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On Angel Island, the walls still talk

As the island's immigration station reopens after a renovation, stately poems inscribed on the walls reflect the desperation of Chinese detainees. Other nationalities left their marks, too.

February 13, 2009|Maria L. La Ganga

ANGEL ISLAND STATE PARK — At Angel Island Immigration Station, the walls really can talk. Until now, though, they haven't told the whole story of this notorious West Coast entry point in the heart of San Francisco Bay.

Their first words were in Chinese, stately poems of longing and revenge carved into the wooden barracks by desperate detainees between 1910 and 1940 and discovered by accident more than a generation later.

"Sadness," wrote one anonymous poet, "kills the person in the wooden building."

"Thinking of affairs back home," wrote another. "Unconscious tears wet my lapel."

Angel Island was patterned after Ellis Island in New York Harbor, but law and geopolitics conspired to make it a vastly different experience -- particularly for Chinese immigrants, who arrived in greater numbers, were detained longer and were deported more often than Europeans.

After the rickety complex was shuttered, it was turned over to the state park service and slated for demolition in the 1970s.

But a sharp-eyed ranger spotted the ghostly verses.

Demolition canceled. Poems published. Image solidified.

The 740-acre island became the symbol of a shameful chapter in Chinese American history, when laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred some immigrants on the basis of race for the first time.

"Ellis Island was a processing station of entry," said historian Judy Yung, whose father was detained on Angel Island for two months. "Angel Island was a half-open door at best."

But as Angel Island Immigration Station reopens Sunday after a $16-million refurbishment, the walls have begun to tell a more complex tale, revealed by a new generation of scholarship and the discovery of more inscriptions.

Poems, yes, including about 80 newly discovered Chinese verses. But there are also writings from many other nationalities. Desperate demands in Japanese: "Get me out of here fast!" Impatient orders in German: "Close the doors. There's a draft." A simple tally in Gurmukhi, a script used by Sikhs: "100 days. Tara Singh." Carved birds and a shrine to good fortune, with a butterfly and a basket.

If such recasting softens the edges of Angel Island's grim story, said park Supt. Dave Matthews, so be it.

"The story was darker when it came to the Chinese," Matthews acknowledged. But "many Americans got their start on the West Coast. This is where that happened for them. . . . We want to broaden the identity of the station to its true identity as a place where hundreds of thousands of Americans got their start."

Imprisoned in the wooden building day after day,

My freedom withheld; how can I bear to talk about it?

Before there was poetry, there was silence.

That's how Li Keng Wong remembers it. The 82-year-old retired teacher was 7 when she traveled from the rural village of Goon Do Hung in southern China with her mother, father and two sisters.

In the months before the arduous journey, the family frantically studied their "coaching papers" to remember details of the subterfuge that would allow them to settle in America.

Wong's mother must be called "yee," or aunt. Her mother, she would tell the interrogators, had died earlier that year, 1933. They would ask her where her mother was buried and where her father slept. If she slipped up, the family would be deported.

"We lied to get in," Wong said. "Chinese men were not allowed to bring their wives in because of the Chinese Exclusion Act -- only diplomats, merchants and students."

Wong remembers the five-day stay on Angel Island as dark and terrifying: the windows covered in chicken wire; the doors always locked behind them; the guards terse and distant; the possibility of slipping up, deportation and shame ever present.

"I didn't talk about it for 50 years," she said. "I refused. My husband, my children, my four younger siblings knew nothing. My friends knew nothing. It was traumatic."

After retiring in 1985, Wong took a writing class and slowly began to explore her life's big secret. Eventually, the diminutive grandmother wrote a memoir for children, "Good Fortune: My Journey to Gold Mountain."

She has made a virtual second career out of keeping history's lessons alive. She speaks to community groups and schoolchildren about Angel Island and has been featured in a documentary. But she is uncertain about recasting the Angel Island story. After all, she notes, "the law only picked on the Chinese people."

Wong is, however, sure of one thing: "Angel Island is a place that should be saved, should be restored, so that future generations will understand how certain groups of immigrants were treated."

Over a hundred poems are on the walls.

Looking at them, they are all pining at the delayed progress.

What can one sad person say to another?

History is as much about the teller as the tale, and Angel Island is no exception.

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