THE LOST POETRY OF THE ANGEL ISLAND DETENTION CENTER By Beenish Ahmed

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When Chinese immigrants were detained at Angel Island, in the San Francisco Bay, they wrote poetry on the walls.
PHOTOGRAPH BY FOTOSEARCH / GETTY

Although it was widely known as the Ellis Island of the West, Angel Island wasn’t meant to herald immigrants to the United States so much as to keep them out. Located just across from Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay, the immigration station started operating in 1910, largely to process the cases of Chinese laborers, who, three decades before, had become the first group of people to be specifically blocked by federal U.S. immigration policy. After the first of the Chinese-exclusionary laws was passed by Congress, in 1882, working-class Chinese men and women were only allowed into the U.S. if they could prove that they were related to American citizens. They did so by fielding hundreds of specific questions about everything from the layout of their ancestral villages to the number of stairs leading up to the attics of their homes in San Francisco or Seattle. Many migrants who did not have family in America claimed connections, and they committed detailed biographical information to memory in order to pass stringent interrogations. These people became the “paper sons and daughters” of earlier Chinese immigrants.

What would-be immigrants couldn’t tell their interrogators they inscribed on the walls in the form of classical Chinese poetry—complete with parallel couplets, alternating rhymes, and tonal variations. In 1970, when the buildings of Angel Island were due to be torn down, a park ranger noticed the inscriptions. That discovery sparked the interest of researchers, who eventually tracked down two former detainees who had copied poems from the walls while they were housed on Angel Island, in the thirties. Their notebooks, additional archival materials, and a 2003 study of the walls—which were preserved—turned up more than two hundred poems. (There could be hundreds more buried beneath the putty and paint that the immigration station staff used to cover the “graffiti.”) The formal qualities of the poetry—which was written, for the most part, by men and women who had no more than an elementary education—tend to get lost in English translation, but its emotional force comes through. One poem reads, “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.”

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In 1970, when the buildings of Angel Island were due to be torn down, a park ranger noticed the inscriptions of poetry.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT GALBRAITH / GETTY

Signatures and comments were written on the walls in various languages, but “only the Chinese wrote poetry,” according to Judy Yung, a professor emerita in American studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who co-edited “Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940.” Yung has dedicated much of her career to studying the immigration station through which her own father entered the U.S., along with a hundred thousand other Chinese immigrants. With meagre rations, restricted access to the outdoors, and separate quarters for men and women, the facility very much resembled a prison for Chinese detainees, who were held there for weeks or months. Meanwhile, European and many other Asian émigrés were typically allowed entry to the U.S. after just a few hours or days. More than half of the poems express deep-seated resentment for the immigration station’s dismal conditions or describe the desire to avenge unfair treatment.

It’s possible that much of what was written was destroyed. In 1922, twelve years after it opened, the Commissioner-General of Immigration declared Angel Island to be filthy and unfit for habitation—“the ramshackle buildings are nothing but firetraps,” he warned. In 1940, the facility finally did catch fire, and the blaze ravaged the building where women detainees were held. Whatever poems women wrote on those walls were lost to history.

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