Carved into the walls of Angel Island Immigration Station were poems that captured the longing, fear and hopes of Asian immigrants in the early 20th-century. Discovered by happenstance, these poems opened a window on the experiences of the more than 350,000 immigrants who were processed and sometimes detained before they were allowed to enter the U.S. and begin their journey of citizenship. Unlike the immigrants entering Ellis Island, Angel Island's Chinese immigrants faced a grueling entry process due to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese laborers from entry to the U.S.
For these immigrants, there was no Statute of Liberty with poetry to welcome them, only the constant fear of deportation and the legend of the golden mountain with its promise of a new life. While they waited, some of the immigrants composed poems or carved drawings on the walls of the barracks, capturing their experiences. Plastered or painted over, the more than 200 poems were considered graffiti until a park ranger recognized them for what they were just as the abandoned buildings were slated for demolition. The discovery galvanized a grassroots effort to preserve these poems so that they could be used to personalize and humanize the story of the immigration station.
“Nothing existing in print about the immigration experience written during this period comes close rivaling the power of poetry on Angel Island. The walls of the detention barracks thus become truly unique in that are akin to a rare fragile manuscript.”
—Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation
Thanks in part to a $500,000 Save America's Treasures grant in 2000, the resurrection and restoration of these poems and the structures that contained them was completed in 2009 and re-opened to the public. The discovery of the poems were a rallying point for the community who raised more than $19 million to restore the barracks and create an interpretive center to share the stories of these newcomers to the United States.