Angel Island museum records arduous journey of immigrants

Ritu Jha-

When in 1910 Angel Island was established as an immigration station in the San Francisco Bay, many people from India were among the Chinese and other immigrants there.

Going through being in detention at the facility was not easy. Officers called on immigrants by group, not names, say descendants of those who came to the U.S. chasing the American dream, and hoping to live in an independent country away from British-occupied India.

Last month for the first time the hospital building at the Angel Island Immigration Station was inaugurated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The building, which had never been opened to the public before, took 7 years and $14 million to renovate. Its three permanent exhibits add to the diversity of immigrant histories and experiences featured at the site.

Edward Tepporn

“We estimate that 8,000 South Asians immigrated through Angel Island,” Edward Tepporn, executive director of the facility, told indica. “Angel Island is sometimes called the Ellis Island of the West. Unlike the original Ellis Island, however, Angel Island’s immigration station was built to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and similar immigration policies that sought to keep Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants from entering the nation. Today the entire site is a National Historic Landmark, and the new Angel Island Immigration Museum (AIIM) is an important addition. AIIM offers an opportunity for visitors to learn about the diverse immigrant groups that came through Angel Island as well as those who have arrived more recently.”

“My dad was a hero,” Norma Samra, whose father was detained on the island, told indica. “He came along with a few Indians and were not called by their names or number, they were called the “Hindoo’s group.”

Front row: left to right Richard Samra, ( my second cousin Kartar Samra’s son) Norma Samra, middle row Harry Samra, Peter Samra, and Dalip Samra, Back Row: Sohan Basra ( my Maternal Uncle) and Paul Samra Birthday Party in 1962 Sacramento CA. Photo courtesy: Norma Samra.

Samra, 63, is the youngest daughter of Dalip Singh Samra, who came to the U.S. from Sidhwan in Punjab in 1910 when he was just 14 years old. He reached Honolulu on September 13, 1910. But he always wanted to be in the U.S. which Hawaii was not a part of then.   So he worked in the sugarcane fields in Honolulu to save some money, and finally landed at Angel Island on November 18, 1910.

“One thing I discovered was that they were not treated as an individual and were called “Hindoos,” Samra said. “That was shocking. I was not sure what exact paperwork he had, but he must have had something which stated his name but the authorities just named them as a group and not an individual”

Besides Norma Samra, his youngest child, the elder Samra has three sons: Paul, Harry, Peter. ( Paul is deceased)

Her father died in 1968 when she was 10, so Samra really didn’t know much about him, but she learned a lot from the Angel Island archives. However, she was always aware of his love for his entire family which included his extended family and his integrity.

Detention Barracks

“One thing about him was, we did not even know he stayed there for over nine days. Because all he would say is, ‘I went through some tough times,'” said Samra.

Even after leaving the island, he endured some mistreatment. He described to his children how, when he went to a barbershop, the barber shaved half his face, pulled off his apron and said, “I am done.” He had to deal with labor gangs, and had rocks thrown at him, and people told him, “Hindu, go back.”  The men that he came over with from India referred to him as “boy” as a term of endearment because he was so young compared to the other men.

His own father had suggested that he not go, saying that if he left India he would regret it. Samra’s response was, “no I want to go” and actually he had no idea what type of life he would be encountering in the United States because he had no education or independent knowledge about the states.

When he was going through the immigration process, the 14-year-old was the youngest of the group of friends. They told him that to be seen he ought to stand on a box. It worked. He was let through.

He married Swaran Kaur Basra from Phagwara, Punjab, in April 1930 and arrived in the United States in 1947.  She made ladoos that her husband and his friends pined for, and they made utensils for her. Her husband used a disc plate from farming equipment to make rotis.  Swaran Kaur died in 1991.

Samra said that while growing up in Elk Grove, hers were the only Eastern family, and nobody knew about India.

“Now they know what India is, and I am proud of who I am,” she said.

Samra said her father finally saved enough to buy some swampland that he cultivated and cleared to ultimately start farming. The family now owns 386 acres of farmland. But when her father began farming, he used to cultivate on 2,000 acres of farm, which included leased and owned land.  He grew corn, barley, wheat, tomatoes, milo, and celery. At one time he was the world’s largest celery grower and shipped from Sacramento Delta.

