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San Francisco man once detained by Chinese Exclusion Act dies at 102

A composite image shows photos of James Chow in his youth and in his later years. | Source: Courtesy Chris Chow

One of the last former detainees—and perhaps the oldest—at the Angel Island Immigration Station, where many Chinese immigrants were held and interrogated under the Chinese Exclusion Act, has died in San Francisco at the age of 102.

James Chow was born on May 12, 1921, in a long-vanished Chinatown near what is now Downtown San Jose. When he was 6 months old, his parents took him back to China to give him a “Chinese upbringing in a safer, more supportive environment,” according to Chow’s son, Chris.

In 1934, when Chow was a teenager, he returned to the U.S., only to be detained and interrogated at the Angel Island Immigration Station. At that time, under the federal Chinese Exclusion Act, which was enacted in 1882 and repealed in 1943, many Chinese were banned from immigrating to the U.S. 

In order to reenter the United States, Chow had to prove he was a native-born U.S. citizen, a more involved process than simply displaying a valid passport at an airport.

James Chow's headshots from his Angel Island Immigration Station files are pictured. | Source: Courtesy Chris Chow

Chow was detained on the island, which lies north of the much-smaller Alcatraz Island and close to Marin County, for approximately one month. During that time, as Chris Chow recounted, immigration authorities interviewed James Chow, his father and a character witness. They ruled that Chow was honest, as he “seemed to testify frankly,” allowing him to enter the country.

How Many Survivors Are Left?

Angel Island Immigration Station, which is often referred to as the “Ellis Island of the West”—the comparison is wobbly, as Ellis Island operated at a vaster scale and welcomed far more immigrants than it deported—opened in 1910 and closed in 1940. During that 30-year period, about 300,000 people were detained, many of them immigrants from China. 

The island is now a nationally recognized historic landmark, managed by the state. Ed Tepporn, the executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, which works to preserve the island’s history, estimates that very few detainees survive today.

“Although we have not done a formal count of the number of surviving former detainees, I would roughly estimate that there may be less than 50,” he told The Standard.

Chow thrived after returning to his home country. He served in World War II, owned and operated four small businesses in the Bay Area and was active on the boards of the Gee Tuck Sam Tuck Benevolent Association and Chung Wah Chinese Central High School in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He retired at the age of 90.

To mark his centennial in 2021, San Francisco Mayor London Breed issued a proclamation designating his birthday as “James Chow Day” in the city.

“James’ life experience and his motto have taught us what it means to be compassionate, humble and resilient,” Breed said at the time.

Chow died on Aug. 30 at St. Mary’s Medical Center, where he had been receiving care.

“My dad left a thriving family in place and a legacy of substance and service to the community,” Chris said. “He had reached the fine old age of 102 and knew that his family and friends loved him.”

Han Li can be reached at