True Immigrant Tales: Vietnamese Boat People

[In 1979, tens of thousands of Vietnamese boat people, many of them actually Chinese, fled the communists in flimsy, overcrowded boats. Many drowned or were killed by pirates, but several hundred thousand reached refugee camps in other countries. Here is one refugee’s story; he came to the U.S. in 1980 at age 17.]

“Our boat was kind of lucky, ‘cause 70 percent of boats get captured by Vietnamese Coast Guard. That day there was no moon. It was totally dark and so luckily we make it. After one day and one night we get out of the control of the Vietnamese. Now we know we’re free! Our boat was 30 feet long and about seven feet wide and, totally, we had about 103 people. It was so crowded, almost like a fish can, you know? Can you imagine?

Rescue of Vietnamese boat people

      Rescue of Vietnamese boat people

“There was only enough water for one cup for each person in one day. So we rarely drank the water for, if we don’t have water, we’re going to die in the sea. The first day everyone got seasick. Nobody got used to it, the kind of high waves and ocean. So everyone got seasick and vomited, but by the second day and the third day, we felt much better.
“We kept going straight into the international sea zone and we met a lot of ships. We tried to get signal for help. We tried to burn our clothes to get their attention. We wrote the big S.O.S. letters in our clothes and tried to hang it above the boat. No matter how we tried, they just passed us by. I think they might feel pity for us, have the good compassion, but I think they’re afraid their government going to blame them because the law is, if you pick up any refugees in the ocean, your country got to have responsibility for those people. So, finally, we so disappointed because we got no help from anybody and our boat is now the only boat and we have only 3 h.p. motor.
“We have too many people and the wave is extremely high, about five feet. It is so dangerous. You can see the boat only maybe like one foot distant from the sea level. But we got no choice. We decide to keep going straight to Malaysia. The fifth day, the sixth day, we saw nothing. The only thing we saw is water, sun, and at night the stars. It’s just like upside-down moon. And the sea is so dark. It’s like dark blue. If you look down into the water, you had the feeling like it invite you, say,           “Go down with me.” Especially at night, the water—it’s black, like evil waiting for you. Say, “Oh, 103 people, I was waiting for you. Come down with us.” We kept going, but we don’t know where we’re going to be, if we have enough food and water to make it. We don’t even know if we’re going the right way. We just estimate by looking at the sun and the stars.
“The sixth day we saw the bird and a couple of floating things, so we are hoping we are almost come to the shore. We had some hope and we kept traveling one more day, the seventh day. That day is the day—our water—we have only one more day left. And the gasoline is almost gone. And we saw some fire, very litter fire, very far away. And we went to that fire. One hour, two hours. And, finally, we saw that fire offshore drilling platform of Esso Company. Everybody’s screaming and so happy because we know at least we have something we can turn to. . . .We know we cannot go any further.

Boat People Memorial in Australia

Boat People Memorial in Australia

“Most of the women and children in my boat are exhausted, and some of the children unconscious. Some of the children had been so thirsty, that they just drank the water from the sea. And the water from the sea is terrible. The more you drank, the more you got thirsty. And the children, starving, got a bad reaction from the seawater. We all got skin disease and exhausted, but the Esso people took us in their boat to the refugee camp in Malaysia.”

[Read about immigrants in the 1890s and the Ellis Island personnel who processed them in the historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.]

True Immigrant Tales: The Many Interpreters at Ellis Island

With thousands of immigrants were arriving daily, Ellis Island officials were hard pressed to find enough interpreters to process the many nationalities.  In 1911, Commissioner William Williams reported to his superior in Washington on how many interpreters knew how many languages and pleaded for more multi-lingual personnel:

“Languages known by interpreters: Arabic (2), Albanian (2), Armenian (2), Bohemian Czech (4), Bosnian (1), Bulgarian (5), Croatian (7), Dalmatian (2), Danish (2), Dutch (1), Finnish (1), Flemish (1), French (14), German (14), Greek (8), Herzegovinian (1), Italian (11), Lithuanian (2), Macedonian (1), Hungarian (4), Montenegrin (4), Moravian Czech (1), Norwegian (2), Persian (1), Polish (6), Portuguese (1), Rumanian (4), Russian (6), Ruthenian (4), Serbian (6), Slovak (7), Slovenian (2), Spanish (2), Swedish (3), Turkish (6), and Yiddish (9).

