Angel Island, CALIFORNIA - Today, Angel Island is a tranquil 30-minute ferry ride across the bay from Fisherman’s Wharf past Alcatraz Island and determined kayakers paddling against waves created by power boats and luxury sail boats.
In 1910, when the immigration station on Angel Island opened, the site had been chosen because of its isolated terrain in the northern part of the heavy forest. The cold, watery distance from the San Francisco shoreline was enough to deter escape.
“Many arrived at Angel Island, weary but hopeful, only to be unjustly confined for months, or in some cases, years,” President Barack Obama said last year when he proclaimed a national day of recognition for Angel Island.
My ten-year-old nephew had learned about Angel Island in the classroom. But when we got to the site for an early tour before it opened to the public in July, the black and white images he pictured, the configuration of cramped bunk beds he had drawn out with string turned real as he read the words out loud that had been chiseled into granite at the entranceway.
“Fear. Hope. Acceptance. Rejection. Dreams,” Austin recited for his younger brother Andrew. “That’s what the people were thinking.”
At the interrogation table, which has carved into the top the questions that were asked of migrants, Austin, who would have been the age of some of the boys who arrived at Angel Island a century ago, took on the role of interrogator.
“Where is the rice bin kept in the house?” Austin asked Andrew, who couldn’t remember which effectively highlighted for them the intense questioning the migrants faced.
Under hours of interrogation, examiners at Angel Island would ask questions of new arrivals hoping to detect whether they were actually related to the people they claimed or if they had arrived with falsified documents. The answers were checked against those already established in San Francisco to verify whether those claiming to have sons joining them in America were true relations or “paper sons” who had paid for fake birth certificates.
In his defence of forgetting where the rice is kept, Andrew demanded a banana after seeing another exhibit of how notes had been smuggled into the immigration station using items like the inside of banana peels. Kitchen staff who were allowed to go off Angel Island to return home to San Francisco frequently took bribes from Chinese relatives in the U.S. to bring in drawings and notes to help detainees remember details.
Inside the barracks, the poetry carved into the walls by migrants have been carefully uncovered from decaying wood and layers of paint over the decades.
At least 200 verse inscriptions exist on the walls and 40 pictures including an elaborate altar to good fortune. Poems have also been found written in Russian, Korean and Urdu and there may be more.
Not all of the depictions and characters are uncovered yet, said Casey Lee, a park ranger with the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
“One day, hopefully, technology will catch up and we’ll be able to find more after new techniques come up with a way to remove the paint. It was considered graffiti and something to be painted over,” she said.
Recently, Angel Island was named one of America’s 11 most endangered historic places and the preservation efforts have included an interpretive centre and re-establishing the barracks where the migrants were housed.
Families of some of the migrants detained at Angel Island have donated belongings that were brought from their homeland in anticipation of their new lives in America. While some of the articles such as clothing were obviously of another era and time, there were some items that drew Andrew and Austin’s attention because they could trace them to the present.
They recognized the calligraphy writing of the Chinese characters their grandfather tried to teach them and among embroidered shoes and a delicate fan in one suitcase was a familiar looking bottle. At closer inspection, they recognized the bak fa yao (white flower oil) medicine their grandmother, or Po Po as they call her, always keeps in her purse and gently rub on their foreheads when they had headaches.
Seeing the pictures of boys as young as themselves and hearing the spoken language of their grandparents turned the past into a living reality for my nephews as they walked solemnly past the uncovered poetry on the walls.
Some were just Chinese characters, the remainder of the poem still uncovered. But others were complete stories detailing the migrants’ loneliness and sadness. “The day I am rid of this prison and attain success, I must remember that this chapter once existed,” one migrant wrote.
That defiant vow, carved into wood, is a reminder that at least this chapter in American history is not forgotten or remains hidden under paint.