Angel Island restoration preserves dozens of Chinese immigrant poems

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Cold, damp barrack walls, weathered from years of neglect, stand as a reminder of the detainment center that housed thousands of Chinese during the early 1900s on this mountainous island in the middle of San Francisco Bay.

Beneath layers of chipping gray paint, however, is a nearly forgotten piece of the human story - one of longing, disappointment, fear and rage, etched as poems into the decaying wood panels by immigrants held for weeks or months during enforcement of Chinese exclusionary laws.

"I'm heartsick when I see my reflection, my handkerchief is soaked in tears," reads one poem carved in Chinese characters on a first-floor wall. "I ask you, what crime did I commit to deserve this?"

This and dozens of other poems have been the focus of a $50 million, three-phase state parks restoration project underway at the Angel Island Immigration Station on the 470-acre island in San Francisco Bay. A mix of federal, state and private money is funding the project.

Before work began in August, a team of scholars combed the station's barracks and hospital, locating every visible piece of writing on the walls. It's the first-ever attempt at creating such a record, and scholars are using it to find out more about the life of detainees.

Until now, the most comprehensive account was the 1980 book "Island," which published more than 100 Angel Island poems, said Charles Egan, a Chinese Studies professor at San Francisco State University and a lead scholar on the new project. But the collection, based on 1930s-era manuscripts by two detainees who reportedly copied poems off the walls, never was physically corroborated.

The project located most of those poems and found about 60 new ones.

Meanwhile, park contractors are busy restoring the station to the way it looked in the days when it was known as the Ellis Island of the West, the main gateway for immigrants crossing the Pacific. From 1910 until fire destroyed part of the station in 1940, it processed about 1 million immigrants, including 175,000 Chinese.

But unlike Ellis Island, where most immigrants only stayed several hours, Angel Island held Chinese immigrants for an average of two or three weeks, some for nearly two years, as officials verified their immigration status.

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