Dale Ching, docent, Angel Island Immigration Station


Interview by Michael Johnson
Date: 11/26/04 KQED-FM, San Francisco

1 Disc


MICHAEL: You had a chance to look over the questions – I’m going to ask you some of those.

DALE: You know, you hear that noise?

MICHAEL: That’s okay. If I hear something I may ask you to say it over.

DALE: Maybe I turn the page or something. You hear that?

MICHAEL: Yup. You know the questions so it should be…

DALE: Some of them maybe have to change them a little bit. It’s the general idea anyway. You hear me on that island when I’m talking to a student, but I have this thing here almost the same, except welcome the new docent. Every year we have a new docent training and I go talk. So I usually prepare something. Maybe when we finish it you would like to have that.

MICHAEL: All right. Let’s start with maybe you can state what your name is by introducing yourself.

DALE: This thing here I have pretty close. I am an Angel Island Immigration Station docent. I’m going to tell you about my experience as a former detainee of the island of the station.

MICHAEL: Let me start with you introducing yourself. My name is…

DALE: My name is Dale Ching. I’m a former detainee of Angel Island Immigration Station. I am now a docent for Angel Island Immigration station as a docent. And so on.

MICHAEL: Dale, do you have a Chinese name?

DALE: Yes.

MICHAEL: Can you tell me?

DALE: Yes, Ching, Te-Chung. My name is…my Chinese name is Ching Te-Chung.

MICHAEL: Do you remember when you first came over what your impressions were? How you got onto, how you came to come on a ship?

DALE: My name is…

MICHAEL: You can start from the beginning if you like.

DALE: My name is Dale Ching and Chinese name is Ching Te-Chung and I left the village in 1937 and landed in San Francisco. At that time I was 16 years ago and my immigrant over here came back to this country. My father and my brothers all here and when I was 16 years old my dad was say hey, it’s time for you to go to the United Sates now. So they get all the applications, the papers ready and send them back to me in China. And then at the other end I would start working processing trying to come over here. And I had to go through the councilor over there and then they okayed it and then I went down to Hong Kong to get the ticket to come over here. Well, at that time they went through everything. By that I mean you have to go see the doctor and get checkup, all the shots necessary before you can apply for the ticket that buys your ticket on the boat to come over here. And that was back in 1937, I was 16 years old.

MICHAEL: How long was the trip?

DALE: From Hong Kong. We boarded in Hong Kong and to San Francisco it took approximately 22 to 24 days. But we were 22 days in the Pacific to come across.

MICHAEL: Describe conditions on ship.

DALE: Well, when I left China, my village, I left behind my mother and my younger brother back there. I traveled along and that was the first time I had a long journey. By that I mean I left my home and take that many days to come across and all stranger it’s a couple hundred or so peoples on the boat. I don’t know them, they don’t know me, and they just travel along. And day in, day out, we look at the sky and look at that water and I was lucky, I didn’t get sick. Most of them youngster they might get sick and also they’re lonesome. They left home, so lonely. And then again a lot of them they don’t talk to you we don’t talk to them because we don’t want to get them going and probably study something or whatever. But I find out what it does. A lot of those people coming over they have to study something. What I mean by that, now I know what they’re doing, all by themselves. They really have to memorize all those questions paying for the interrogation. At that time, I don’t know why they kept so quiet coming over. So now we know they are studying and try to memorize all those question answer. And so that’s the thing, I was lucky , I didn’t have to do that. But nevertheless, I still had to do interrogation.

MICHAEL: Was it all men on the ship?

DALE: The majority is men and boys, lots of boys. What I mean by boys is anywhere from ten to about eighteen years old, mostly. But of course a lot of elders. Old men, people coming over. Very few women, not too many. Of course we don’t talk to each other, to all those strangers. But we do with a few and then when I got into San Francisco I was expecting to see my father right there and I’d be in Golden Mountain, as they say San Francisco. But I was wrong, I didn’t even see my father when I got in here.

MICHAEL: Were you worried?

