The Talking Walls of Angel Island




In the last month of summer, I arrived in America on ship.
After crossing the ocean, the ship docked and I waited to go on shore.
Because of the records, the innocent was imprisoned in a wooden building […]
Sitting here, uselessly delayed for long years and months,
I am like a pigeon in a cage.

— Poem on a wall of Angel Island Immigration Station

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ANGEL ISLAND IS a state park in the San Francisco Bay popular for hiking and bicycling. Like nearby Alcatraz Island, it’s only accessible by ferry. And, like Alcatraz, there was once a prison on the island, although that wasn’t its official designation. Officially, Angel Island was there to process people coming into the United States. Unofficially, it was there to keep the Chinese out.

From 1910 to 1940, the Angel Island Immigration Station processed 175,000 Chinese immigrants. It was called the “Ellis Island of the West,” but its aims were different. When Ellis Island was operating, only two percent of applicants were turned away. Angel Island was created as part of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and as such, 18 percent of applications were rejected and five percent were deported outright. All were detained on the island for weeks, months, and even years. The longest detention was 756 days.

This spring, when the Trump administration began separating families on the US-Mexico border, Angel Island popped into my mind. The apparent racial bias underlying this policy made me think of this older, racially motivated detainment of immigrants. As in the current crisis, the Chinese immigrants had no control over their situation. Separated by gender and race, they slept in bunkers on thin canvas mats. They were imprisoned for no other reason than they wanted to come to the United States.

While at Angel Island, the Chinese wrote poems on the walls of the detainment center about their situation. I’d been hearing about them for years. There are 200 poems, each a unique documentation of life at the center. In August, I took my six-year-old son on the ferry to see the poems myself.

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The sea-scape resembles lichen twisting and turning for a thousand li.
There is no shore to land and it is difficult to walk.
With a gentle breeze I arrived at the city thinking all would be so.
At ease, how was one to know he was to live in a wooden building?

Angel Island is a pretty place with views of the bay and eucalyptus groves covering the steep hills at its center. On a hot day, we hiked up to the ruins of the Immigration Station, a white-and-yellow two-story rectangle perched against a hill. A tunnel-like hallway stretches over the stairway up to the building, which is now a museum. Inside, the detainment center is impersonal and bureaucratic. The rooms are long, with exposed poles and pipework. Windows look out onto sailboats drifting through the bay.

We saw the poems as soon as we entered the room, written in Chinese characters on the wall. Luckily, English translations are nearby. I read a vivid account of being in this room at night:

In the quiet of night, I heard, faintly, the whistling of wind.
[…] The floating clouds, the fog, darken the sky.
The moon shines faintly as the insects chirp.
Grief and bitterness entwined are heaven sent.
The sad person sits alone, leaning by a window.

The poems are written in classical Chinese style, usually with five or seven characters per line, and four or eight lines per poem. They imitate well-known classical poems and contain literary references from Chinese legend. Undated and unsigned, they’re likely written by men — the women’s dormitory was destroyed in a fire. They were composed in pencil or ink, although a smaller number were carved into the walls. The lines borrow from each other, and often repeat the same phrases. Some poems had multiple authors.

While many of the poems are still visible, others are known only because two detainees copied them down in the 1930s. A 2003 study came up with more.

Still, there may be hundreds of poems buried beneath the layers of paint, as the guards repeatedly covered what they thought was graffiti. Again and again, the detainees reclaimed the space, carving the poems deeper into the walls.

What struck me was how vividly the poems expressed the detainees’ emotions. Many describe sadness and anxiety:

Imprisoned in the wooden building day after day,
My freedom withheld; how can I bear to talk about it?
I look to see who is happy but they only sit quietly.
I am anxious and depressed and cannot fall asleep.
[…] Nights are long and the pillow cold; who can pity my loneliness?

Still others express outrage:

How was I to know that the western barbarians had lost their hearts, and reason?
With a hundred kinds of oppressive laws, they mistreat us Chinese.
It is still not enough after being interrogated and investigated several times;
We also have to have our chests examined while naked.

When a boat arrived in San Francisco, the immigrants were divided into class and race. Europeans and people with first- and second-class tickets were often processed on the ferry. The Chinese and a smaller number of other immigrants were ferried to Angel Island, less than a mile away.

Once there, men and women were separated and housed in different barracks. Families were also separated, although children under 12 stayed with their mothers. At any given time, there were 200–300 men and 30–50 women on the island. Children traveling alone were grouped with their gender. The book Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island includes an interview with Mr. Gin, who was six years old at Angel Island in 1915. “I was the only boy in the men’s dormitories,” he said. “Nobody took care of me, so I soon became dirty and full of lice.”

Next, detainees were checked for hookworm and other parasites at the hospital. The exams were humiliating for the Chinese, who never stripped naked for medical exams. “I cannot bear to describe the harsh treatment by the doctors,” one poem reads. “Being stabbed for blood samples and examined for hookworms was even more pitiful.” Another person wrote: “The doctor extracting blood caused us the greatest anguish. / Our stomachs are full of grievances, but to whom can we tell them?” If the immigrant didn’t pass the medical exam, they were deported or hospitalized at their own expense. Those who passed went on to the barracks to await processing.

