Essay: The Talking Walls of Angel Island
I wrote an essay for La Review of Books. It’s about the Chinese poems on the walls of Angel Island Detention Center.
From 1910 to 1940, the Angel Island Immigration Station processed 175,000 Chinese immigrants. It was called the “Ellis Island of the West,” but its aims were different. When Ellis Island was operating, only two percent of applicants were turned away. Angel Island was created as part of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and as such, 18 percent of applications were rejected and five percent were deported outright. All were detained on the island for weeks, months, and even years. The longest detention was 756 days.
This spring, when the Trump administration began separating families on the US-Mexico border, Angel Island popped into my mind. The apparent racial bias underlying this policy made me think of this older, racially motivated detainment of immigrants. As in the current crisis, the Chinese immigrants had no control over their situation. Separated by gender and race, they slept in bunkers on thin canvas mats. They were imprisoned for no other reason than they wanted to come to the United States.
While at Angel Island, the Chinese wrote poems on the walls of the detainment center about their situation. I’d been hearing about them for years. There are 200 poems, each a unique documentation of life at the center. In August, I took my six-year-old son on the ferry to see the poems myself.