DALE: Yes, I was worried. When are we going to see each other? And then when we got into San Francisco I didn’t see him. Of course you see a lot of people on the other side you thought you’re on board ship, you couldn’t tell which is which. Besides, I hadn’t seen my father for almost seven years.

MICHAEL: He had been there that long?

DALE: He was over here a long time. He’d been here for about 40, 50 years, I don’t know.

MICHAEL: Did he have to go through Angel island too?

DALE: No, he was way back.

MICHAEL: Before they started doing it.

DALE: He might have to different port, but I don’t know.

MICHAEL: You arrive. What did you see?

DALE: Okay. When we docked in San Francisco, then we know they all would say that all the passenger were getting off the ship. Now, all were they talking about all, I was assuming was including me. They say all passenger, that means all the people returning to this country. They can get off. And when it’s my turn to get off what happens? They say no, you’re not. You have to go to Angel Island immigration station to prove it. What they mean by that is I assuming my paper application and everything was a citizen, so I was assuming I could get off. So I show them and they say no, you got to go to Angel Island Immigration Station to prove that you are a citizen. Then you can get. So okay, all the passenger off the ship, then we are the ones left behind and boarding a ferry from San Francisco they took us directly to Angel Island.

MICHAEL: What are you feeling?

DALE: Everybody keep it for themselves. now I know why they keeping it. Well, I guess I been in there for that many year as a docent and learning from experience and all that. Why because they are worried about talking about those things themselves. that’s why they don’t want to talk to you e en though they would like to talk to you to get away from the lonely. But they don’t. the reason they don’t want to is they might say something wrong and I might spill the beans or something like that, so that’s why they don’t want to talk about it.

MICHAEL: Were there spies?

DALE: No. but they worry about it. Because when you’re talking to a stranger, you don’t know that stranger. That stranger could be a spy. But none of the Chinese would talk, none of us would talk. We talk about friendly, daily use things, but nothing personal.

MICHAEL: Tell me the place you stayed.

DALE: When the ferry docked at the station, at that time I didn’t know where the station was. But when we got to the immigration station when we docked, got off the ferry, just a small ferry…when you get off they have people waiting for you. What I mean by that is the guard is waiting for you at the dock. So myself, or let’s put it this way, most of the Chinese immigrants cannot speak English and even then it’s kind of hard, very hard. So when we get off the ferry and again you have all your suitcase and everything, you line up on the dock. And the guard says okay, put all your belonging in the warehouse. The only thing they allowed you to from the dock the only thing they allowed you to do is what you’ve got on, your clothes. So put everything in, only take what you need. So that’s a couple sets of underwear, your daily use, your towel and toothbrush and all that. The rest will be in the warehouse. You will get them back when you leave. If you leave today, next week, you will get them all back and take them with you. It will be in the warehouse.

MICHAEL: How long did you stay?

DALE: The way it works, since it’s very different from people to people. What I mean by that is some of them might be lucky leaving in four days. Some of them might stay in there for about three or four years. So what’s the difference between four days and a couple years? They four day, well, before that I don’t know nothing about that, now I do. The four days is some of those people are merchants or citizen was born here, they went back with the parent to China when they were a baby or so but when they come back, they have the papers to prove that they were born here, but still not classify you be able to leave. They still want to check, how do they know you’re the baby, they have no picture then. They still have to have reference to bring you back. This way it could be four days for the merchants easy. They get everything cleared up and the boss go down there and recognize them and go. Some people stay longer than that, usually after the interrogation if they say you didn’t tell the truth, we’ve got to deport you, go back where you come from. So whoever sponsor to bring you here, they’re not going to let you go back. They spent so much time, money to bring you here. So they have to go to court to fight to get that okay for you to clear you’re true and everything and that’s the people that have been there for so long. And again there are a lot of mistake, or not exactly mistake, but paper son, paper daughter. Now, those people are not real. As far as they know they’re real, but try to prove that I’m not.

MICHAEL: Trying to prove their identity was not real.

DALE: That’s right. You’re proving it. Because the paper son is now everybody knows that a paper son is wrong, it’s not a real thing. The majority of people never heard of a paper son, what is a paper son, a paper daughter and all that? Well, the, excuse me.