Today, the museum has set up decks of bunk beds like the ones the immigrants slept on. I couldn’t believe how narrow the beds were. I, a small woman, would have trouble laying on one without my arm hanging off the side. One interviewee, Mr. Lowe, said that when he was there in 1939, “the blankets were so coarse that [they] might have been woven of wolf’s hair.”

The detainees were served plain dishes like congee with bean curd, rice, vegetables, and pork stew. The food was of poor quality. “Imprisoned, I am melancholy; even when I eat, my heart is troubled,” reads one poem. “They treat us Chinese badly and feed us yellowed greens.” Some detainees poured the food on the floor in protest. In 1919, there was a riot over the food. Long-term residents stole snacks from the suitcases of new detainees.

For the most part, the immigrants were locked in the barracks with nothing to do but wait. A guard stood outside the locked doors. The windows had barbed wire. There was a fenced-in yard for exercise, a game room, a phonograph, and a few newspapers and books: “Already, a cool autumn has passed,” one person wrote. “Counting on my fingers, several months have elapsed. / Still I am at the beginning of the road. / I have yet to be interrogated. / My heart is nervous with anticipation.”

A loophole in the Chinese Exclusion Act allowed children of American citizens into the country. This created a market for “paper sons and daughters,” where immigrants purchased fraudulent documents stating they were related to Chinese Americans. To weed them out, officials subjected detainees to extensive interrogations, asking between 200 and 1,000 questions about their American relatives. These questions could range from the layout of their San Francisco home to where the rice bin was kept to where the town altar was located in their home village. Witnesses were sometimes called who lived far away, prolonging an already slow process.

Because of this, imprisonment on Angel Island could stretch into years.

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America has power, but not justice.
In prison, we were victimized as if we were guilty.
Given no opportunity to explain, it was really brutal.
I bow my head in reflection but there is nothing I can do.

It is tempting, as a Californian, to be lulled by the false idea that the state’s history of racism isn’t as bad as that in other parts of the country. After all, California entered the union as a free state. We didn’t institutionalize racism like our neighbors in Oregon, who banned black people from the state until the 1920s. But at Immigration Station, I was reminded how dangerous that thinking can be. The reaches of the Chinese Exclusion Act are long and deep.

Like the Mexican migrant workers of today, the issues surrounding the Chinese were about economics. Many Chinese came to California during the Gold Rush. They were forced into less desirable claims and subject to the Foreign Miners’ Tax, which accounted for half the state’s revenue until 1870. Many more were brought over to build the railroads. Following the Civil War, the Chinese were incorrectly blamed for high unemployment and low wages. The Workingmen’s Party made the Chinese the target of a campaign and during rallies, crowds chanted, “The Chinese Must Go!”

Violence against Chinese Americans increased along with unfair legislation. In 1870, San Francisco’s Cubic Air Ordinance said the Chinese could only rent rooms with “fewer than 500 cubic feet of air per persons,” according to Island. It was also illegal to walk with a pole on one’s shoulder, which was how Chinese vegetable peddlers carried their product. In 1873, the Pigtail Ordinance required Chinese to cut off their braids. (It was later declared unconstitutional.) The Page Act of 1875 restricted Chinese women from immigrating. Finally, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned all Chinese laborers from the United States. With the passage of these laws, immigration changed from free and open to restricted and based on race.

Originally, the Chinese Exclusion Act was supposed to last 10 years, but it was renewed in 1892. This time, it required Chinese Americans to carry photo ID cards or be deported. Luckily, the Chinese boycotted and refused to register for the cards, and this provision was overturned in the Supreme Court.

But, because laws set moral tones, the Chinese Exclusion Act also gave people permission to commit violence against the Chinese. On the West Coast, and in states like Wyoming, Nevada, and Colorado, they were driven out of their homes. Sometimes they were murdered, while other times they were “peacefully” purged, which means they were forced to flee. There are 300 cases of these purges. The first was in 1885 in Eureka, California, 10 miles from where I grew up.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Exclusion laws continued their insidious reach. In 1917, a law was passed to ban immigrants from most Asian nations. In 1921, it was expanded again to exclude people from parts of Southern and Eastern Europe. In 1924, it was used to numerically restrict immigration from undesirable countries, reducing the number of immigrants from one million to 150,000 a year.

Today, as our government again leads attacks on immigrants, the evolution of the Chinese Exclusion Act should give everyone pause. Racist laws tend to expand to include other people, and it can be hard to get rid of these laws once they are established.

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There are tens of thousands of poems on these walls.
They are all cries of suffering and sadness.
The day I am rid of this prison and become successful,
I must remember that this chapter once existed.

In 1940, the Immigration Station was closed and services moved to the mainland. The Chinese Exclusion Act was overturned in 1943 when China became our ally in World War II. Of course, we moved on to the Japanese Internment Camps.

As my son and I walked around Immigration Station, I tried to explain what we were seeing. Finally, I returned to the poems, showing him the etchings in the wall, and explaining that it was the only way the immigrants could speak. They were protesting because many of them hadn’t done anything wrong, and yet they were locked in jail.

“I know,” my son said at last. “Because they weren’t the bad guys. The people who put them here were the bad guys.”

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Joy Lanzendorfer’s work has been in The AtlanticSmithsonianTin House, the Guardian, NPR, Vice, and many others. Follow her @JoyLanzendorfer.


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