“Thirty-six interpreters are given credit in the interpreter2above table for languages with which they are but slightly acquainted. For instance, they may be able to speak them but cannot read or write them. Again, some may be able to read them but cannot speak them.

“Thirty-six interpreters are in one sense a large number, but in another are not. There are twenty inspection lines, all of them full during numerous successive days in the year, and there are always four [special inquiry] boards, usually six and sometimes eight. Then there is the Boarding Division with the poor quality of people arriving in the second cabin (placed there often on advice that they could not enter through the steerage). And there are also the appeals before the Commissioner, requiring the presence of one or more interpreters between 11 a.m. and 1 or 2:30 p.m. every day.

“I should add that there are a number of investigations in New York City which it falls to the lot of the interpreters to make. You will perhaps have to take my word for it that we are very short of interpreters, but in giving it I assure you it is based on full knowledge of the situation.

“The Chief of the Registry Division constantly has to surrender men to the boards and vice versa, at a time when both of them need the men. With the 20 lines filled, one-third of them we will say with immigrants knowing only Slavic languages, it is obviously impossible for our interpreters who know Slavic languages to be on all those lines, let alone to be doing boards work or the other kind of work which it may be imperative for them to do at that particular time.

interpreter“What happens is this: Our inspectors cope with the situation as best they can and that means in some instances that they cannot cope with it. Many who can ask the ordinary questions are al at sea when it comes to inquiring of the immigrants as to the condition of health of the members of the family remaining abroad, etc. Nor can they ask whether any accompany members of the family came second cabin, as so often they do when they are sick and ineligible.”

In 1914, the chief medical officer, Dr. L.L. Williams (no relation) wrote to his superior in Washington of the requirements desired in hiring new interpreters:

“The languages with which they should be familiar are named below in the order of their importance, viz.: Italian, Polish, Yiddish and German, Greek, Russian, Croatian and Slovenian, Lithuanian, Ruthenian and Hungarian.  Each of the five interpreters should be able to speak at least two of the languages named and it is very desirable that all of those named should be spoken by the fine interpreters collectively, if practicable.

“In addition to these languages, knowledge of Portuguese, Spanish, French, Turkish and Syrian, and Scandinavian languages would increase the usefulness of any of the candidates.”

Read more about Commissioner Williams, other officials and events at Ellis Island in my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.]

True Immigrant Tales: The Quality of the Food in Steerage

This is an undercover government inspector’s report to the U.S. Immigration Commission about the food served to steerage passengers on a ship that sailed from Europe to Baltimore in 1908.

place setting artBreakfast always consists of a cereal, coffee, white bread, and either butter or prune jam. In the afternoon coffee and dried bread were served. The two Sundays we were out, this was changed to chocolate and coffee cake, which were quite good and greatly appreciated.

[Dinners were either boiled beef, boiled fish, stewed liver, salt pork, sausage, or leftover meat with gravy, all with potatoes and white bread. Suppers were stews, hash, pickled herring, or sausage, all with potatoes and black bread.]

These menus sound well and the allowances for each person were generous, but the quality and the preparation of much of the food were inferior. It is no doubt a difficult matter to satisfy so many persons of such varied tastes, but the [German] passengers [on this German ship] were as loud in their complaints of this cooking as any of the others.

So simple a thing as coffee was not properlyprepared. I carefully watched the process by which it was made. The coffee grounds, sugar, and milk were put in a large galvanized tin can. Hot water, not always boiling, was poured over these ingredients. This was served as coffee.

The white bread, potatoes, and soup, when hot, were the only foods that were good, and these received the same favorable criticism from passengers of all nationalities. The meats were generally old, tough, and bad smelling. The same was true of the fish, excepting pickled herring. The vegetables were often a queer, unanalyzable mixture, and therefore avoided.