MICHAEL: You can talk about that too. We know the definition yeah. Did you know people or met people. Did you figure out that they were paper sons or did you not know?

DALE: That’s not my business but the idea is yes, we know it. How did we know it, do you want me to continue on that? We talk about paper son. Well at the time when I was there, back in 1937 I knew nothing about paper son or paper daughter or whatever. I’d never heard of the thing. When I was in there for a while and notice it, people kind of quiet and mumbling jumble talking to themselves. and they talking about it and those are the people you kind of wonder why they’re doing that and later on you find that they’re not real. What I mean by real is myself, my father is my father. And if I buy a paper from somebody else or my father make arrangement to buy a paper from somebody else you’re not real. You’re related to a different family. So that’s what they call paper son and paper daughter. So when the longer you’re in there the more you notice it. The newcomer come in, they’re kind of a stranger, and they wonder and you know they are. mumble jumble and talking to themselves. and again you’ve got the hunch, you don’t want to interrupt them because they are trying to, and everybody want to help each other more or less, but you get there and you try to.

MICHAEL: They were willing to support each other?

DALE: Oh yeah, because this way we don’t want to jeopardize the other guy’s freedom. We are coming over here trying to establish a new life, more or less, over in a different country. Back home, mostly are poor. Cannot support the family, so if you have a chance to go out, different places to start a new life, you go. And some of the people over there, I’m talking about the immigrations, the new or old, young people or old people. They started out, I would say is not very poor, the in-between class, and they can afford to buy a paper to come to a new country, they will do it. If you’re so poor you cannot afford to buy a paper then sorry about that you can’t do it. So that’s for a lot of them for doing that to come over here. And the reason for that, now I know, the history of the United States compared to the time when I came over, I don’t know nothing about this country. The only thing I know is I’m going to see my father and my brothers.

MICHAEL: Memories of other detainees?

DALE: Yes, we met a lot of people. When I left, I was 16 years old. Of course I’m on my own business and just like anybody else when I’m a stranger. But the more time you have in there, you can’t do anything else anyway, so you’re talking to a stranger you’re getting acquainted and they’re not a stranger. And then you talk very freely about it. You know where they come from, like myself I know where they come from. Different district. I’m from one district, he’s from a different district. As a matter of fact, most Chinese at that time were from the southern part of China near Hong Kong, around there. And again, I recall that I cannot speak their language, their dialect is entirely different from mine. So we kind of later on learn each other, talk my dialect and I talk in their dialect. So this way break the monotony, so if you keep thinking about it geez, I’m going to be here forever, you might go and do something. But this way we can talk to each other pretty freely afterward. What I mean afterward is that myself, I was there for that many months and I was waiting, waiting for the interrogation. When after the interrogation then we can more or less freely talk about things. I can talk to the paper son, and he can tell me his own story because after interrogation. And yet we still worry about it because some stranger could be a spy and talk to an official. But you have to know who’s who to talk to.

MICHAEL: Can you remember someone specific?

DALE: I forget about it now, so many years. Let’s say today I cannot remember way back 50 years. Back then, when I left it was in the summer. There was no school. When the school’s open we see some of the people in the classroom.

MICHAEL: Remember any stories people told you?

DALE: We did. We talked a lot. We always talk about what you do in China and where you go to school and what kind of school and what kind of grade and you know, general. No particular about your name and that at all. No.

MICHAEL: Conversations were general.

DALE: General, yes. Mostly like that. And when you’re 16 years old. 17, you want to go outside and play ball and then forget about who they were.

MICHAEL: Station has been saved by the writing found on the wall.

DALE: Now, when you were talking about it, I wouldn’t say everybody, but even 16 years old, some of them pretty educated people. But myself never did write anything on the wall, never did anything like that. And even if you see somebody writing on the wall, in general they are express themselves. sorrow, one way or the other. Why I’m here, why, all those things that are their own feeling. Quite a lot. And those are pretty educated people too.

MICHAEL: You saw people writing.

DALE: We knew people were writing, but we don’t pay much attention to it. We know that they’re writing, we know what they’re carving but we don’t do nothing. We just let them do.

