Story by Portia Choi
Photographs by Ellen Quon
Poetry is an important part of my life. It was by writing poems that I was able to express my feelings and experiences of being in the Korean War. The war started when I was two and ended when I was five.
I discovered that poetry was also an important part of lives of immigrants from China during a recent field trip to Angel Island in the San Francisco bay.
It was a sunny morning on the top deck of a ferryboat going from Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco to Angel Island, a state park. I felt the harshness of the wind and the noise of the cackling sea gulls. Beyond the rippling waves of the bay, I saw the panoramic view of the cities, San Francisco and Oakland, and its hills with rolling mist.
Most of the people on the ferry were tourists going to the island for fun and recreation. However, there was a small group from Bakersfield making a pilgrimage to the Immigration Station on the island. It was a place where their relatives had been confined before being allowed to enter the mainland.
Like other immigrants from China, their relatives had endured the voyage on the Pacific Ocean. There was motion sickness, meager food and crowded quarters.
Once they arrived on Angel Island, they could not go to the mainland right away. They had to prove that they were American citizens or related to an American citizen. They were interrogated to determine if they were truly related. The immigrants were fearful that if they did not answer correctly, they would be deported back to China.
On the island, some of the immigrants lived in wooden barracks for weeks and even months waiting to find out whether they would enter mainland America or be deported.
The immigrants lived in the barracks between 1910 and 1940. Thereafter, the barracks were abandoned. After more than two decades, the barracks were marked for destruction. (Information from ISLAND, Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940 by Him Mark Lai, Jenny Lim and Judy Yung.) In 1970, park ranger Alexander Weiss noticed Chinese characters in the wooden walls, characters that were painted over. Some of the writing were recognized as poems.
Through the effort of the Asian American community, the buildings were preserved, the writings restored and translated.
More portrayal of the immigrants and poems were described by the photographer of the group, Ellen Quon. She gave the interview in person and by email.
“My grandfather (mother’s father,) who passed away many years ago, came to America in 1917 when he was 12 years old. He went through the immigration process at Angel Island before he was allowed to enter the U. S.
“When he was alive, he never talked about his stay at Angel Island because it was not a good experience for him. He passed the physical exam and the interrogation and was permitted entry. However, his cousin was rejected and sent back to China because he did not pass the interrogation. His cousin never stepped on U.S. soil again after that.
“When I learned about that I was curious about this historical site. I decided to visit Angel Island Immigration Station when the Bakersfield Chinese Women’s Club sponsored the field trip.
“Before the trip, I had no idea what to expect, so I took pictures of everything I saw. I wanted to see what it was like to be detained there during the early 1900s. I did not know there were immigrants from 84 different countries passed through there. I did not know Chinese immigrants were being detained longer and were treated differently than the other groups.
“I took pictures of the beautiful surrounding, the outside and inside of the detention center, the immigrants’ personal belongings and the poetry on the walls. The way they renovated this place was great, not only they show how the immigrants lived at that time; they also show their frustrations, their emotions and their spirit.
“Because my grandfather was one of the detainees, this trip was a personal journey to explore my family history.
“Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese were interrogated more often and detained longer (weeks and months) than any other groups. The longest stay recorded was 22 months. During the interrogation process, they were never informed whether they were being accepted or rejected, so frustration and anguish grew each day.
“They also felt being mistreated by the government. In their spare time, the Chinese detainees poured their heart and soul into writing poetry and they carved them onto the wooden walls. These poems were beautifully written, so the writers were highly educated. These poems were overlooked by later occupants and were covered with paints. Eventually over 200 of them were discovered in 1963. The immigration station was in operation from 1910-1940, I did not know why the poems were not discovered earlier until I saw this image. . . . I took this image because of the paint patterns, not realized there were Chinese characters/poems hidden underneath the paints. I was pleasantly surprised. These pictures affect me because I can feel the frustrations and unhappiness spilling onto the walls.”
(Ellen Quon’s husband, Mike Quon, also went on the Angel Island trip. His grandfather (father’s father) came through Angel Island in the 1920’s. Ellen took over 100 photographs from the trip. A selection of photos, mainly related to poetry, are posted on Kern Poetry website.)
Of the numerous poems found carved on the walls and translated, two of them are reprinted here. These poems communicate the feelings and situation of the immigrants.
In the quiet of night, I heard, faintly, the whistling of wind.
The forms and shadows saddened me; upon
Seeing the landscape, I composed a poem.
The floating clouds, the fog, darken the sky.
The moon shines faintly as the insects chirp.
Grief and bitterness entwined are heaven sent.
The sad person sits alone, leaning by a window.
I used to admire the land of the Flowery
Flag as a country of abundance.
I immediately raised money and started my journey.
For over a month, I have experienced enough
winds and waves.
Now on an extended sojourn in jail, I am
subject to the ordeals of prison life.
I look up and see Oakland so close by.
I wish to go back to my motherland to carry
the farmer’s hoe.
Discontent fills my belly and it is difficult for
me to sleep.
I just write these few lines to express what is
on my mind.
(Flower Flag: a Cantonese colloquial term for the United States)
Verna Lewis was also interviewed. She had arranged the field trip to Angel Island for the Bakersfield Chinese Women’s Club. Both of her parents were born in the United States (U.S.); but they went to China as children. When they returned to the states, they went through Angel Island.
Verna said, “My father, Sui Han Low, was born in San Francisco and returned to China when he was five and then returned to U.S. in 1938 when he was 14. He went through Angel Island, but was not detained on the island.
“My mother was born in U.S. in 1926. In 1933, my mother was five or six when (she) and her whole family returned to China. My mother returned to U.S. when she was 15. She was detained on Angel Island.” The mother’s passport picture was that of a young girl, and she was older than her passport picture when she arrived in Angel Island. She was held back, but probably because she spoke English, she was detained overnight. Verna said, her mother “kept up with her English while in China.”
All Chinese immigrants went through Angel Island. The persons who were American citizens (persons born in the states) or who had family in the states were allowed to enter America’s mainland.
When Verna was asked what were your feelings visiting Angel Island, she thought that it would have been “traumatic” and “scary” for her mother.
An uncle of Verna, Paul Zane Wong, was on Angel Island. He wrote about his life and his experience on the island. The link to his writing is:
Additional information about the Chinese immigrants was found in a brochure about Angel Island State Park, by the California State Park, it states “The United States Immigration Station operated on Angel Island from 1910 to 1940. Built to process thousands of immigrants from over 80 nations flooding into the country, the Immigration Station was the physical mechanism to enforce and control immigration following the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. On Ellis Island on the east, immigrants were processed through within hours or days; on Angel Island, in weeks or months. This facility was primarily a detention center.”