The butter was rarely edible. The stewed dried prunes and apples were merely the refuse that is left behind when all the edible fruit is graded out. The prune jam served at breakfast, judging by taste and looks, was made from the lowest possible grade of fruit. Breakfast cereals, a food foreign to most Europeans, were merely boiled and served in an abundance of water. The black bread was soggy and not at all like the good, wholesome, coarse black bread served [to cabin passengers].

Steerage diningDuring the twelve days only about six meals were fair and gave satisfaction. More than half of the food was always thrown into the sea. Hot water could be had in the galley and many of the passengers made tea and lived on this and bread. The last day out we were told on every hand to look pleasant, else we would not be admitted in Baltimore. To help bring about the happy appearance, the last meal on board consisted of boiled eggs, bread, and fried potatoes. Those who commented on this meal said it was “the best yet.” None of this food was thrown into the sea, but all was eagerly eaten. If this simple meal of ordinary food, well prepared, gave such general satisfaction, then it is really not so difficult, after all, to satisfy the tastes of the various nationalities. A few simple standard dishes of fair quality and properly prepared, even less generously served, would, I am positive, give satisfaction. The expense certainly would not be greater than that now caused by the waste of so much inferior food.

The interpreter, the chief steerage steward, and one other officer were always in attendance during the meals to prevent any crowding. When all had been served, these three walked among the passengers, asking, “Does the food taste good?” The almost invariable answer was, “It has to—we must eat something.”

There was a bar at which drinks, fruits, candies, and other such things were sold. This was well patronized. Those who had any money to spare soon spent it at the bar—the men for drinks, the women for fruit. Several of them told me they simply had to supplement the poor food, and in doing so, had spent all they dared for apples and oranges.

[Guardians of the Gate, a historical novel about Ellis Island in the 1890s, tells of the experiences of immigrants arriving in America and the immigration personnel who processed them.]

True Immigrant Tales: The Stench of Steerage

This is an account of an undercover U.S. government inspector sailing to the United States with central and eastern Europeans in steerage class from Gdansk, Poland, in 1908.

“The steerage was located in the bow of the vessel. The first entirely enclosed deck extending the entire length and width of the steamer was termed the main deck. On this there were three large compartments. The foremost of these was assigned to the use of families or women with children. The next, not being required for sleeping quarters on this trip, had its beds piled in one corner and was supplied with long wooden tables, having benches attached on either side. This was the dining room, also the general lounging place in stormy weather. The third room was the sleeping quarters of women traveling alone.

between decks“On the deck below were three similar compartments. The men slept in the middle one of these. The other two were not used on this trip. The beds were the usual iron frames used in the steerage, built in two tiers and of the required dimensions. Each was supplied with a mattress and pillow of sea-grass and covered with a colored slip, a pair of gray blankets and a life-preserver acting as a second pillow. These beds received no attention from the stewards through the entire voyage. Besides being a sleeping place, each bed also served as a repository for all hand baggage, additional clothing and food, and as a rack for towels.

“Whatever belongings the steerage passenger had with him must be tucked away in his bed. Each berth, littered as it necessarily was by every possession that the passenger could not wear or carry continually on his person, was nevertheless his one and one place of refuge or withdrawal.

“Here, amid bags and baskets, outer wraps and better garments saved for disembarking, towels, and private drinking cups and teapots, each of us undressed for the night and combed and dressed in the morning. Nor could there be proper or even decent preparation for retiring owing both to lack of privacy and to the lack of space for the disposal of clothes. These must remain in the berth, and so it made little difference whether they were about or merely over the person

“If the pipes running overhead sprung leaks, as they did on several occasions, garments were safer under the blankets than on top of them. As for privacy, that is left entirely out of consideration in the steerage, where people are housed together in such large numbers and must spend every hour of the twenty-four, and this for many days, in the presence of so many others.

Steerage washstand“This entire lack of privacy accounts for more than one of the filthy or indecent habits of the immigrants on board. People, both men and women, who were ordinarily cleanly about their person, complained that it was totally impossible to keep clean with the given accommodations. A self-respecting person couldn’t wash properly in a room that was being used at the same time by several others, and there was no avoiding becoming dirty. . . .