“One thing with dad was that even though he was physically here [in the U.S.] his heart was in India, because he would always send money to [his family there]. He would get emotional because his heart was there and he would do anything for his family, said Samra who visited India just once in 1971, when she was 12-year-old.

Her brother Harry Samra, discussing his father’s experiences, told indica, “For him [the elder Samra], everything was work and family. We were with him all the time.”

Harry Samra said his father maintained his values, working and participating in activities at the one gurdwara available, but was patriotic to the U.S, becoming a citizen in 1961.

Also detained at Angel Island were Rani Bagai’s grandfather Vaishno Das Bagai and grandmother Kala Bagai. They arrived in San Francisco on September 6, 1915. with their 3 children, Brij, Madan, and Ram.

The Bagai family in San Francisco (date unk). L to R: Brij Bagai, Kala Bagai, Ram Bagai, Vaishno Das Bagai, Madan Bagai. Photo courtesy: Rani Bagai.

She said her father, Ram Bagai, went on to become president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in 1950. And last year, Berkeley renamed a downtown street after Kala Bagai. Although their family’s story is not specifically mentioned in the new museum building, their family’s journey to the U.S. via Angel Island (and the discrimination they experienced after entering the US) is no different. Then many other Asian immigrants’ experiences at that time.

Ram Bagai, who was just over a year old when he reached the U.S., was detained for only three days with his parents and two elder brothers.

Rani Bagai told indica she never fully learned about their experiences until she was in her 20s, and feels lucky that such experiences have been Kala’s oral history.

The Bagai family endured a life of challenges but was able to ease their way in, thanks to the gold worth $25,000 they had with them. Vaishno Bagai became a citizen in 1921, but things turned sour when the U.S. government made immigration changes in 1923, and canceled his citizenship, which led to Vaishno ending his life in 1928.

“[My grandmother] didn’t like to talk much about her husband’s suicide … It made her sad,” Rani Bagai said.

Her father Ram later earned his B.S. in chemical engineering from Stanford University and his master’s degree in cinematography from the University of Southern California.

Nehru’s visit to Los Angeles, Los Angeles International Airport, 11/15/1961. L to R: Ram Bagai, Rani Bagai, Indira Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru. Photo courtesy: Rani Bagai.

Asked about the discrimination while growing up said she had her share of problems growing up in the Los Angeles and Fairfax areas, and going to Fairfax High School.

“I think, later, in my twenties and thirties, it seemed there was more interest and acceptance of Indian culture,” she said. “[People] wanted to know about India, yoga and curries.

Meanwhile, in the fifties and sixties, her father imported Indian films, seeking to get American audiences to discover those musicals, including “Do Aankhen Barah Haath,” which did badly in the U.S. The market was not right and so he went on to do other things instead.

Vij Senthilnathan, a molecular biologist from Chennai, India came to US in 2009, and has been listed in the exhibit as an immigrant associated with the AIIM, said, “For new immigrants, and also my kids born in America I feel privileged. They don’t understand what happened to various people in various generations. It was an eye-opener for all age groups…. Each story is a success (however, in our definition, success is subjective). Survival was a success for some, and a college degree [for others].

“The stories I learned through these exhibits made me feel very grounded and grateful for what I have,” Senthilnathan told indica.

Vij Senthilnathan

Asked about the ships that brought the immigrants, Tepporn pointed to a book, “Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America,” by Erika Lee and Judy Yung as being of interest.

“Passage to North America was expensive, being much more costly for South Asians than it was for Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans,” he said.

Immigrants borrowed money, often by mortgaging their homesteads, to pay for their passage. The route to North America was also longer for Punjabis. They needed to first board a train from their villages in Punjab and travel to the port city of Calcutta in Bengal. They then boarded a steamer for Hong Kong. From there, they could buy passage on a steamship to Vancouver, San Francisco, Manila, Singapore, Shanghai, Yokohama, and other parts of the world.”

A long journey, all in the hope of a better life.