Mai Wah Society

Gateway to Gold Mountain -- The Mai Wah Museum's 2003 Summer Exhibit

Note: This is a past exhibit hosted at the Mai Wah - no longer here.
In 2002, Jim Griffin and Jana Faught visited the Museum of Chinese in the Americas (MoCA) in the heart of New York City's Chinatown. The museum was hosting a traveling exhibit called "Gateway to Gold Mountain" by the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation in San Francisco.

The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) is a non-profit organization founded over twenty-five years ago by concerned citizens and descendants of detainees who were committed to preserving the deteriorating immigration station barracks. AIISF's primary goals are to lead the effort to preserve, restore, and interpret Angel Island Immigration Station, a National Historic Landmark, as the Pacific gateway for U.S. immigration; and to promote educational activities that further the understanding of Pacific Rim immigration in American history. For more information visit the website:

Griffin and Faught were so impressed with the exhibit that they made inquiries about the availability of the traveling exhibit. Within a week, a packet arrived from the Angel Island Foundation encouraging the museum to host the exhibit for the 2003 summer season.

The Mai Wah Board of Directors unanimously voted to host the exhibit this summer and fundraising efforts began. The Mai Wah raised more than $10,000 through sponsorships, grants and donations. Major sponsors included Wal-Mart, Atlantic Richfield Company and the Butte-Silver Bow Urban Revitalization Agency.

Exhibit Introduction:

The exhibit chronicled the immigration experience of thousands of Asians who came to America between 1910 and 1940. Ferried from ships to the isolated Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay, they were greeted by an America far different that the land of opportunity that many called "Gold Mountain." This exhibit discussed the attitudes, hopes, and fears of the immigrants, as well as the discrimination they encountered trying to gain entry to America.

Historical Background:

In the late 1800s, believing that the country's economic depression was related to the influx of new immigrants, politicians enacted legislation making it difficult for foreigners, especially Asians, to enter the country, attain citizenship. own property or compete in business. The Angel Island Immigration Station was established through the federal legislation aimed at stemming the tide of immigration. For many Chinese immigrants, Angel Island represented a seemingly impenetrable barrier to the land of opportunity. Processing and questioning of new arrivals took weeks and sometimes month; admittance was never assured. With their chance at a new life hanging in the balance, feelings of loneliness, isolation, despair and doubt played on the minds of many who waited. For thirty years, the Angel Island Immigration Station stood as a guarded gateway to America, the Gold Mountain.

As much as it reflected the inner feelings of the new immigrants, "Gateway to Gold Mountain" was also a tribute to the pioneering spirit of all those who persevered, established new roots in this country, and sweetened the great melting pot of America. Their sacrifices and tenacity laid the foundation for new generations of Asian Americans and Asian immigrants to realize their dreams of the Gold Mountain.

Exhibit Walk Through:

The exhibit emphasized the emotional experience and feelings of the new immigrants. Visitors walked through a series of vignettes, each representing a particular experience at the immigration station. Beginning with arrival by ship in San Francisco Bay, the visitor was taken to the island, where images of barbed wire fences, a guard tower, and locked doors "welcomed" the immigrants to America.

Once inside the exhibit, the first vignette discussed the processing of new arrivals including examination of documents and "dormitory" assignments as well as group physical exams, an unfamiliar and frightening process for many non-Westerners.

Photomurals depicted the day to day life of immigrants and life-size photographic cut-outs of detainees, station employees, and Christian missionaries showed men, women, and children from different walks of life. Visitors also discovered that Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, and Jewish immigrants were all part of the immigration station's history.

"Gateway to Gold Mountain" presented a significant and timely topic relative to current discussions about the immigration into the U.S. Reflecting on the history of Asian immigration laws and the attitudes surrounding the enactment and enforcement of those laws can provide food for thought as our country considers future immigration policies.


The exhibit premiered at the new San Francisco Main Public Library in July of 1996. Afterward, it traveled to the Washington State Capitol Rotunda, and conferences in San Diego and Milwaukee. It was also featured at public libraries in such cities as Seattle, Houston, Boston, and Dallas, as well as at California State University.