“The floors in all the steerage quarters except on the main or open deck, were made of large sheets of iron.  In the sleeping compartments, though the floors, even under the berths, must be kept free of baggage, they were never washed. They were swept in the morning in preparation for daily inspection by the captain and his officers. And whenever the waste accumulated, it was again swept. But this sweeping by no means kept the floor clean. No sick cans or receptacles for waste of any kind were provided. The sea was rough much of the time and there were many sick. This alone kept the floor wet and in an awful condition, and since it was never washed, the smell from it was dreadful. The cleaning and littering of the floor went on in regular rounds. . . .

“The sleeping quarters were always a dismal, damp, dirty, and most unwholesome place. The air was heavy, foul, and deadening to the spirit and the mind. Those confined to these beds by reason of sickness soon lost all energy, spirit, and ambition. A division of the steerage into two classes was soon apparent. Those who were good sailors and could be up and out kept away from the sleeping rooms until very late and left them often as early as 5 a.m. Those whom seasickness rendered weak and helpless in their beds were so stupefied and enervated by the heavy, foul atmosphere that they continued to lie in their bunks as though in a stupor. Such surroundings could not provide a frame of mind with which it is desirable that newcomers approach our land and receive their first impressions of it.

[Read about immigrants and Ellis Island in my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.]

True Immigrant Tales: After Ellis Island

The travail for immigrants wasn’t limited to the journey and Ellis Island processing. They could still be exploited and/or treated harshly before reaching their final destination as this 1910 report to the Presidential Commission on Immigration reveals.

“At Ellis Island, the inspection by the doctors and the officers of the Immigration Service was quickly completed.   The work here has been reduced to a smooth system and the officers are all kind, considerate, and humane until one has passed the boundary of their immediate jurisdiction.

Ellis Island railroad ticket office

Ellis Island railroad ticket office in lower level

“After getting my railroad ticket, I was approached by an agent of the telegraph company. The ordinary immigrant would not have distinguished him from the immigration officials.  ‘Show your address,’ he commanded.   ‘What’s your name?’ and before I knew what it was all about, ‘Thirty cents for the telegram.’ And so he caught them, except those who had been there before and refused to be caught again.  Later, I learned the usefulness of these telegrams.  It said, ‘Meet me at Union Station,’ but mentioned no trains.  My friends spent a night at the station and then didn’t meet me.  The other telegrams are about as effective.

“Further on in the room, where the immigrants are sorted according to the railroad by which they are to continue their journey, they are considered prey.  A rough guard pushed me to the pen into which I belonged. A commissary  clerk  met  me, led  me to a spot  where  my baggage  could  be deposited, then  to  a counter, saying  ‘Show your money.’  I was  about  to  obey, as  a  steerage   passenger  obeys  these commands  given  at so many points  of his  journey,  when I concluded that this was the attempt to compel one to buy a box of provisions for his further journey. Many of the passengers had told me of it and warned me.

“I refused to show my money, saying I was going only to Baltimore and did not need provisions for so short a journey.  The man continued shouting, thinking thus to force me into buying, until he spied someone else entering.  Then he dropped me and ran for the new victim.

“Immigrants who had been here before, and refused to be forced to buy, received volleys of oaths and curses.  The immigrants are practically forced to buy these boxes, regardless of the length of their journey or their desires. One man bought a [five-cent] cigar and handed over a dollar.  Three  quarters were laid  down  in change, and  when he demanded  the rest, the clerk insisted  on his taking something more  instead  of  the  20 cents,  and hadn’t the immigrant been experienced in  the  ways  of  the  world  he  would  have  had  to  yield.

Immigrants taking train

Immigrants waiting for their train to their final destination.

“Finally, we were taken from here to our respective stations.  We who were going on the [name deleted] Line crossed in a ferry to a dingy, dirty, unventilated waiting room next to the station in Jersey City. There we waited from 6 o’clock in the evening until after 9.    About 8 o’clock the attendant signaled us to go downstairs, showing our tickets as we went. We all expected we were to board the train, so anxiously hurried along, dragging our heavy and numerous hand baggage. The poor, travel-tired women and the sleepy little children were pitiful sights. Arrived at the bottom of the long stairs, we waited and waited, but there was no train.

