although Chang states the park docents claim they're not sure whether the photograph used as a model was of the men's or women's barracks because they claim it was the fashion at the time for Chinese men to wear their hair in a long braid, or queue. This assertion doesn't hold much water once you start to scratch the surface, though, as queues were in fashion only during the rule of the Qing dynasty in China in the 18th and 19th century and, after the fall of the Qings in 1911, were politically unpopular and generally frowned upon. And since the Station didn't open until 1910 it is highly unlikely that any Chinese males who passed through it would still have been sporting this outdated and in fact politically dangerous hairstyle.
To hear Chang tell it, it sounds as if the training that docents receive at Angel Island and the interpretive tours they subsequently lead are full of these sorts of historical inaccuracies and, some would say, racist stereotypes. Like the one about the woman who committed suicide on the Island by sticking a chopstick through her ear. Or the fact that many say the immigrants were so embarrassed by the communal restroom facilities that they wore paper bags over their head to hide their shame. Or the newest activity for school field trips which discusses the practice of bound feet – a tradition which of course only applied to women. And of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants passing through the Immigration Station only a few were women, and most of them were too young to have been subject to a practice which was outmoded nearly half a century earlier. The question of the accuracy of these incidents and stories seems less important to Chang than the fact that these are the occurrences that the Park staff and docents choose to focus on both when training new docents and when "interpreting" the Station for tour groups. "The training [of the docents] focuses on these stories which sensationalize Chinese culture and alienate Asian Americans from the mainstream" says Chang - and in return the docents pass these anecdotes onto the thousands of visitors who pass through the Station every year. It's precisely this passing on of a very skewed perspective on the immigrants lives which Chang is concerned with. "It's not just that these stories, by virtue of their sensationalistic nature, create an artificial distance between the immigrant's experiences and those of the Island's visitors, but that the very real possibility exists that the [visitors] will carry this sense of distance with them and superimpose it onto their relationships with Asian Americans."
In an attempt to address some of these complex issues, Chang has produced a body of work which somehow manages to both respect the history of the Station and the immigrants who passed through it, while also highlighting some of the controversial aspects of the site. Several of the photographs feature the wax figurines which populate the Station, their eerily blank faces staring out from what is obviously a scene loaded with emotional history. Other pieces take more of a lighthearted stab at the Island, such as the one showing an old public phone from the Station with instructions which have been altered to read "For Take Out Chinese Food, 3 short bells, For Oriental Massage, 2 short bells." One entire series entitled "Circa 2005" mimics the look and feel of vintage photographs and leads the viewer to question whether the images are actual historic pieces or clever reproductions. All in all the body of work raises questions about the portrayal of history at the Immigration Station and the impact that depiction may have on the island's visitors.
This is not new ground for Chang, whose previous works have focused on similar questions of image versus reality. The striking series entitled "Decadence" depicts the lavish swimming pools, posh hotels, and luxurious home decor of America's fabulously wealthy. And yet somehow each piece, while ostensibly showcasing these scenes of luxury, cleverly manages to evoke more of a sense of emptiness and despair rather than champagne wishes and caviar dreams. This same sort of aesthetic is utilized in "Strip Tease," perhaps Chang's most well-known body of work, which focuses on empty strip clubs. To Chang applying these techniques to the atmosphere of the Immigration Station seemed like a natural leap, and it is a leap that serves him very well. The stark, distanced quality of the images helps to evoke the feelings of isolation and uncertainty that no doubt plagued the immigrants during their time on the Island.
While Chang holds no illusions that this body of work will result in radical changes in the way the state park system presents the history of Angel Island, he does hope that those who see his work may be jolted into thinking twice about the accuracy of historical "facts" which they encounter, whether at the Island or in other arenas. It is just this type of critical perspective which he brings to his own views of ethnicity, culture, and history, and which clearly informs his work at every step of the way. Now if only he could manage to pass some of that on into the system, which has recently budgeted $15 million dollars to completely restore the Immigration Station, then he could go back to photographing strip clubs and the filthy rich. But I doubt it.