Although I’d been to Angel Island before, I’d not been to the Immigration Station Museum (current State Parks’ site, also more info at this page from the 150th anniversary of the California State Parks in 2014.) Housed in the detention barracks of the station, the museum tells the story of the site’s 30 years as the West Coast’s Ellis Island. Those years: 1910 – 1940 featured many policies which were actually focused on excluding immigrants from Pacific Rim countries, and Angel Island was a point of enforcement.
The site was also used as a detainment center during WWII, but then abandoned and fell into disrepair, eventually being slated for demolition in 1970. Fortunately, before this occurred, Chinese poetry was rediscovered – carved into the walls of the barracks by the immigrant occupants, leading to renewed interest in the site and its preservation. Bay Area Asian Americans banded together and created the Angel Island Immigration Station Historical Advisory Committee (AIISHAC) to facilitate historical preservation and interpretation.
Due to these efforts, the California state legislature designated the site as a state monument in 1976, and appropriated $250,000 for restoration. The barracks opened to the public in 1983, and members of AIISHAC created the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) to continue preservation and educational efforts. In addition to preserving the poems, the AIISF has collected oral histories of immigrants who came through the station and developed educational resources. Their history page includes a number of the poems and translations. The Station was declared a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 1997. The AIISF has spearheaded addition fundraising for a major restoration of the barracks (2004 – February 2009) and the hospital, which is slated to open as the Pacific Coast Immigration Center in 2020, along with other site enhancements.
The Museum is well done, and I found the rooms with bunks and belongings particularly evocative of the experience the immigrants had. Seeing the carved poetry, and reading about how it would get filled in by the authorities and new poems would be carved was also very moving. Although I cannot read Chinese, the characters seem to reach across the years. It’s wonderful that this site has been preserved as a historical resource, and well worth a visit.