Over the last few years, I have become increasingly fascinated by the little known story of the Immigration Detention Station on Angel Island, located in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. Sometimes referred to as “The Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island served as the entry point for virtually all American immigrants of Asian descent between 1910 and 1940. However, unlike it’s East-Coast cousin, where most people were processed into New York in a matter of hours, because of the overtly racist Chinese Exclusion Act, many immigrants were held on Angel Island for weeks, or even months, in a kind of hellish purgatory, as they underwent lengthy interrogations meant to objectively prove a relationship with an existing citizen. During their seemingly-endless detentions, some immigrants carved poetry into the walls of their dormitories as a way to pass the time, and to express their unhappiness, homesickness, and fear. In the interceding years, these poems were painted over and lost to history until 1970, when, during a final inspection just before the center was due to be demolished, a park ranger stumbled upon a few faint poems and was intrigued by their potential historical significance. With the support of the local Chinese community, demolition was halted, the center was subsequently turned into a museum, and the poems – more than two-hundred of them – have been translated into English by Him Mark Lai, Judy Yung and Genny Lim.
This piece, In the Quiet of Night, sets a poem that was carved into the walls by a man who identifies himself simply as “Yee of Toishan,” referring to the province of Southern China. My own family immigrated from Toishan during this same period, and I feel a special kinship to this poem. It’s easy to imagine this moment he chose to memorialize, gazing across the darkness of the Bay at the foggy lights of San Francisco, caught in stillness and despondence, reflecting on the past he was forced to leave, and the uncertain future that lay ahead.
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 crickets chirp.
Grief and bitterness entwined are heaven sent.
The sorrowful man sits alone, leaning by a window.
Adapted from Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, eds. Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, Second Edition. pp. 66. © 2014. Reprinted courtesy of the University of Washington Press.
Cover Photo Credits:
Top: Angel Island with San Francisco in the background. Photo by Taras Bobrovytsky, Public Domain.
Lower Left: Angel Island Detention Center Museum. Photo by Ursula Kwong-Brown.
Lower Right: National Archives, Public Health Service Historical Photograph. Original caption: “Angel Island, Cal. Intensive physical examination of aliens, Immigration Hospital.” Date: 1912-1939