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.


david elzey said...

Wow, what a change. My wife and I camped out on Angel Island back in 2003 and the barracks were in shambles, the grounds in ruins. Glad to see the parks department was able to renovate them.

As an aside I have to say that camping out on Angel Island is an eerie experience. Even though you can see the Bay Area all around there is a strange quiet at night. After the last ferry leaves the only people left on the island are a ranger and any other campers who might be there.

Surrounded by all that water and knowing you cannot leave until the next days' ferry can be momentarily disconcerting, I can only imagine what it must be like to be interned there.

Frances Lee Hall said...

Thanks for posting about your experience staying overnight at Angel Island. Just thinking about the ferry leaving for the night gives me chills. Cheers!

diannewrites said...

Frances, I'd meant to check this out when you first posted it, but I am just now getting around to it. I wonder if you felt anger at all, looking at how nicely spruced up the barracks are now, compared to how they probably were during the time of your family's stay there, many years ago.

Frances Lee Hall said...

Dianne, interesting question. I didn't feel anger... I feel that the new paint is only part of the Angel Island story. It's wonderful to have the renovations, to see money put to great use, preserving a part of history. But I also remind myself that things were not rosy here, and that I will always honor and remember its sad history. I hope others will, too.