Poems on the Walls at Angel Island

In 1970, park ranger Alexander Weiss came across the poetry while inspecting the Angel Island building. California State Parks had plans to demolish the building, but he asked that it be preserved for the poetry. His supervisors had apparently told him not to bother “with a bunch of graffiti”. When Ranger Weiss told his professor at San Francisco State about the poetry, word spread. Eventually, scholars, archaeologists, and others successfully fought for the building’s preservation.

Several internet rabbit holes later, I was shocked to learn that Ranger Weiss was an Austrian Jew who fled Nazi rule with his family in 1940, when he was four years old. During the Civil Rights Movement, he was arrested for his activities as a Freedom Rider. While Ranger Weiss likely didn’t know it at the time, his actions, along with those of millions of Black Americans and allies, helped pave the way for my family’s immigration in 1969. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was passed in a wave of progressive legislation after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

When I finally visited the immigration station on a solo trip last July, it was a surreal experience. Since there were so few visitors, the very friendly ranger, Erin, graciously gave me a personal tour of the barracks. She could not read Chinese, but had memorized the translations for almost every poem in the building. Ranger Erin also pointed out images of birds, homes, boats, fishes, and other objects carved into the walls. I proceeded to explore every inch of the detention barracks, for three hours. Though I couldn’t understand most of the Chinese characters on the walls (despite learning Mandarin for 13 years), seeing the poetry and drawings etched into the immigration barracks helped me find closure I didn’t know I needed.