MICHAEL: Did they have a sense that it would last so long?

DALE: They’re getting tired waiting and some of them pretty hard to say everybody will have the same idea, no. but they express themselves, why I’m here, what I’m doing in here, in the future, do I have any future at all in this country? Or am I going back and what happens? What kind of a future will I have back there, I know what kind of future I’m going to have. If I’m a farmer, if I have to go back I’ll probably be a farmer again. Now, if I have the privilege to enter this country, then I will start a new life and probably have a much, much better life than just stay home. No future back home. This way I hope I have a better future. That’s the majority of the people the same thing that they write on the wall, when they express themselves. like some of the poems you read on the wall they might be married. They miss their wives and all those things are going on. There’s a lot of them like that but it’s pretty hard to read right now.

MICHAEL: you didn’t think much of it when you saw it.

DALE: Even when I saw them doing it, it’s not my business and I agree with them, what they’re doing more or less because I cannot do it myself. If you know how to do it, do it that way.

MICHAEL: Would you consider yourself educated when you came at 16?

DALE: I would say I’m not educated but I know something. I have a few years in school. Equivalent to the American style I did have eight years of school. In a Chinese school. So I know how to read and write. Not as well as somebody else but I can do it.

MICHAEL: You never wrote on a wall?

DALE: No, I never put anything on. And I went to school but this is it.

MICHAEL: I imagine you got reunited with your father and brothers.

DALE: When I left the island back in ’37.

MICHAEL: How long was your stay?

DALE: I was there 3 ½ months in the station. And stayed there. Now when I was in the station let’s talk about it in general. At first when I got off the ferry, got in and they course I didn’t know anybody there, they don’t know me, everybody is s a stranger. So that, when you put everything in the guy will mark you off at the dock and take you to the hospital, they’ve got a hospital there, and the doctor will look you over, give you a physical checkup, which we already had back in Hong Kong. But again when we got there they’re looking, if you’re strong and healthy there’ll be no problem. Let’s say you got seasick on the boat coming over, you might keep you inside the hospital for a couple of days for observation, make sure you have no TB and things like that. After that the guard will march you off the hospital to your quarter and the barrack is only one way you can get into that barrack is there’s a gate going into the porch and there’s a stairway going in. the building, they have separate. Men go into one room, women go into another of course. And then if you’re a married couple the guard will separate you. And will just the man go this way, women go that way and that’s it. Now when you’re in there, your quarters, the door will be locked from the outside. Then you have no chance to come back out again until the next time the doors open. So the barrack itself is a pretty good size barrack and the women’s quarter is about a regular school classroom, maybe holding about twenty-five by twenty-five or so. The women’s quarter is the maximum they can hold peoples in there is100, women or children. And the men’s is twice the size and it can hold maximum about three hundred. So it’s pretty crowded in there. The facility as far as I go when I was there was much improved as opposed to what an old timer told me. There was very little you could do about it. Like the women’s quarter they have 100 peoples in there and going into the bathroom, the original bathroom the way I understood it they told me, they drew a ditch on the floor, on the floor they cut a hole on it and they use it for your toilet. And two tubs, no laundry tub, no shower, no bathtub. The washroom was only two. So you’ve got 100 people who want to wash up before they eat their breakfast or something, it’s going to be overcrowded.

MICHAEL: Was it clean or dirty?

DALE: You do the best you can. You do it yourself. But they do have people come by and do it, cleaning it for you. But even then you can imagine water is kind of scary so everybody trying to make it thought he best they can on their own. Like their own areas, we had in the barrack the bedroom we had three tier of the beds. In other word they had a pole, two pole holding your bed. They had three pole, you will have twelve peoples in it. Three on one side and so on and that’s the way it went. And the time I was there it’s much improved compared to the original. We had a lot of toilet then. But it’s still, one thing, no privacy whatsoever. You’re going in to take a shower, no curtain. Going in to the toilet, you sit in there and no partition between so for the man it wouldn’t be so bad. But just think of the women. They have nothing on that. You go in to take a shower and there’s no curtain. But he sleeping quarter, ten o’clock, the light will go out. Every day. The light go out. And no matter what you do, stop, you have to go to bed. But the bathroom, yes, the light is on all the time. But you kind of scary to go. Especially like myself, I never left home by myself. My mother always provided for everything, always take care. So that’s a lot of difference between a youngster in a stranger place.

