Angel Island, Calif. 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.
Excluded by race
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.
Under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, laborers were not allowed to enter the United States. The law, the first one in U.S. history that targeted a specific ethnic group, was enacted in response to complaints about the influx of Chinese laborers, who had come to work on the railroads.
Exceptions to the law, later repealed in 1943, were made for wives and children of American citizens, merchants, students, diplomats and tourists.
Self expression, survival
Historical accounts of life at the station showed great disparity between treatment of Asian and non-Asian immigrants, who were held in separate quarters. Asian detainees, housed in sections of the two-story barracks building that were meant to accommodate 100 but often held 500, were given substandard food, saltwater showers and limited recreation behind barbed-wire fences.
Views from triple-stacked bunks only hinted at the lush greenery and deep blue ocean just outside their confines. Detainees were kept on the north side of Angel Island, faced away from the bustling city that promised them so much opportunity.
Languishing from indefinite stays, prisonlike quarters and grueling interrogations, many Chinese turned to poetry to vent.
"Poetry is much more central to Chinese culture than it might be to others," Egan said. "Poetry was seen as a natural product of emotional experience, so there was always a premium placed on expressing yourself, especially in a time of high emotion."
The poems suggest the writers were well-educated and well-organized, possibly working in "poetry clubs" that were selective about what became murallike carvings on the wall, Egan said.
Homer Lee, who was 16 when he arrived at Angel Island in 1926, remembered seeing groups of older men - many of them schoolteachers - huddled together to discuss and display their poetry on the walls during his six-month detainment.
"They tell the truth of their lives and the future of their lives on the wall," said the 95-year-old, who now lives in Berkeley and revisited the island last year.
Examples of Angel Island poems
More than 150 poems have been found on the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station barracks, where thousands of Chinese immigrants were detained for weeks or months between 1910 and 1940. What follows is the text of three poems found recently by a team of scholars, as part of the state parks restoration project: It's been a long time since I left my home village Who could know I'd end up imprisoned in a wooden building? I'm heartsick when I see my reflection, my handkerchief is soaked in tears I ask you, what crime did I commit to deserve this? - Li Hai of Nancun, Taishan Dwelling in the wooden building, I give vent to despair Searching for a living while perching on a mountain - it's hard to earn glory Letters do not arrive, my thoughts in vain In bitterness and sadness, I watch for my early release - Unsigned