It was a beautiful day; my husband was recovering nicely from a prolonged illness; and, with our old friends from New Jersey of forty years’ standing (David and Audrey Chai), we set off on Saturday, July, 23, 2011 for Angel Island for the dedication of the Immigrant Heritage Wall.
We set forth from the Ferry Building in San Francisco and landed on Ayala Cove on Angel Island. In the ensuing confusion, we had to find our way on foot to the Immigration Station a mile and half away over steep and rocky terrain as the shuttle services were overbooked. As we made our way to the Immigration Station where the ceremonies are held, we were joined by other travelers both young and old — some in strollers and bikes, some with canes or in wheelchairs. Yet all were cheerful and determined to get to our destination.
During this trek and throughout the day, we talked about our immigrant experiences and enjoyed an easy camaraderie with each other. (I was put in mind of another pilgrimage over six hundred years ago in England: When April with his showers sweet with fruit/The drought of March has pierced unto the root.)
Not all the people there had ancestors who passed through Angel Island. My father was born in Canada in 1909, my husband Fu-Tin came from Hong Kong in 1959 to study at the University of British Columbia, our friend David came via Taiwan and Japan to pursue his Ph. D. in Michigan, and his wife Audrey grew up in Brazil. Throughout the day, we chatted with many others. Some had immigrated from Vietnam and The Philippines long after the Immigration Station was closed and many of the harsh laws repealed. As the day progressed, it became clear that we were all there to honor not just the immigrants who were detained at Angel Island and who had suffered through an forgettable era of blatant discrimination in the United States, but we were there also to honor all immigrants who made sacrifices to seek a better life in the United States for themselves and future generations.
The ceremonies were attended by thousands in a festive mood, lounging on the lawn, picnicking on the grass. The keynote speech was given by Representative Lynn Woolsey, who helped to obtain millions of dollars in federal funding for the restoration of Angel Island. Angel Island State Park Superintendent Amy Brees, California State Parks Director Ruth Coleman, and members of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) including President Buck Gee, VP and emcee Katherine Toy, and Executive Director Eddie Wong all worked hard on the project and were there to commemorate the occasion. Immigrants or their descendants gave moving accounts of their experiences or loving tributes honoring the sacrifices of their ancestors. Along with the cultural programs and discussions, the day’s festivities were well-planned and most enjoyable.
The Heritage Wall was created with the donations of over 600 individuals and over 350 immigrants are honored on the 182 plaques. Many of the Chinese and Asian immigrants named on the plaques were among thousands detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station between 1910 and 1940 during an era of harsh and racially discriminatory immigration laws.
The Heritage Wall was a big hit and may prove to have the impact of the Vietnamese War Memorial in Washington, DC in invoking the memories for those that it honors. Family members young and old gather to find the plaques of their loved ones and picture-taking in front of the wall was a favorite activity.
The exhibits and displays in the Immigration Station were surprisingly good. Men and women were housed in separate facilities. The women’s lounge, sleeping quarters, bath areas, and kitchen areas were recreated with fascinating artifacts from that era. Volunteers were out in full force and very helpful. In particular, Lena and Polly Fong had poignant stories to share. Standing next to a large photograph of her mother, Lum Wum Hoy, and herself as a baby, Lena Fong is a wonderful example of the American citizens who are descendants of the original immigrants who pass through Angel Island.
We marvel at one of the beautiful poems that was carved on the concrete wall. We were struck by the beautiful literary content of one in particular and by its exceptional calligraphy. The poems are a stark reminder of the humanity of the detainees at the Immigration Station and their quest for justice and freedom.
Despite snafus in transportation getting in and around Angel Island caused by the unexpected crowds that were there, this pilgrimage to Angel Island was an elucidating and heartwarming experience. Kudos to all the hardworking staff and volunteers who worked on this project. Visit www.aiisf.org for more information about Angel Island.