MICHAEL: It’s been a while and now you tell the story many times. It’s an important story. What does this mean to you, how has it changed you?

DALE: Let’s put it this way. When I left the immigration station back in 1937 when I joined my father and everything I went to school, matter of fact I went to school in San Francisco for one year and more or less I graduated in the school and you learning a different way. That’s what you want, that’s what I want to learn the American way. And more little by little and more or less I forgot what happened back there. But still it’s there but I don’t want to think about it. I want to think of my future. My future is first of all I don’t know how to speak English when I got here. Right now it’s not the time to think about the back. I want to get my future to set up. So I want to learn more about this American style and way of doing things, so I had to learn. Learn my English. I tried to get it so I can speak to the next guy. This way I’m in school now, control more or less of my future. After that, a couple years later and I graduate, put everything behind me now. Well, WWII start in ’41 so at that time they say well, you gotta be drafted, go into the service. And now I’m more or less like American way now doing it. So I enlisted in the service before they called me in. and then that time I went forward, somebody keep pulling me back from behind. My history kept pulling me back.

MICHAEL: Was it you or people around you?

DALE: Me. I kept thinking, I want to get ahead my memory back behind me pull me back. What I mean by that is so my memory is I always think about geez, now I got the chance to go forward and why is my memory back in Angel Island pulling me back, now want me to go forward. All those bad memories try to get in front of me. What I mean by that is when I was in the service I was trying to do the American way to get ahead and help in the war and all that. Well, I can’t get anywhere. The way I want to do to help to win the war and yet the thing is memory I had the memory behind me and say gee, why should I help? Why should I help? Because I am so desperate, I want to get ahead, and those things, when I have no reason. When I first got here they locked me up in there and I didn’t have any criminal record or anything behind me when I come here. I wanted to start my own life and start my own thing. And that’s the reason put me back and then I kept thinking about when I first got here in the place they treat me all that bad, why do I have to go forward to help. But fighting more or less, try to win the war and forget about the back. When the war is over and I got out, try to look for a job, I can’t find a job. There’s job here and there, but I can’t get the job. Even when I have the qualification to prove it, I can’t get the job. That really hurt, it does hurt. And then why I come back? Why? Well, okay, when the war’s over and everything is going fine and I’m getting head, I’m happy. I had the opportunity to do the things that I want, it’s more free and compared to all the things and okay, so much for that. When I’m retired and I’m all right. I’m not poor. I’m not rich but at least I can get by and all the things are treating me all right. So Angel Island is another story. Forget it. Now my future is here. I’m bearing up my own future and I’m okay.

MICHAEL: Almost like it was another person.

DALE: That’s right. And when I go back to the island, go back to the thing is, Angel Island is always a military space. When immigration is gone, that is from 1910 to 1940. 1940 closed. And that is the barrack and everything is gone. So the government, or let’s say the state recreation department of California wanted to take the buildings off because it’s too old. They want to demolish it or burn it or one way or the other. And a ranger walked through the building to see if anything could be salvaged and he found nothing except that poem on the wall. With the flashlight he can see it and he knows something’s important but he can’t read it in Chinese. So he was smart enough to go up to San Francisco, to the University, and got a professor down and read that. He said yes, it’s very important you should be preserving. Now, that is a time. So the Chinatown in San Francisco get involved with it. They wanted to preserve it. But we had no money, no power to do things so now somebody’s backing you and went up to Sacramento to get the permit to preserve the place and make it a museum. Even then it’s a hardship yet. So it’s a gentleman keep calling me, he know I was there. He find out, I don’t know how he did, he know I was there as a detainee. He ask me questions and all and wanted me to go back to the island and show him what was which. And I didn’t want to go for many years. Many, many years I didn’t want to go back.

MICHAEL: A bad memory?

