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Angel Island’s ghostly poems tell of exclusion

At Angel Island Immigration Station, the walls really can talk. Until now, though, they haven’t told the whole story of this notorious West Coast entry point in the heart of San Francisco Bay.

Their first words were in Chinese, stately poems of longing and revenge carved into the wooden barracks by desperate detainees between 1910 and 1940 and discovered by accident more than a generation later.

“Sadness,” wrote one anonymous poet, “kills the person in the wooden building.”

“Thinking of affairs back home,” wrote another. “Unconscious tears wet my lapel.”

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Angel Island was patterned after Ellis Island in New York Harbor, but law and geopolitics conspired to make it a vastly different experience -- particularly for Chinese immigrants, who arrived in greater numbers, were detained longer and were deported more often than Europeans.

After the rickety complex was shuttered, it was turned over to the state park service and slated for demolition in the 1970s.

But a sharp-eyed ranger spotted the ghostly verses.

Demolition canceled. Poems published. Image solidified.

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The 740-acre island became the symbol of a shameful chapter in Chinese American history, when laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred some immigrants on the basis of race for the first time.

“Ellis Island was a processing station of entry,” said historian Judy Yung, whose father was detained on Angel Island for two months. “Angel Island was a half-open door at best.”

But as Angel Island Immigration Station reopens Sunday after a $16-million refurbishment, the walls have begun to tell a more complex tale, revealed by a new generation of scholarship and the discovery of more inscriptions.

Poems, yes, including about 80 newly discovered Chinese verses. But there are also writings from many other nationalities. Desperate demands in Japanese: “Get me out of here fast!” Impatient orders in German: “Close the doors. There’s a draft.” A simple tally in Gurmukhi, a script used by Sikhs: “100 days. Tara Singh.” Carved birds and a shrine to good fortune, with a butterfly and a basket.

If such recasting softens the edges of Angel Island’s grim story, said park Supt. Dave Matthews, so be it.

“The story was darker when it came to the Chinese,” Matthews acknowledged. But “many Americans got their start on the West Coast. This is where that happened for them. . . . We want to broaden the identity of the station to its true identity as a place where hundreds of thousands of Americans got their start.”

Imprisoned in the wooden building day after day,

My freedom withheld; how can I bear to talk about it?

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Before there was poetry, there was silence.

That’s how Li Keng Wong remembers it. The 82-year-old retired teacher was 7 when she traveled from the rural village of Goon Do Hung in southern China with her mother, father and two sisters.

In the months before the arduous journey, the family frantically studied their “coaching papers” to remember details of the subterfuge that would allow them to settle in America.

Wong’s mother must be called “yee,” or aunt. Her mother, she would tell the interrogators, had died earlier that year, 1933. They would ask her where her mother was buried and where her father slept. If she slipped up, the family would be deported.

“We lied to get in,” Wong said. “Chinese men were not allowed to bring their wives in because of the Chinese Exclusion Act -- only diplomats, merchants and students.”

Wong remembers the five-day stay on Angel Island as dark and terrifying: the windows covered in chicken wire; the doors always locked behind them; the guards terse and distant; the possibility of slipping up, deportation and shame ever present.

“I didn’t talk about it for 50 years,” she said. “I refused. My husband, my children, my four younger siblings knew nothing. My friends knew nothing. It was traumatic.”

After retiring in 1985, Wong took a writing class and slowly began to explore her life’s big secret. Eventually, the diminutive grandmother wrote a memoir for children, “Good Fortune: My Journey to Gold Mountain.”

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She has made a virtual second career out of keeping history’s lessons alive. She speaks to community groups and schoolchildren about Angel Island and has been featured in a documentary. But she is uncertain about recasting the Angel Island story. After all, she notes, “the law only picked on the Chinese people.”

Wong is, however, sure of one thing: “Angel Island is a place that should be saved, should be restored, so that future generations will understand how certain groups of immigrants were treated.”

Over a hundred poems are on the walls.

Looking at them, they are all pining at the delayed progress.

What can one sad person say to another?

History is as much about the teller as the tale, and Angel Island is no exception.

Travelers entering through San Francisco between 1910 and 1940 disembarked on the busy port’s wharf. Those with immigration or health problems were ferried to the station nestled in China Cove and often detained -- some for nearly two years.

About 350,000 immigrants are believed to have been held on Angel Island. Yung figures 120,000 were Chinese and 60,000 were Japanese. There were about 12,000 Russians, 7,000 South Asians and 1,000 Koreans. The rest were split among 75 or so other nationalities.

