At the U.S. Immigration Station National Historic Landmark,
Angel Island, California,
Winter Solstice Eve, 2009
I have the key to the wooden building in hand as I watch the park rangers make their final sweep of the Station grounds. At their departure, I walk from the detention barracks to the fog-warning bell, cast in 1910, that sits like a sentinel in the middle of what remains of the pier at China Cove. Alone now with history and the Guardian of the Western Gate—and in anticipation of the evening ahead, I pull back on the bell-striker three times: once for the detainees, once for the guards, and once for the Island herself. I listen to the resonating sound fade away to join the gentle splashing of the waves against the shore.
I walk back toward the Wood House, stopping first at the foundation remains of the administration building, destroyed by fire in 1940—the building that housed women detainees and that once held my wife’s grandmother in detention for 35 days in 1926. So detailed were the 143 questions posed to her at her Board of Special Inquiry, I am able to find the place where she sat, and the window she looked out from toward China Cove, as she answered a question from her interviewer about the width of a river in Guangdong Province.
I walk into the Wood House via a covered stairway enclosed in wire mesh and flanked by twenty-foot-high perimeter fencing topped with barbed-wire. The sense of enclosure—if not incarceration—is profound.
Rising darkness; falling light.
The engravings inside the wooden building are scored through painted surfaces of yellow and jade, and reach deep into the untreated wood where the engravers sometimes retouched their finished work with something that looks like charcoal. The engravings reach out like a whisper through multiple coats of lead paint and wood-fill that were the Station’s attempt to repair what was officially seen as vandalized government property. Three inmates at a time could have been responsible for each one of these works of art: the author of the poem or creator of the image, the engraver, and the lookout whose job it was to warn of an approaching guard. The surviving images are a window to the memories of those who waited in the Wood House in the midst of their interrupted journey to Gold Mountain.
I am here for the longest night of 2009 for an overnight stay in the barracks, reading the poetry and viewing the images carved into the walls of the wooden building. The majority of what is engraved is written by men ordered held by the Immigration Service in accordance with federal legislation from that other time in America called the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Unlike those who ventured here uncertain and anxious about their fate, I know I will get off Island tomorrow and be landed and welcomed to a familiar home. I can never fully appreciate the ordeal of the men behind those heroic engraved characters, those men who waited and wondered about tomorrow while “Detained in this wooden house for several tens of days… (1)”.
I can only guess at what it must have been like for paper daughter Chiu Yook Lon, who waited in this place for five uncertain weeks before she was allowed to land. Yet insofar as it is possible for someone secure in his citizenship and status to experience, I am here to experience feeling what the nights were like in the wooden building on Island from 1910 to 1940.
I’ve been issued a period mattress, a reproduction of those given to detainees back in the day. The mattress is too short for someone over 5’ 2”, and is just slightly wider than my shoulders. I place the mattress on the floor in a part of the wooden building where men from every nation and each hemisphere once slept. I am surrounded on all sides by their artistry and authorship.
Like those who came before me to leave their heartfelt signatures upon the jade walls of this century-old structure, I am for a single evening alone in this place, away from my home, separated from things familiar. I will later try with difficulty to sleep on the barrack’s floor. Through the night and morning, I will reach out to those voices from the past by reading back to them the English-language translation of their poetry and prose. The sometimes desperate, sometimes anxious, always noble characters and symbols engraved on the walls of the wooden building are a passport to memories of life in detention on Angel Island. The hopes, fears, despair, and anger of another age are held suspended at the moment of their engraving like so many flowers in amber.
I leave a poem for the wood house (not engraved in the walls, but written on a holiday card for the park rangers). It is a song for Angel Island, and for the intrepid spirits, both detainees and Station staff, who engaged this place and came away with an American experience never known before or after the decades between 1910 and 1940:
Above a wood house,
Beneath a guard tower,
The Island’s hart breathes softly, still—
A spirit marks the hour
Of men and women bound by night
In a place past sense, past reckoning,
On Island, dreaming dreams of flight
In hopes of what Gam Saan might bring
By keeping watch at winter’s eve
For luck, and some might say
For destiny, and rising light,
And thresholds to a brighter day
Past darkness of past time and place
Created by a myth of race.
Our Solstice is for all of them—
A shower of Stars that rise again.
I am awakened by the sound of two Great Horned Owls calling out to each other. One is settled on the roof of the wooden building, the other is in a nearby tree. Between their cries, a Screech Owl adds her two cents, and accompanying her is another owl whose call I cannot identify.
So, I am lying on the floor of Wood House at what Shakespeare said is “…the very witching time of night… (2)”, trying to go back to sleep while thinking about every scary ghost story I’ve ever been told.
I am now faced with two choices.
Stay scared in my sleeping bag on the undersized mattress on the barracks floor, or get up and start reading poetry.
I walk from the barracks to China Cove.
I raise the bell-striker three more times. I have turned every light on in the wooden building, so that she can be seen like a beacon from the opposite shore. The air alternates from a surprisingly warm, balmy mist, to clear skies, then light rain, and back again. San Francisco Bay is calm. A tug boat dressed from stem to stern in holiday lights pulls a barge across the water and disappears to the west.
I walk back to the wooden building.
I visit a shrine engraved in a space on the barracks wall that is set apart from other engravings. The shrine is dedicated to ancestors, and speaks of Canton (Guangdong) Province, the Republic of China, and at first glance appears in the shape of an Italian fountain. It is bounded on each side by flags, topped with a banner, and at its crown is an engraving of a Luna Moth, or perhaps a butterfly that’s spent considerable time at the gym lifting weights. There are references to Ching Ming Festival—a day set aside to care for the ancestors’ graves. I kneel at the shrine to offer thanks for the approaching Solstice and its increasing light.
Awake now since 2:30; reading the poetry, studying the engraved images, and keeping busy filming and photographing the wooden building inside and out. I have sustained myself with a bottle of vitamin water, a blueberry muffin, and a handful of lemon cough-drops. I can say with some accuracy that I have enjoyed the same quality meal provided to the detainees of 1919.
I discover the open expanse of floor space in the wooden building is well suited for yoga exercise.
It seems fitting that my morning in the Wood House should include a moment in the tree-position.
I say my goodbyes to the four corners of the wooden building—a place that became anathema to so many, a place to which some said they would never return unless to raze the Wood House to the ground, a place that created a needless burden of guilt and shame for its occupiers and their children, and a place that if I could, I would engrave on the jade walls a message to all of them:
Here is now a place,
This is now a time
To be proud.
December 21, 2009, 9:47 AM:
I cross the threshold out of the Wood House and into the light of the just-arrived winter solstice. Waiting alone on the docks at Ayala Cove, the only passenger for the ferry to San Francisco, I chat with a State Parks Police officer who wondered why the Immigration Station was lit up like a candle last night. I smile to myself in answer, and I never think till I’m landed in Gam Saan that on the last night of autumn the Wood House was lit by the spirit of an eighteen-year-old girl from Guangdong, and all who came before and after.
They are indeed the fire that is the passion that is the poetry engraved on the living walls of the Wood House on Angel Island.
1. Page 134, poem #69 from Island, Poetry & History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, Judy Yung, 1980. This is an excerpt from the English translation, one of the most eloquent and beautifully sculpted Chinese-character poems inside the Immigration Station barracks.
2. Hamlet, Act III, Scene II, William Shakespeare
Thanks to the California State Parks rangers at Angel Island for allowing me free access to the Immigration Station Barracks for this project. My words cannot adequately express my thanks for the gift of this evening—you made it happen. You made it special.
William Warrior is a California State Parks volunteer.