DALE: A bad memory to go back. But I knew what it was they wanted to know. I told them what they wanted to know but myself I don’t want to go back.

MICHAEL: What made the difference?

DALE: From 1972 until ’90 they still got more information to form a good presentation to be able to put up the museum, the history of it. So in ’91 that’s the funny thing. During all that time of course I’ve been married and had children. The children went to school and never learned about Angel Island. So later on he found out it’s a museum he wanted me to take him back to the immigration to see what’s what. I didn’t want to go.

MICHAEL: Who is this?

DALE: My children. My son, my daughter, they wanted me to take them back to the immigration station to tell them what’s what. I didn’t want to go and of course years go by and my grandchildren were smarter. They went to school and they know I was there but they don’t understand the history of it. And their father know about it, they don’t know the history of all that so they’ve been after me to take them back, I don’t want to. Now the grandchildren grow up, they go to school and hear about Angel Island immigration, but they don’t know the history. So they are smart, they keep asking me to take them back. I say no. one day they went to the ferry down in San Francisco, bought the ticket and handed it to me, grandpa let’s go. And when I went down there that day, there happened to be children on a field trip. In school. They were just like any children, on a field trip they go off and have fun. And then they have a docent take them around to show them what is what so we tag along with the docent, went to the barrack, listen to it. I’m in the back and listen to it and I don’t say nothing because I have no business telling them what to do. They’re the docent. So the children went through after we went outside the barrack I got the schoolchildren, a couple of them on one side and I asked the children, today you’re over here on the field trip. You went through the barrack, you listened to the docent, what did you learn today? That’s very important. Well, the children tell me I don’t care, I don’t want to know anything. We don’t have no school today, I’m enjoying my picnic. Now, that really hurt me because that’s the history. The history you should not forget it especially on little children.

MICHAEL: It’s like the person you were trying to leave behind was going to be completely wiped out.

DALE: that’s right. And it hurt me. So I said fine, enjoy your picnic and that’s about all I can say. I cannot say hey you. So after that I say well, I’m at the age now I’m not going to be here forever. The history has got to be here forever for the next generation and the generation after. So that’s how I came back. And that was back in 1991 and I’ve been back there as a docent for that many years.

MICHAEL: In some ways it completes the circle. It completes you too. Here was the part of you you had worked hard to leave behind and it seemed like…

DALE: Somebody tricked me!

MICHAEL: Well, somebody tricked you, but it seemed like the next generation was about to just not have knowledge of it that part would have been completely gone. But it finally was speaking again.

DALE: Ever since from ’91 up to now, I’ve been putting in over more than 5000 hours doing that. Even a couple days ago I was in a school classroom in San Francisco talking to the children. I do the island. I’m enjoying it now. before ’91 I hate when people mention it and I don’t want to go back there.

MICHAEL: What changed?

DALE: You have the memory, you don’t want to repeat it all the time. You want to get ahead, I want to leave everything behind me. But after 1991 more or less I’m waking up. If I’m not going to tell the history it’s going to be gone forever. I’m not perfect but I’m part of it.

MICHAEL: You’re part of it. Has it made your life more complete?

DALE: Right now I’m enjoying doing that because the people get educated from somebody else. Like you go to school and up there the teacher’s up there, the knowledge pass on to you and you respect the teacher to tell you that. And that’s why the student respect me to tell them, and I would say the majority respect. At least I know I’m doing something to help the people understand. And I don’t expect everybody to do the same but history is history. Without the history, I don’t know what would happen. All the things have got to have something.

MICHAEL: Thank you Dale.

DALE: I’m very proud myself now. before I hate to mention. It’s like somebody tell me, mention Angel Island they don’t want to talk about it. I can see why they don’t want to talk about it. All those things you went through, you don’t want to go back there again. And the people afraid to mention because I know it now because the majority of them way back is a paper son. They’re afraid to be deported.

MICHAEL: Thank you Dale. I have to record the room to get the sound.

DALE: Let me put these away. That’s part of my story if you want it. I don’t use that for recording. That’s for the training.

MICHAEL: Slate. This is the sound of the studio in which I recorded Dale and there will be one minute of studio ambience for the CD.