Angel Island: Cultural Texts
After World War II when the station was deemed superfluous, the California State Park system was all set to demolish the Angel Island Immigration Station, and would have followed through on those plans -- if it weren't for the writings on the wall. In 1970, Alexander Weiss, a state park ranger at the time, was roaming the site when he discovered that nearly every square inch of its walls was covered in carvings in multiple languages. Some were simple messages, affirmations like "I was here" followed by a date. Others were impassioned works of poetry, cries of anger, frustration, sorrow, and despair from the detainees whose dreams of a better life in the land of opportunity were brutally cut short by racist legislation.
Mostly written in Chinese by poets who spoke Cantonese or Toisanese dialects, the poems as much speak about the poverty-stricken, turbulent pasts the authors left behind and their current frustrations as they reach out to immigrants to come, encouraging them to work hard to succeed in the United States. Numbering nearly 135, the poems seem to have been the result of collaborative efforts on the part of multiple authors detained at the station for a period of months or years, who, by the poems' various allusions to Confucius or Chinese literary or folkloric heroes, were well-educated and highly literate.1 Meticulous restoration of the carvings, obscured by age and a government covering up its missteps, is now underway. We can understand how Weiss knew immediately that the site had to be saved. 1
By Samantha Ching
1"The Poetry of Angel Island." Pacific Link: The KQED Asian Education Initiative. KQED, 2014. Web. 16 Mar 2014
Photo credit: Author's own
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