Friday, February 13, 2009

The walls still talk at San Francisco's Angel Island

The receiving building at Angel Island burns in this 1940 photograph. After the station was shuttered, it was turned over to the state park service and slated for demolition in the 1970s. But a sharp-eyed ranger spotted the ghostly verses on the walls, and demolition was canceled.

But as Angel Island Immigration Station reopens Sunday after a $16-million refurbishment, the walls have begun to tell a more complex tale, revealed by a new generation of scholarship and the discovery of more inscriptions.

Poems, yes, including about 80newly discovered Chinese verses. But there are also writings from many other nationalities. Desperate demands in Japanese: "Get me out of here fast!" Impatient orders in German: "Close the doors. There's a draft." A simple tally in Gurmukhi, a script used by Sikhs: "100 days. Tara Singh." Carved birds and a shrine to good fortune, with a butterfly and a basket.

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