“Finally, the same attendant summoned us to return upstairs.  Weary, tired, and disappointed, we climbed up again. Finally we were led to our train in the big station.    We were again sorted according to our destination and our train proceeded to Philadelphia.   There we halted somewhere in the yards. Our entire coachful was to change cars.  We piled out in the middle of the night, all laden down with baggage, the women having, in addition, sleeping and sleepy little children.

“A trainman guided this weary and dejected party along the car tracks through the sleet and snow over an endless distance, it seemed, to the station.  There pity seized him, or else he was tired from helping carry the baggage of one poor woman who had five small children with her, and he allowed her to remain in the waiting room.  The rest of us, with our baggage, trudged farther on to what evidently was a lounging room for section hands.

“We were locked in there for an hour and a half, when we were again led to the station to be put on a train.  They assigned us to the smoker—women, children, and all—and refused even to open the women’s toilet for us, compelling us to use the men’s.

For my immigrant’s ticket from New York to Baltimore, I paid $4.67.  The regular price is $5.  For this reduction of 33 cents, I was first place in the charge of two rough, coarse, insolent attendants and compelled to wait over three hours in a dirty, foul-smelling room. Then I was nine hours making a distance usually covered in six and compelled to sit in a smoker and use a men’s toilet.  What those immigrants who had to travel longer distances suffered can be well imagined from the experiences of this short journey.’

Read about immigrants, their experiences, and the people they encountered at Ellis Island in the historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.

True Immigrant Tales: Sexual Abuse in Steerage

[This is further testimony about sexual harassment and abuse in steerage class, taken from testimony given by a female government inspector, disguised as an immigrant aboard ship, reporting in 1909 to the Dillingham Immigration Commission.]

“There was an outside main deck and an upper-deck on which the steerage were allowed.   These were each about 40 feet wide by 50 feet long, but probably half of this space was occupied by machinery, ventilators, and other apparatus.  There was no canvas to keep out the rain, sun, and continual showers of cinders from the smokestack. These  fell  so thick  and  fast  that  two  young  sailor  boys were kept busy  sweeping  them  off the  decks.

1905-ImmigrantsOnDeck“It is impossible to remain in one’s berth  all  the  time, and  as  there  were no smoking  and  sitting rooms , we spent  most of  the  day  on  these decks.  No benches or chairs were provided, so we sat wherever we could find a place on the machinery, exposed to the sun, fog, rain, and cinders.   These not only filled our hair, but also flew into our eyes, often causing considerable pain.

“These same two outdoor decks were used also by the crew during their leisure. When asked what right they had there, they answered: ‘As much as the passengers’   No notices hung anywhere about to refute this.   The manner in which the sailors, stewards, firemen, and others mingled with the women passengers was thoroughly revolting.  Their language and the topics of their conversation were vile.   Their comments about the women, and made in their presence, were coarse. What was far worse and of continual occurrence was their handling the women and girls.    Some of the crew were always on deck, and took all manner of liberties with the women, in broad daylight as well as after dark.

1911 on deck“Not one young woman in the steerage escaped attack.  The writer herself was no exception.   A hard,  unexpected blow in the offender’ face in the presence of a large crowd of men, an evident acquaintance with the stewardess, doctor, and other officers, general experience, and manner  were all required to ward  off further attacks.    Some few of the  women, perhaps,  did  not  find  these attentions so disagreeable; some resisted them for a time, then  weakened; some fought  with all their   physical  strength, which  naturally  was  powerless  against   a man’s.   Others were continually fleeing to escape.   Two more refined and very determined Polish girls fought  the men with pins and teeth but  even they  weakened  under  this  continued  and  needed some moral support about the ninth  day.   The atmosphere was one of general lawlessness and total ‘disrespect for women.  It naturally demoralized the women themselves after a time.   There was no one to whom they might appeal.    Besides, most of them  did  not  know the  official language   on  the  steamer,  nor  were  they  experienced enough to know they were entitled  to protection.

