From Angel Island: Asian-American History, Poetry and Calligraphy

From Angel Island: Asian-American History, Poetry and Calligraphy

From Angel Island: Asian-American History, Poetry and Calligraphy

By Aïda Yuen Wong, Professor of Art History at Brandeis University; Founder and Head of Design of Callimode, an Asian American contemporary jewelry brand specializing in luxury designs to express antiracism in Asian calligraphy. Ethical & Sustainable Jewelry with Recycled Gold and Non-Conflict Diamonds.

November 19, 2022

Haunting History of Angel Island

Between 1910 and 1940, Angel Island immigration station on the San Francisco Bay was a major entry point for immigrants to the United States, and was where anti-Asian immigration policies were enforced. Under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, American Immigration officials were required to screen every Chinese passenger arriving in San Francisco via ship before they were allowed to land. Because the process typically took longer than one day, passengers were originally held aboard steamships docked at the harbor for that purpose. In 1892, a building next to the harbor was converted to the "detention hut", which frequently became crowded and unsanitary. After many delays in construction, an Immigration Station was completed in haste, opening January 21, 1910, at the northeastern tip of Angel Island. Historically the homeland of Miwok Indians, the 740-acre island had been the site of a large Mexican cattle ranch and an American military base. 

Widely known as Ellis Island to the west, Angel Island immigration station was different from Ellis Island in one major way: most immigrants processed at Angel Island came from Asian countries, particularly China, Japan, Russia, and South Asia (in this order). Upon arrival in San Francisco, a ship's passengers were separated based on their nationality. Europeans and first-class passengers would be processed aboard the ship with papers, then allowed off. Asian immigrants and certain other groups, including Mexicans and Russians, as well as those deemed medically necessary for quarantine, were sent to Angel Island. Dubbed Guardians of the West Gate by Immigration Station employees, the facility was built to assist with preventing Chinese, and ultimately other Asian, immigrants from leaving the country. 

Located directly across the bay from Alcatraz, the immigration station was originally built to handle the expected influx of European immigrants entering the United States via the recently opened Panama Canal. This station opened on Jan. 21, 1910, just in time for World War I and the closure of the nation's open doors in order to stem the tide of these European immigrants. However,  the immigration station quickly turned into a place for processing mostly cases from Chinese workers and immigrants, who, thirty years earlier, had been the first group of individuals to be explicitly barred from entry into the U.S. by the Federal immigration policy--Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

The Chinese Exclusion Act and its associated laws allowed only certain elite professions, along with children of American citizens, into the country. Many Chinese nationals made repeated attempts to immigrate through an exemption category under the Chinese Exclusion Act, the work of the immigration officials at the station was to identify those with valid documentation for exemptions before they were allowed into the U.S. The officials made decisions on who got to land and who had to be deported. Immigrants denied entry upon arrival--either because they failed to pass health tests, or, as is frequently the case, because of their race or ethnicity--were held for weeks, months, and sometimes years.

From 1910-40, it is estimated that 500,000 immigrants from 80 countries--including Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Mexico, Canada, and Central and South America--were processed via Angel Island. The vast majority came from China or other Asian countries, including Japan, Hawaii, Pacific islands, Korea, and Vietnam. The Angel Island facility served as the detention center for most of about 175,000 Chinese immigrants who came to the United States during the three decades, most of them seeking an escape from economic and political hardships back home. In 1940, the U.S. decided to relocate the Immigration Service to the mainland, whose decision was precipitated by the August fire that destroyed the Administration Building.

By the time of the administration building's destruction, immigration had slowed down in the U.S., the government was finding the upkeep of Angel Island facilities extremely costly, and eventually, when the United States entered World War II, China became allied with the United States, and immigration policies toward Chinese changed in response. On November 5, 1940, the final group of approximately 200 immigrants, including approximately 150 Chinese, were transferred from Angel Island to temporary housing in San Francisco. 

During World War II, the United States Army used the Angel Island immigration station as a processing center for German and Japanese POWs before being sent on to the permanent camps on the home front. It also served as a detention facility for hundreds of Japanese immigrants from Hawaii and mainland U.S. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the immigration laws that followed were repealed with passage of the Magnuson Act in 1943. Angel Island Immigration Station, declared a national historic landmark in 1997, was subsequently renovated and opened to the public as a California State Park. A history of Angel Island is told in a book by Erica Lee and Judy Yung (Oxford University Press, 2012). 

Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America by Erica Lee and Judy Yung. Illustrated in ZZZI Jewelry's blogpost.

What was Life Like at Angel Island?

