New Day Dawns for Chinese Writing on the Wall

June 21, 2007

by Violet Law

The Architectural Resources Group (ARG) and Tom Eliot Fisch have resurrected a nearly lost piece of history by preserving the handwriting on the wall—literally—at the former Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco. Known as the West Coast version of Ellis Island, it was the entry point for close to 200,000 predominantly Chinese immigrants at the turn of the last century. Angel Island’s compound consists of barracks, a hospital, and a powerhouse. These structures are less well preserved than their eastern counterparts. Demolition was planned for the early 1970s, until hand-etched poetry was discovered on the dormitory walls. A listing on the National Register of Historic Places soon followed.

Photos Courtesy Architectural Resources Group/Tom Eliot Fisch

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When the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was in full force, the island’s barracks functioned as a detention center to control the number of immigrants allowed into the United States. Detainees covered its walls with hundreds of poems that expressed their anguish. One rhyming couplet reads: “Red tape has held us up in this wood shack for scores of days/Our talent lies waste.” Treating these words like defacement, custodians painted over them—but immigrants would then recarve their writings.

Lead-based paint turned out to be “a perfect preservative” for the palimpsest of poems, says Aaron Hyland, AIA, an ARG principal who oversaw a $16 million, four-year restoration project. To conserve the poems, crews carefully cleaned the walls of dirt and mold. They then applied a wood preservative, reattached flaking paint layers, and treated the walls with a consolidant to stop the decay.

Translations of the poetry now form the core of an interpretative tour of Angel Island, which was designated a national park. Future plans for the immigration station include converting the hospital into a genealogy research center, and the powerhouse into a visitor’s center.

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