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United States

The writings on the wall

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 October, 2017, 11:39am

Ask my young American-born nephews where Chinese people come from and they'll think of their grandparents and answer, 'Canada'. But for tens of thousands of American-born Chinese, the history of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents can be traced to one side of an island five kilometres from San Francisco.

New York's Ellis Island, under the silhouette of the Statue of Liberty, is more famous, as the gateway to America for European immigrants. But Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, was, for decades, the entry station for arrivals from Asia, mostly China. Nearly a million immigrants were processed here, at a time when anti-Chinese sentiment was high.

Today, Angel Island is a 30-minute ferry ride across the bay from Fisherman's Wharf, past Alcatraz Island and determined kayakers paddling against waves created by luxury yachts and other vessels.

In 1910, when the immigration station on Angel Island opened, the site had been chosen because of its isolation, in the northern part of a heavy forest. The cold, watery distance from the San Francisco shoreline was deemed sufficient to deter escape.

A fire shut down the station in 1940 but the 300-hectare island, the largest in the bay, remained a popular camping spot. The abandoned immigration buildings were going to be destroyed, to make way for an enlarged camping area, but then, in 1970, poems and other writings were found carved into the decaying walls. Written by would-be immigrants, these inscriptions detailed their thoughts and despair as they endured days, weeks and sometimes months of interrogation before being allowed off the island.

Recently, Angel Island was named one of the 11 most-endangered historic places in the United States and efforts have been made to preserve what is left. Recently opened to the public were an interpretive centre and the restored barracks that housed the immigrants.

'Many arrived at Angel Island, weary but hopeful, only to be unjustly confined for months, or in some cases, years,' US President Barack Obama said this year, when he proclaimed a national day of recognition for Angel Island.

FOR SOME WOULD-BE Americans, about 10 per cent of those who made the journey from China, Angel Island was all they saw of the US, before being sent back. Eddie Wong's father was one of those who was deported. Wong elder was 15 when his false papers were discovered, but his second attempt at getting to the American mainland was successful.

Wong, the executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the site, says he had no idea about his family's history until he visited Angel Island to shoot footage for a documentary in 1971.

'I told [his father] I went to this amazing place called Angel Island and he said, 'I was there. It was a prison.' He never wanted to talk about it,' says Wong. 'It's only now, the second generation, the American-born Chinese who want to know where their grandmother or father came from. They wanted to forget about the place but their children and grandchildren are saying it's important to remember, as a reminder of how hard it was for some people. It made them stronger and more determined and, as a result, we're around.'

At times of economic hardship, as was the case in the US in the early part of the 20th century, after the gold rush and when cheap labour for constructing the railways was no longer needed, immigrants were usually the first to suffer.

'It's a darker side of American history that we can't forget,' says Wong.

The words 'Fear', 'Hope', 'Dreams', 'Rejection' and 'Acceptance' are chiselled in granite at the entrance to the barracks.

During hours of interrogation, examiners at Angel Island would ask questions of new arrivals, hoping to confirm whether they were really related to the people they claimed as family or whether they had arrived with falsified documents. The answers were checked against those given by immigrants already established in San Francisco, to weed out the 'paper sons', those who had paid for fake birth certificates.

One exhibit here shows how notes were smuggled into the immigration station. Kitchen staff who commuted to and from San Francisco took bribes from relatives or friends who had made it to the mainland to bring in drawings and notes, to help detainees remember details.

Inside the barracks, decaying wood and the layers of paint that have been added over the decades have been carefully removed from the poetry beneath. The walls bear at least 200 verse inscriptions and 40 pictures, including one of an elaborate altar to good fortune. Poems have also been found written in Russian, Korean and Urdu - and there may be more.

'One day, hopefully, technology will catch up and we'll be able to find more writings after new techniques come up with a way to remove the paint,' says Casey Lee, a park ranger with the California Department of Parks and Recreation. 'It was [once] considered graffiti and something to be painted over.'

Families of some of the immigrants detained at Angel Island have donated belongings that were brought from China. While some of the articles, such as clothing, are obviously of another era, there are some items here my nephews can identify with.

They recognise the calligraphy their grandfather tried to teach them and, among the embroidered shoes and a delicate fan in one suitcase, is a familiar looking bottle. On closer inspection, they see it once contained bak fa yao (white flower oil), the medicine their grandmother always keeps in her purse.

Seeing the pictures of boys as young as themselves and hearing the spoken language of their grandparents, the past becomes a reality for my nephews. Some of the writing on these walls is just the odd character, part of a poem still uncovered; some of it is complete stories detailing the immigrants' 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.

With these and the other words etched into the walls of Angel Island, we all can now remember this particular chapter in American history.