There is something about an island, a place apart, surrounded by the barriers of the sea. An island can be a place of exile, a place of confinement or a place of refuge. Angel Island, the largest island in San Francisco Bay, has served all of these purposes in its long history.
A ceremony was held at the U.S. Immigration Station on Angel Island on Saturday, Sept. 8 to dedicate the second phase of the Immigrant Heritage Wall. The wall is intended to honor the stories and experiences of immigrants who passed through Angel Island on their way to becoming American citizens. It is made up of dozens of granite plaques bearing the names of immigrants, their families, and their descendants. The first phase of the wall was completed in 2011 and was a project sponsored by the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation in partnership with Angel Island State Park.
The Angel Island Immigration Station, which was in operation from 1910-1940, is often referred to as the "Ellis Island of the West." It differed significantly from the island in New York City's harbor, however, which was the largest processing center for immigrants in the United States. The Angel Island Immigration Station served primarily as a detention center, a place of suspicion and confinement, rather than a place where immigrants were processed and welcomed. It was built to carry out the provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and later laws that created discriminatory exclusions of Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and other immigrants primarily from Asia.
The Immigration Station closed down in 1940, after a kitchen fire destroyed the Administration Building. The detention facilities were moved to San Francisco, but they soon became an anachronism when the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943. A dark chapter in the history of American immigration had closed. The buildings and grounds of the Immigration Station deteriorated over the next few decades, even as most of Angel Island became a state park. Plans were made in the early 1970s to demolish everything and establish a campground in this idyllic valley along the shores of China Cove.
The discovery of Chinese poetry carved into the walls of the Detention Barracks changed all plans for demolition. After some initial resistance by state park officials, it came to be recognized that this was a place of powerful educational and cultural significance. The poetry also offered a sense of redemption, a way to learn from mistakes that were grounded in ignorance and bigotry.
The poems, many of which were written in a classical Chinese style that speaks to the literacy of these immigrants, tell the story of their experience crossing the ocean in search of opportunity and a new life. Their disappointment and frustration are evident in the poetry, which vividly expresses the ideals of the American Dream. Judy Yung, in her landmark book Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, written together with Erika Lee, describes seeing the poems on the walls of the Detention Barracks for the first time. "Touching the words covered by a thin layer of chipped paint, I could hear the voices of immigrants bemoaning their fate imprisoned on this lonely island."
The location of the Administration Building is marked today by a concrete outline that fills up the central part of the grounds of the Immigration Station. Carved in this concrete are words that represent the feelings of the half million immigrants who passed through here during the 30 years that it was open. Starting in front of the old fog bell, we can read these words and follow the steps of immigrants as they made their way through the daunting process of landing in America.
At the first level, the words are evocative of the way people felt when they first arrived here. "Dreams", "Hope", and "Fears" are the words chiseled in the concrete. Go a few steps up to the next level, which would be inside the old building, and the words are more about process. "Appeals", "Hearings", and "Examination" reveal a tedious routine of bureaucracy and frustration. The last two words at the back of the concrete outline reflect the decision that was ultimately made on the part of each immigrant: either "Exclusion" or "Inclusion."
The dedication ceremony began with a boisterous march, carried out by the EGO Korean Drummers, a traditional percussion group from U.C. Berkeley. They started at the stairway of the Detention Barracks and made their way down to the shore of the Bay, next to the old fog bell that used to warn ships as they approached Angel Island. A large group of people gathered to watch the event, spread out across the lawn where the old Administration Building once stood. They included descendants of immigrants who had passed through the Immigration Station on Angel Island, and others who were simply interested in this complex chapter of American history.
The dedication of the Immigrant Heritage Wall began with opening remarks by Kathy Owyang Turner, the Interim Executive Director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF). She was followed by Buck Gee, President of AIISF, and Danita Rodriguez, the Marin District Superintendent of California State Parks. Probably the most poignant moments came with the Remembrances, a series of speeches by descendants of people who had spent time in the Immigration Station. One of these speeches was by Ruthie Holland, the grand-niece of Katherine Maurer, a Methodist missionary who was known as the "Angel of Angel Island" for her work in helping the immigrants and treating them with dignity and respect.
The EGO Korean Drummers wrapped things up after the speeches, moving through the crowd and the around the grounds of the Immigration Station. The Detention Barracks were open for free self-guided tours, and many of the visitors passed through the building to see the poetry for themselves. The Angel Island Immigration Station is open Wednesday through Sunday, with self-guided or guided tours available.
The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation is a nonprofit organization that works to preserve and restore the Angel Island Immigration Station. In partnership with California State Parks and the National Park Service, they have developed interpretive exhibits that tell the complex role of the Pacific Rim in the history of American immigration.