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Monday, January 6, 2014

January 6, 2014: San Fran Sites: Angel Island

[As I was reminded during my book talk visit, the Bay Area is home to numerous, significant American sites. In this week’s series, I’ll highlight a handful of such evocative places. Add your thoughts, or your own sites, in the comments!]

On the site that reminds us that you’ve got to go there to know there.
I’ve written a lot, in the last few years, about San Francisco Bay’s Angel Island: from this very early blog post to this follow up, and at length in the third chapter of my recent book. It’s fair to say, in fact, that there are few American historic or cultural sites about which I’ve thought more than Angel Island, and more exactly the Immigration Station there that became both a prison and a poetic archive for so many Chinese and Asian American arrivals. In this 21st-century moment, with websites like the two to which I linked in that last sentence, it’s absolutely possible to connect deeply and meaningfully with a historic and cultural site from afar, and so I don’t believe that my prior writings on Angel Island were significantly limited because I hadn’t yet had the chance to visit the site in person. But now that I have had the opportunity to do so, I’ll admit that there are many elements to the site that it’d be very difficult to appreciate without such a visit.
For one thing, there’s the island’s crucial contradiction: its closeness to San Francisco, yet at the same time its powerful sense of separation and isolation. San Francisco’s harbor is clearly visible from the island, and would have been even more so in the early 20th century, with much less suburban development in between. Riding on the ferry to the island on a pleasant early November morning, I could imagine how that visibility felt to arriving Chinese immigrants, the promised mainland only a short final boat ride across the bay. Yet the island itself feels far from the city, most especially because it is large and natural/wild enough (and again, would have likely been even more so a century ago) that it feels very much like a space and world of its own. It’s difficult to overstate how painful and destructive this contradiction would likely have felt to those arrivals detained at Angel Island, many for months and even years: to be so close and yet so far away from their destination, to see (probably daily, and certainly frequently) the place which was being withheld from them. It’s no wonder they wrote such lyrical and evocative poems!
Being on the island, surrounded by its natural and still wild (or at least un-developed) landscapes and beauty, also led me to another and perhaps even more complex question: how much the island, and specifically the rocky, forested inlet on which the immigration station was built, might have reminded many of the Chinese arrivals of the landscape and world which they had left behind. I haven’t been to China, so this is a particularly speculative idea; and it would seem to conflict with the opening of one of the Angel Island poems, which reads “The sea-scape resembles lichen twisting and turning for a thousand li./There is no shore to land and it is difficult to walk.” But on the other hand, it would be possible to read that poem’s frustration as caused by the similarity to what had been left behind, the sense that the speaker has traveled so far only to find him or herself seemingly no closer to a new world—a reading that would relate to the poem’s next line, “With a gentle breeze I arrived at the city thinking all would be so.” And no matter what, a visit to Angel Island helps us to think with more depth about such poems, and the Chinese American experience overall.
Next site tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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