How Poetry Saved a Building: The Re-Opening of Angel Island Immigration Station

Posted on: February 17th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation
A packed tent at the re-opening ceremony.

A packed tent at the re-opening ceremony.

It was an inspiring moment. Despite pouring Pacific rains and high wind warnings, I joined an enthusiastic group of more than 500 on the ferry at San Francisco’s Pier 41 on Sunday morning to witness history. We were headed for the grand re-opening of the Angel Island Immigration Station, this time, thankfully, not as a detention facility, but a newly restored interpretive site.

Often described as the “Ellis Island of the West,” more than 350,000 immigrants were processed, and sometimes detained at Angel Island before they were allowed entry to San Francisco and could call America home. The arrivals not only braved an uncertain future, far from the world they knew, but entered a hostile world where racism was written expressly into law. Starting in 1882 the Chinese, who made up the majority of the immigrants processed at Angel Island, were subject to the Chinese Exclusion Act, a race-based law that persevered for an astonishing 61 years. The Immigration Act of 1924 made that law even more severe and established strict quotas on immigration with a particular focus on Asian countries.

The newly restored detention barracks.

The newly restored detention barracks.

The centerpiece of Sunday’s ceremony was the completed restoration of the building that served as detention barracks for immigrants from 80 countries. In 1970 the building was in serious disrepair and slated for demolition. It was then that Alexander Weiss, a ranger with the National Park Service, made an astonishing discovery. Inventorying the building by flashlight, Weiss stumbled upon Chinese characters carved into the wooden walls where the detainees were housed. Experts soon revealed that the characters formed poems, many fully intact. These written memories have helped us understand the emotional experiences of newcomers to the West in the early 20th Century. On Sunday I heard the children of detainees, most of whom have now passed away, express gratitude for the restoration. The stories of crossing the ocean, they explained, were often too emotionally difficult for their parents to tell.

The translation for this carved poem is at left.

Translation at left, in italics.

“Detained in this wooden house
for several tens of days,
it is all because of the Mexican exclusion law, which implicates me.
It’s a pity heroes have no way
of exercising their prowess.
I can only await the word so I can snap Zu’s whip.

From now on,
I am departing far from this building.
All of my fellow villagers are rejoicing with me.
Don’t say that everything within
is Western styled.
Even if it is built of jade, it has
turned into a cage."

The poems became a catalyst for the preservation community. The National Trust for Historic Preservation was an early supporter of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) and listed the site in 1999 as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Through time AIISF was able to raise more than $19 million for the restoration of the detention facility. Some of these funds were obtained through the Save America’s Treasures program, a partnership between the White House Millennium Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Additional grants were awarded from American Express through the Partners in Preservation Program after Angel Island was voted one of the Bay Area’s most significant historic sites.

Learning the lessons of the past.

Learning the lessons of the past.

The dedication of the new barracks marks the completion of phase one of a five-phase project to restore the former station. Eventually visitors will be able to arrive directly by boat to a new wharf in the station’s cove, tour the hospital where new arrivals were treated, and be greeted at a new visitor center.

Cynthia Garrett, the Superintendent of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty National Monument officially announced on Sunday that Angel Island will be a “sister park” with Ellis Island. But the facilities at Angel Island reveal that trans-Pacific immigrants faced a much less welcoming reception to the new world than their trans-Atlantic counterparts.

The Immigration Station at Angel Island was a processing center between 1910 and 1940 for the relative few who were able to gain entry to the country. Some estimate that up to 30% of Chinese immigrants who arrived were shipped back across the Pacific. The detainees who were permitted to stay did not have a welcome reception. They were fed on literally pennies a day and given no mattresses because of the assumption that they were used to harsh conditions. The facility was surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards kept watch.

Looking over the water from Angel Island.

Looking over the water from Angel Island.

Though Garrett reminded the crowd that these experiences occurred to some degree for at Ellis Island, a greater proportion of the immigrants who arrived in San Francisco had Asian backgrounds, and were discriminated against by law. There was no Statue of Liberty to greet them, and, as Gao Zhangshen, Consul General of the People’s Republic of China said on Sunday, “there were no angels on this island then.”

And so the solemnity the weather brought to Sunday’s event somehow seemed appropriate. On the bumpy boat ride back to San Francisco, yearning for a hot bath and the comfort of home, I truly felt witness to an important turning point in our history. After all, as one speaker pointed out, “if we’re not honest about our history, we won’t learn from it.”

-- Brian Turner

Brian Turner is the law fellow at the Western Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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