Due to the growing power of the eugenics movement in the 19th century--which feared "contamination" of the white race with other races or nationalities--Chinese immigrants were seen as a far greater threat than Irish or German immigrants. Newcomers to Angel Island were subjected to interrogations that frequently resulted in detention. Interviewers would vet prospective immigrants with detailed questions, including biographical information about their families and the homes in which their relatives lived. Admittedly, there were "paper sons" and "paper daughters" who went out of their way to memorize fake identities in order to gain entry. Historian Erica Lee found that the longest period of detention was 756 days. By comparison, immigrants who passed through Ellis Island were processed in hours or days, and only had to go through a few medical hoops. The Chinese held at Angel Island were indignant about their prolonged incarceration, especially since they knew immigrants from other countries were processed and released in short order. 

The Angel Island Immigration Station served as both an immigration and deportation facility, where approximately 175,000 Chinese immigrants and approximately 60,000 Japanese immigrants were held in deplorable conditions. Once there, men and women were separated and placed in different barracks. The prison-like dormitories were routinely overcrowded and unsanitary. Food was nearly inedible. While in custody, Chinese immigrants were subjected to humiliating physical examinations. These detentions were designed to deter entries. Fourteen years after the station opened, conditions were no better, for the Chinese Benevolent Association complained bitterly to President Calvin Coolidge and Labor Secretary J.J. Davis in 1924 of unhealthy conditions at Angel Island, which would lead several inmates to become sick and die. 

First Asian-American Poetry and Calligraphy and its Inspiration for Contemporary Art

Abandoned after World War II, the barracks were allowed to decay until the 1970s, when the discovery of over 200 Chinese poems inscribed (with brush and ink or chiseled with a knife) on the barracks' walls by immigrants from the past inspired efforts to save Angel Island and to memorialize the role Angel Island played in Pacific migration history. These poems were one of the ways Chinese inmates protested their discriminatory treatment at the isolated island, The poems express a spectrum of thoughts and feelings--longing, sadness, and private recognition--about facing the difficulties of migrating so far from home, and about the complex conditions that determined whether an author would be interned, admitted, or deported. Some of these carved characters exhibit skillful calligraphy informed by classical standard scripts and recall the carved steles of dynastic China. 

Calligraphy and Poetry from Angel Island.

The poems, remarkable for being steeped in classical allegory and historical references, pour out the aspirations of those held on Angel Island, along with their anger and sorrow over the injustices of their initial reception in the United States.  What the potential immigrants were unable to tell their interrogators were inscribed into the walls as classic Chinese poems -- complete with parallel couplets, alternate rhymes, and tonal variations. As the first body of literature from Chinese-Americans and Chinese in America, the collection not only bears the surreptitious memories of the first Chinese immigrants, it also vividly depicts a critical time in the nations migration history, during which a variety of severe discriminatory laws restricted entry for Chinese and other Asian immigrants. The poems continued throughout the stations thirty-year lifespan, leading to as many as eight re-paintings of the walls. 

Scholars and Berklee graduates Judy Jung and Mark Lim collected and translated poems, which they published in their 1991 book, The Island: Poems and History of Chinese Immigration to Angel Island, 1910-1940, with Ginny Lim.

Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940

Although many of the original buildings were destroyed by fire in the 1940s, they were replaced by educational memorials detailing, among other things, the experiences of Chinese immigrants. Restoration efforts included rebuilding of buildings and poems carved in walls. As a result, Alexander Weiss, California Park Ranger, and Paul Chou (as representative of Asian-Americans in the Bay Area) helped to create the Angel Island Immigration Station Historic Advisory Council (AIISHAC) for preservation of Angel Island immigration station. 

San Francisco-based choreographer Lenora Lee, whose eponymous company has presented dances in the past decade that highlight such injustices as the Chinese Exclusion Act. Three of Lenora Lee's four grandparents were detained at Angel Island. Lenora Lee Dance (LLD)'s "Within These Walls" (2017) (part of the communities-wide commemoration of the 135th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act) as well as its follow-up, "Dreams of Flight" (2019) are both site-responsive, immersive, multi-media dance works, with performances on Angel Island pier. Dancers mimic the act of carving the Angel Island poems, re-enact the interrogations and the moments when the detainees' fate was announced by the immigration officers, and so forth. The dancers draw from different traditions including hip hop. The powerful dance narratives move many viewers to tears. 

The San Francisco-based chamber ensemble, Del Sol String Quartet, performed "Angel Island -- An Oratorio for Voices and Strings" at Angel Islands Detention Barracks in October 2021. An audience of a few hundred people were seated on chairs in the space where immigrants were once held crammed into bunks, stacked three beds high. "A Year on Angel Island," held at UC Berkeley in 2022, is a campus-wide project that sponsors a number of performances, exhibits, and community conversations across the campus, using the Angel Islands Immigration Station as an entry point for discussions on race, global migration, and incarceration architecture. 

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