Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Part 2 of 2

Yesterday, I wrote about the surrounding areas outside the main barracks at the Angel Island Immigration Station. Today, we go inside the barracks, to the 1st floor.

The 1st floor is the main dormitory where the men and boys stayed. Most of the women and small children stayed on the 2nd floor. With the renovations, the 1st floor room is clean and clear, with many signs and photos re-telling the history. There are comfortable benches to sit on, so I planted myself down, and took in the room’s energy. I thought about all those men and boys who slept here, played cards, read newspapers, and worried about their fates. Between these metal poles, imagine triple bunk beds crowding the space:

There is a saying, “if walls could talk…” Well, these walls do talk. With much improved lighting, the main attraction here is the poetry on the wall. Detainees had carved poems into the walls which reflected their anger, homesickness, and disappointment in coming to America and being held captive here.

I have a scene in PAPER SON where Moon finds his friend, Old Man Fong carving poetry into the wall. When he realizes what Old Man Fong is doing and why, Moon then decides to carve something into the wall, something extremely dear to him. Something he misses. But I won’t spoil it; you'll have to read my book to find out what!

I learned that some detainees carved pictures, such as horses and trees. You may not be able to see it clearly in this video clip, but this is a horse!

I was disappointed that I couldn’t get into a tour which would take me upstairs to the women's and non-Chinese men's quarters, complete with new historical displays. The school groups had filled up the slots for the day. (Not a bad thing at all!) Oh, well... I'll have to return!

But this visit proved to be very enlightening. There was a self guided tour of the poems on the 1st floor. So, I walked around the room with the little laminated guide in hand, and read about one poem carved on the south wall. It was not an original poem by a detainee, but one written by Li Bo (701-762) from the Tang Dynasty called “Quiet Night Thoughts.”

Before my bed, the bright moonlight
I mistake it for frost on the ground

Raising my head, I stare at the bright moon

Lowering my head, I think of home

Instantly, I knew this poem could make it into my novel in a very significant way. There's a song which Moon’s mother sings to him, a song that I created. And that song takes on different roles during the course of the novel. What if she sang this poem to him? I had thought of looking for a Chinese poem or song to replace the song I currently have in the novel. And this poem may be the one.

I'm liking it the more I think about it.

It’s something I’ll discuss with an editor, when I connect with and find an editor for my novel!

Stay tuned.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Part 1 of 2

The Angel Island Immigration Station is the setting for PAPER SON, my middle grade historical novel. The last time I’d been to Angel Island State Park was in 2006, in the midst of writing PAPER SON during my 3rd semester with Uma at Vermont College of Fine Arts. At that time, I had visited the island to get a sense of the place, to remind myself of what the surroundings and atmosphere felt like. I felt lucky that I could visit the setting for my novel.

However, I couldn’t get close to the barracks because they were under construction and closed to the public. Good for the barracks, bad for me. I thought I could sit fairly nearby, not bother anyone, and write in my journal. But a construction worker asked me to leave. How ironic that I was being kicked out of the immigration station, when my ancestors, including my father as a young boy, were held there for days, weeks or
even months, almost 100 years ago.

In February 2009, the Immigration Station re-opened with
a grand dedication ceremony, despite a gloomy and stormy day on the San Francisco Bay. I was turned off by the bad weather and did not attend. So this past May, I jumped on two ferries back to Angel Island to see what was new. I was interested mainly
in seeing the newly restored barracks where approximately 170,000 immigrants were detained and questioned there from 1910-1945. A great majority of the detainees were Chinese, due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, but many others were also from different parts of Asia and Europe.

After hiking for about a ½ hour from Ayala Cove, the Immigration Station comes into partial view.

I am amazed at the renovations. When you first enter the Immigration Station area, you’re greeted by new signs, and nicely paved walking trails to the barracks. The kids in the video are from school groups. Isn't it great to see so many young people learning about this part of California and American history face to face?

This white building is where Angel Island staff kept mules for a short time. The new paths have clean benches to sit on where you can savor the surroundings. Very thoughtful, especially after a short hike.

As you walk further along, you come to the newly restored barracks, where immigrants had stayed in cramped quarters while awaiting their interrogations. The 2-story barracks don fresh paint on the outside. A new, covered staircase leads up to its entrance. Convenient picnic areas, beautiful landscaping, and wheel chair accessibility surrounds the entire area. I thought of my mom and how I could wheel her around if she ever wanted to visit the Station. If you came here and didn’t know the sad history, this building in its renovated exterior, could pass for a sweet bed & breakfast.

As I gazed all around me, I thought of my main character Moon, and how he would feel as he looked, for the first time, upon these barracks, and at that great, big staircase. The staircase today stands clean, freshly spruced-up, and inviting for school groups and visitors like myself; but I imagined Moon as dreading to set foot on those seemingly endless stairs leading up to the “mouth” of the barracks.

A tour guide told me that the squared off sections to the side of the barracks are markers for the administration buildings where the interrogations took place. Remnants of the concrete foundation still remain. In future renovations, there will be tables and chairs set up to illustrate where Chinese immigrants endured those infamous questions by authorities, such as "which direction does your front door face?" or "how many steps from your front door to your next door neighbor's house?"
or "where do you keep your rice bin?"

Tomorrow, Part 2: Inside the barracks, I look at the poetry the detainees carved into the walls, and discover a new, surprising connection to my novel.