Where the Walls Speak
Alexander Weiss had just started his job as a California state park ranger on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay when he came across an old abandoned building. Off limits to the public, its windows boarded up, the two-story wooden structure stood dark and deserted behind a barbed wire fence. On an impulse, Weiss decided to venture inside and look around.
He pulled open the door. The floor creaked as he entered. The electricity had long since been turned off, so he found his way through the empty rooms and up the stairs with his flashlight, stepping over litter and broken glass. Paint was peeling from the walls and ceiling. The building smelled musty.
In a large room on the second floor, Weiss noticed markings that seemed to be carved into the walls. Moving closer, he saw that the marks appeared to be Chinese calligraphy, covered by a thin layer of chipped paint.
“I looked around and shined my flashlight up and I could see that the entire walls were covered with calligraphy, and that was what blew me away,” he remembered. “People had carved the stuff on every square inch of wall space, not just in this one room but all over.”
Although he couldn’t read the inscriptions, he recognized their historical importance. Angel Island had once been a busy immigration station, where people hoping to enter the United States were examined and questioned and often held for days or weeks or even months while immigration officials decided their fate. For many immigrants, Angel Island was the gateway to a new life in America. But for others—those who were denied entry to the United States—it was a locked gate through which they caught just a glimpse of America before they were sent back to their native land.
While waiting for their cases to be decided, Chinese immigrants carved or painted row after row of poems on the walls of their detention barracks, telling of their long voyages from China, their confinement on the lonely island, their longing for families back home, their hopes, frustration, anger, and despair. And while Chinese were the most numerous immigrants to pass through Angel Island, immigrants from all over the world left wall inscriptions of various kinds in Japanese, Korean, Russian, Punjabi, Spanish, Italian, German, and English.
When Weiss reported his discovery, he was told that the calligraphy and other inscriptions were just “a bunch of graffiti” and to forget about them. The abandoned building was about to be torn down, part of the island’s redevelopment as a state park.
But Weiss couldn’t forget. He felt so strongly about the historical importance of his discovery, he was willing to risk his job to help save the poems and inscriptions on the detention barracks walls. “Actually, I am also an immigrant,” he explained, “so I have an empathy with immigrants.”
Born in Vienna, Austria, Weiss had been brought to America as a four-year-old Jewish refugee when his parents fled from the Holocaust during World War II. “I didn’t discover the poems,” he insisted. “They had been there for years, and other people knew they were there. But I am proud of the fact that I was able to [help save them].”
He came across the poems on an afternoon in May 1970. When his superior told him not to bother with them, Weiss alerted George Araki, who had been his biology professor at San Francisco State College. The professor’s mother had come through Angel Island as a Japanese immigrant. Araki went to the island to see the poems for himself, and he had a photographer take pictures of every inch of wall that had inscriptions.
After araki showed the photos at a meeting of the Asian American Studies Department, students and faculty began to ride the ferry out to Angel Island to view the wall poems. “They were all young Asian American students,” Weiss recalled, “whose parents and grandparents had come through Angel Island, but they had no idea of this history because their parents would not talk about it.”
As word spread, activists in the Asian American community launched a campaign to save the Angel Asland Ammigration Station. “I really felt it in my bones that this was a story that needed to be told,” said journalist Chris Chow, “a historic landmark that needed to be saved.”