Self-Organized Detainees

Historical Essay

by H.M. Lai

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Chinese immigrants on their arrival on Angel Island, c. 1920s.

Photo: National Archive


English classes were conducted occasionally for the detainees on Angel Island during the early 20th century.

For their mutual aid and to maintain order, male detainees formed in 1922 an organization called the Zizhihui (Self-governing Association), whose Anglicized name, ironically, was Angel Island Liberty Association. The concept appeared to have evolved from the custom in the early years of speaking with a collective voice when asking for help or expressing grievances. Its formation was promoted by politically progressive detainees, and the women did not have a corresponding organization. Officers were usually elected from the people who had been detained the longest, particularly those whose cases were on appeal, and at times respected intellectuals were also selected.44

The scope of the association's activities during any particular period depended on the nature of the current detainee population as well as the organizing and leadership abilities of the officers. When new immigrants arrived, the association would often hold a mass meeting to enroll them as members, to explain the rules of conduct at the immigration station, and perhaps to collect some money for its treasury. With its meager funds the association bought records, books, and recreational equipment for the detainees' amusement. If talented individuals were available and willing, the association would schedule weekly skits, operas, or musical concerts for diversion in the evenings. At times classes were organized for the children,45 and occasionally officers succeeded in curtailing gambling in the dormitory.

Letters to and from the detainees were often handled by the officers of the group. If immigrants had complaints or requests, the association's spokesman, who usually knew some English, negotiated with the authorities. The association's officers also acted as liaison between the government officials and the inmates.46

by H.M. Lai

(from California History, spring 1978)

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