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The Poetry of Angel Island

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Photo of poetry on wall

Numerous carvings and writings in several languages have been found on the barracks walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station. Some are simple statements, the equivalent of "I was here" or a name with a date. Still other writings have yet to be translated and understood.

The overwhelming majority of these remarkable writings, however, are poems written in Chinese, many of them made all the more impressive for having been carved into the wooden walls. More than 135 of these poems have been recorded.

The Angel Island Immigration Station was in operation from 1910 to 1940. During World War II, the site was used to hold prisoners of war and as a temporary deportation center for Japanese nationals returning to Japan. Afterwards, the U.S. Army abandoned the buildings, and the California State Parks (CSP) Administration had plans to demolish the entire site.

The writings and carvings were rediscovered in 1970 by CSP Ranger Alexander Weiss, who brought two scholars from San Francisco State University, George Araki and Mak Takahashi to photograph them.

Today, the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) has successfully raised awareness and funding to preserve and restore the site as a National Historic Landmark. Phase One of a major restoration effort begins in November 2004.

Many of the poems are still visible on the walls; others are obscured by aging wood or layers of paint. Architecture Resources Group (ARG), a San Francisco architecture firm that specializes in historic preservation and is conducting the renovation of the site, has discovered that some of the carvings were filled in with wood putty, then covered over with paint. ARG will undertake the laborious process of undoing this mask, which, ironically, has served to preserve the carvings.

Most of the poems are written in the styles of classical Chinese poetry which originated during the T'ang Dynasty period -- the same period that gave root to many of the widely known Chinese poets such as Li Bai (or Li Po), Tu Fu, and Wang Wei. The main formats are five characters per line (wu-yan-jue-ju or wu-yan-li-shi) or seven characters per line (qi-yan-jue-ju or qi-yan-li-shi), with four or eight lines in most poems.

The poems express a range of thoughts and feelings -- longing, sorrow, and personal avowals -- about dealing with the hardships of migrating so far from home and the difficult conditions that determined the authors' detention, admittance or deportation. The poets describe the poverty they left behind, the family hopes that accompanied them in their quest for a new life, and the frustration with China's political situation and chronic poverty. They also offer advice to successive generations of would-be immigrants, encouraging them to work hard, to treasure the precious opportunity to do well in America, and to remember those left behind.

The poets were primarily Chinese who spoke the Cantonese and Toisanese dialects. When read aloud, many of the poems rhyme in those dialects, but they do not always rhyme in Mandarin. You can listen to the audio streams of some of the poems on this website in order to hear the difference.

The poems were probably written by those who were detained for long periods or those awaiting deportation. The majority are unsigned and undated, but they were most likely written before 1930s. Many of the poems were very likely composed by several authors working in succession. There contain many references to famous literary or folk heroes, Confucius, and other figures in Chinese folklore known to have faced hard times. Such references reveal that the authors were highly literate and well educated.

For more information about the ongoing work to preserve the Angel Island Immigration Station writings and the research into their meanings, go to the websites for the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and Architectural Resources Group.

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