Sunday, June 16, 2013

Angel Island Immigration Center

Where immigrants first set foot on American soil
So, for our birthday weekend (mine's the 14th, Chelle's is the 17th), we both wracked our brains trying to figure out something special to do that didn't involve traveling out of the Bay Area. Seriously, we've done everything from Bodega Bay to Carmel. Finally we landed on something we hadn't yet done--catch the ferry out to Angel Island.

I think most people know of Angel Island because of Escape from Alcatraz--that's where the escaping prisoners were headed in 1962 because they figured everyone else would assume they'd headed for San Francisco. Of course, the way the Bay goes, they'd have been lucky to make it between the frigid waters and then fighting the current that sweeps towards the Golden Gate and out to the ocean.

But Angel Island is also famous because it's the West Coast version of Ellis Island. Here is where immigrants wishing to enter America would land, be processed, and be on their way to make it in the land of opportunity. Except... that's not how it really happened. The majority of immigrants entering on the West Coast were Chinese, and they were severely impacted by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The only way they could legally enter the country was to prove they already had relatives on their father's side of the family here. Proof was not easy to provide, and they were subjected to long, repetitive interrogations; often denied entry, they would appeal; be denied; appeal again and so on. At Ellis Island, where immigrants were of European descent (white), there were no such problems and processing took usually only several hours or at worst several days. At Angel Island, processing took several weeks if they were lucky and some remained in detention for as long as months or years.

The living conditions were not grand, to say the least. They were housed in barracks, the men separated from the women, and except in the case of very young children, children were often separated from their mothers. The dorms in the barracks were cold and drafty; rats ran rampant; the mess hall food was abysmal, and there were always water shortages, so showers and flushing toilets were a luxury. One doctor commented with disgust upon his view of the place:


Of course, the irony is that it's precisely those Chinese characters on the wall that now make the Immigration Center so remarkable. It turns out they are poems. The poems are everywhere. Homesick, lonely, desperate, sometimes angry, the detained Chinese took to carving poetry all over the walls of the barracks--quite literally the first examples of Chinese American literature we have.

Here is an example of one, and just imagine them, hundreds of them, covering the walls:



Numerous signs are posted in the barracks offering translations of some of the poems. Two that particularly spoke to me follow:




The feeling of the place is simply melancholy. Even though later on, during World War II, the Immigration Center housed some German, Italian, and Japanese prisoners of war, the walls mostly exuded sadness. And why not? To travel across the sea to the Promised Land, only to be treated like a criminal upon your arrival--despite attempting to enter the country legally, does give one pause. This is America: will we ever stop fearing perceived threats and fanning the flames of hatred? Or will we always just substitute one group for another as soon as the perceived threat proves itself groundless?

I was heartened to see these words posted from Franklin D. Roosevelt:


Well, I was left with much to think about. Other than the old Immigration Center, I should hasten to add that Angel Island isn't a total bummer of a place: there is much excellent hiking, and the views of the Bay Area (from Mt. Tam to even San Jose on a clear day) are breathtaking. The only way to get there is by ferry, either from the city or from Tiburon, and many people bring their bikes. There are also the remnants of an old Civil War fort (with cannon batteries, just in case Confederate ships ever attacked San Francisco, which never happened); Fort McDowell (a jumping off point for soldiers serving in the Pacific Theater of WWII); and even a now-decommissioned silo that once housed a Nike missile.

But obviously the biggest impact on me was the poems. For a 12-minute video on the story behind the poems, take the time to view this story from KQED, our local PBS station.




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