“The interpreter, who could and should be a friend of the immigrants, passed through the steerage but twice a day.    He positively discouraged every approach.  I purposely  tried  on several occasions to  get  advice  and  information from  him,  but  always  failed.    His usual answer was, ‘How in the d—do I know?’ The chief steerage­ steward by his own familiarity with the women made himself impossible as their protector.   Once when a man passenger was annoying two Lithuanian girls, I undertook to rescue them. The man poured forth a volley of oaths at me in English.  Just then the chief steward appeared, and to test him, I made complaint. The offender denied  having sworn  at  all,  but I insisted  that  he  had, and  that I understood.  The steward then administered this reproof, ‘You let them girls alone or I fix you —— easy.’

“The main deck was hosed every night at 10, when we were driven in.    The upper deck was washed only about four times during the voyage.   At 8 each evening we were driven   below.   This was to protect the women, one of the crew informed me.   What protection they gained on the equally dark and unsupervised deck below isn’t at all clear.   What  worse things  could  have  befallen  them  there  than those to which they  were already  exposed at  the hands  of  both  the crew  and  the  men  passengers  would  have  been  criminal offenses. Neither  of these decks was lighted, because, as one sailor  explained, maritime  usage  does not sanction  lights  either  in  the  bow or  stern of a vessel, the two parts  always used by the steerage.    The descriptions that  I might  give of the mingling  of  the crew and  passengers on  these outdoor  decks would  be endless, and  all  necessarily  much the same.   A series of snapshots would give a more accurate and impressive account of this evil than can words.  I would here suggest that any agent making a similar investigation be supplied with a Kodak for this purpose.”

[Read more about immigrants and Ellis Island in my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.]


True Immigrant Tales: American Men Did Not Wear Beards

[In 1907 at age 10, Edward Corsi arrived with his family at Ellis Island. Twenty-four years later in 1931, President Herbert Hoover would appoint him as Commission of Immigration at the Port of New York. Three years after that, after leaving the Immigration and Naturalization Service, he wrote him memoirs. This is an excerpt from his book, In the Shadow of Liberty: The Chronicle of Ellis Island.]

My first impression of the new world will always remain etched in my memory, particularly that hazy October morning when I first saw Ellis Island. The steamer Florida, fourteen days out of Naples, filled to capacity with sixteen hundred natives of Italy, had weathered one of the worst storms in our captain’s memory; and glad we were, both children and grown-ups, to leave the open sea and come at last through the Narrows into the Bay.

Steamship Florida

Steamship Florida

. . . Passengers all about us were crowded against the rail. Jabbered conversations, sharp cries, laugh and cheers—a steadily rising din filled the air. Mothers and fathers lifted up the babies so that they too could see, off to the left, the Statue of Liberty.

. . . I felt resentment toward this Ellis Island ahead of us, where we could already see many people crowded into a small enclosure. It could not be a good place. It would have been better if we had stayed in our comfortable home in the Abruzzi, back in Italy. To come made my mother cry. I looked around the deck and saw that many women were crying. Our little vessel coasted into the slip at Ellis Island. The passengers began to move. We moved with them and as we stepped from the gangplank to the land, all silent and subdued, I knew that my parents were thinking what as I was, “What is next?”

. . . Ellis Island in 1907 represented a cross-section of all the races of the world. Five thousand persons disembarked on that October day when my mother, my stepfather, and we four children landed there from the General Putnam.

General Putnam (foreground) and Satellite

General Putnam (foreground) and Satellite

We took our places in the long line and went submissively through the routine of answering interpreters’ questions and receiving medical examinations. We were in line early and told that our case would be considered in a few hours, so we avoided the necessity of staying overnight, an ordeal which my mother had long been dreading. Soon we were permitted to pass. . . .

My stepfather’s brother was waiting for us. It was from him that the alluring accounts of opportunities in the United States had come to our family in Italy. And we looked to him for guidance.

Crossing the harbor on the ferry, I was first struck by the fact that American men did not wear beards. In contrast with my own fellow countrymen, I thought they looked almost like women. I felt that we were superior to them. Also on this boat I saw my first Negro. But these wonders melted into insignificance when we arrived at the Battery and our first elevated trains appeared on the scene. There could be nothing in America superior to these!

[Before Edward Corsi became Commissioner, many dramatic events occurred at Ellis Island in the 1890s.  Read about them in my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.]