Unlike most other detainees, Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century came from a country with a tradition of public poetry for social, ritual and political expression.

They also “were detained the longest and were the most angered and had the time to write those poems,” said Yung, a professor emerita of American studies at UC Santa Cruz. “It takes time to carve around the brush strokes.”

After they were discovered in 1970 and published in 1980, the poems galvanized Chinese Americans to preserve the immigration station and tell the story their parents and grandparents had kept silent.

The Chinese experience held sway until about five years ago. That’s when the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and the state park service initiated a meticulous inspection of the station walls as a first step in the current renovation.

The task was complicated because detainees and authorities were in a pitched battle over the walls from the beginning. Carvings were filled with putty. Brush strokes were painted over. There were at least seven layers of paint on the peeling walls with poetry on each; to uncover one poem was to deface another.

“We found about 85% of the poems that were previously published and another 75 or 80 Chinese poems,” said Charles Egan, an associate professor of Chinese at San Francisco State University. “Some can’t be deciphered. They’re just ruffles in paint.”

They also discovered Chinese political slogans: “The Manchu have lost. The Han have risen.” And a simple lament in crude calligraphy: “There are worms growing in my liver and lungs. I’m returning to the mountains of Tang.”

They came upon Japanese writings in pen and pencil from the World War II years, when the barracks housed POWs. They found the spot where some Russian brothers named Faingald left their mark one Christmas Day in shaky Cyrillic. There was a Korean inscription and others in French, Italian, German, English and Punjabi.

The station has been shuttered since the rehabilitation began in 2005. Visitors, who arrive by ferry, will be able to tour the cavernous two-story wooden barracks where most of the detainees were housed.

The top layer of gray and yellow lead paint has been given a protective coating and illuminated so the writings are more visible. Some of the poems will be highlighted in a former bunk room, where visitors will see the original Chinese and an English translation, and hear the poems recited in both languages.

Visitors can also walk through a bunk room for Chinese and a dormitory for Europeans filled with the artifacts of detention: chopsticks, mah-jongg tiles and calligraphy brushes in one; dominoes and the King James Bible in the other.

The immigration station’s hospital stands on a hill above the barracks; it and a few neglected outbuildings await renovation. Once completed, the whole project will cost an estimated $65 million.

The new findings have inspired the latest wave of Angel Island research. Egan is working on an anthology of the recently recovered writings from the station walls. Yung, who collaborated on “Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940,” is writing about the non-Chinese travelers.

And historian Maria Sakovich is studying Russian immigration in California and researching the Russians who passed through the island -- Countess Alexandra Tolstoy among them.

“There’s so much on those walls,” Egan said. “Each one is a story of an individual caught up by forces much beyond their control.”

The season is changing;

Return me my freedom!

The broader story of Angel Island cannot be told soon enough for Michael Hardeman.

Hardeman is an impatient man, a self-proclaimed “positive looker.” He’s also on the board of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.

Hardeman knew his family was from St. Petersburg, Russia, and that they had fled to Harbin, China, where his mother, Olga Pavloff, was born in 1921. He knew that somehow they had made it to Japan and then to San Francisco.

Pavloff was 9 when the family landed in California, he said, “and became American very quick. She never really dwelled on the Russian stuff.”

It wasn’t until a newscaster friend did a story on Angel Island that he asked his mother if she’d landed there. And it wasn’t until he met Sakovich that he learned his family’s history. While researching Russian immigration, the historian had unearthed a transcript of the family’s interrogation.

And “the Russian stuff”? Listen to Daria L. Bondar, Hardeman’s great-grandmother, on Sept. 11, 1930.

Q: What was your husband’s occupation?

A: He was a servant to the czar of Russia for 39 years -- after the overthrow of the czar [in 1917], he took care of the Winter Palace -- he was a watchman of the Winter Palace until 1925.

“I was aghast,” Hardeman said. “I had never heard that story. My mother just washes it away. . . . I can’t even get anything out of her. ‘Ma, what happened when you came in?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ ”

Pavloff declined a request to be interviewed. She also backed out of two meetings with Sakovich a year ago. If she won’t tell her story, Hardeman figures, someone has to.

“I look at Angel Island, and it’s wonderful,” Hardeman said. “All these people came to America. . . . For 99% of the people who came through, it wasn’t a nightmare. It was ‘Welcome to America.’ ”

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maria.laganga@latimes.com


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