Reconstruct and Illuminate: Advancing the Storytelling of Angel Island

The following is a translation of an article written by reporter Han Li which appeared in the World Journal on June 16, 2019. Please click HERE for the original article.

From the sad land full of immigrants' humiliating blood and tears to today's natural and beautiful California park, the story of Angel Island has been on the verge of being forgotten and picked up. This quiet island between San Francisco and Marin County has nearly 200,000 visitors a year, but there are not many people who know the history of immigration behind it.

Therefore, a dance group is also actively reinventing the historical story of Angel Island through innovative ways, let more people know the immigration of the past, and promote the popularity of Angel Island. The dilapidated old hospital on the island was also refurbished into a museum, inspiring visitors into a more wide-ranging narrative history narrative context.

The dancers performed in the dormitory of the Angel Island Immigration Station. (Reporter Li Wei Photography)

The audience followed the dancers for an hour and participated in this immersive dance performance. (Reporter Li Wei Photography)

If modern people want to understand the humiliation of the Chinese immigrants of Angel Island, they may all need to imagine. However, the well-known Chinese dancer Lenora Lee created an "Immersion" dance performance, which was performed at the original site of the Immigration Station on Angel Island, allowing the audience to be there and feel at home. .

"My grandparents and grandparents have all stayed at Angel Island," Lee said. She also found in the archives of San Bruno in the Bay Area many of her grandparents' information on Angel Island, including questions asked by immigration officials. For this Chinese history, she also lamented "too unfair", thus inspiring her inspiration to perform this dance on Angel Island.

Lenora Lee (pictured) performed dance on the island of Angel Island. Without the stage, the audience stood by her side. (Reporter Li Wei Photography)

This dance work is called "Within the Walls" and has been performed once in 2017. After performing again on Angel Island in 2019, she created a sequel. During the performance, the cast members dressed up as Chinese immigrants and immigration officers, and then began to enter the historical site step by step with the audience from the entrance of the immigration station.

From the dormitory, the kitchen, casual table tennis, immigration officers interrogating immigrants, fighting and other scenes, the dancers lead the audience for nearly an hour. This immersive form of dance that allows viewers to participate directly in the performance has become more popular in recent years.

Lenora Lee said that such an immersive performance was actually very complicated during the choreography, and it took her several years to prepare for the project. "It is to enable the audience to feel the discrimination of the Chinese in the first place."

At the beginning, all the performers and spectators are standing at the door of the Immigration Station, waiting to enter. "Everyone is like the immigrants waiting for a trial." Then, the white actors who play the immigration officers will read out the various rules, and the Chinese-translated actors will perform in Cantonese to simulate the scene at the time. Then the cast members will be separated, and the audience can also choose the actors they want to follow to see the development of different plot lines.

Dancer Gama Hsu, whose character in the above-mentioned "Walls", was eventually refused entry in the plot and was repatriated. She said that such a tragic scene performance almost made her feel the same, because Hsu herself is a Taiwanese immigrant and has experienced the suffering of the immigration process.

She said that when preparing for the dance, they would read a lot of historical articles and news stories to let them feel the humiliation of the immigrants. "Imagine that a person's family will be broken up like this."

At that time, the development of the plot was that some Chinese immigrants were passed in the censorship of Angel Island. The immigration officer’s translation would indicate that the person can enter the United States.

However, the some characters are not so lucky. The role of "Xing Xia" played by Hsu was repatriated. After hearing the news of the repatriation, Hsu performed the kind of sorrowful and sorrowful expression, and also won the praise of many audiences.

Because dance programs are performed on Angel Island, many people hope that Lenora Lee will bring this program to San Francisco or other big cities to let more people see and understand this history. Lee also confessed that she hopes to receive more funding in the future.

In the old hospital before the renovation, the inner walls were black. (Buck Gee for the picture)

The abandoned Angel Island Hospital is about to be refurbished into a museum to inspire more immigrant stories. (Reporter Li Wei Photography)

Renovated interior of the museum. It is expected to be officially opened next summer. (Reporter Li Wei Photography)

Next to the Immigration Station on Angel Island, there was once a hospital on the island. The building has been abandoned for many years, and the interior walls are almost black off before renovation.

After a period of community efforts, this abandoned hospital will officially open next year as a new Pacific Coast Immigration Center, after five years of renovation.

Buck Gee, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Angel Island Immigration Foundation (AIISF), is an important supporter of the project. He said that the history of Chinese immigrants on Angel Island is worth remembering. At the same time, it should have a broader perspective, so that more modern immigrants can feel the importance of tolerance in the history of immigration from Angel Island.

In Gee’s plan, he hopes that this museum can also become a home for post-Angel Island immigrant stories, such as stories of international students, businessmen and political asylum seekers. During the detention of Chinese immigrants on Angel Island, Chinese workers were prohibited from immigrating.

Buck Gee was the vice president of Cisco Systems and a member of the Committee of 100. After he retired, he entered the Angel Island Immigration Foundation and began to preserve the history and culture of Chinese immigrants. He said that he is also a descendant of a "paper son", that is, the fathers came to the United States by purchasing birth certificates and using fake immigrants, because it was difficult for Chinese immigrants to enter the United States.

This project, which cost nearly $15 million, in addition to the exhibition of art and culture, will also retain some historical sites of the year, such as laboratories and wards in hospitals. Casey Lee, an education interpreter at Angel Island, said that in fact, many doctors in their early years were all trying to pick out the infectious diseases of these immigrant detainees as a reason to expel them.

Sheffield is the longest-lived resident of Angel Island currently known for 35 years. (Reporter Li Wei Photography)

There have been no permanent residents on Angel Island, only the staff employed by the park and their families live here. Over the past few years, there have been more and more campers, and there are also educational programs organized by schools to spend the night on the island.

Educational interpreter Casey Lee has lived on the island for nearly 18 years. However, in the current known history, the longest living time is the retired boat driver Alan Sheffield.

From 1975 to 2010, Sheffield worked on the island. "My son grew up here," "I never feel lonely," he said. According to him, in the early days, there would not be too many overnight people on the island.

In 1979, a stone monument commemorating the Chinese nation was also erected on the island of Angel, with Chinese poems written on it. This stone is now placed next to the hospital and can be seen by the public after the opening of the new museum. Sheffield also hopes to have more pop culture and movies to tell the story of Angel Island and let more people come to visit.

A little-known stone monument completed in 1978, engraved with Chinese verses to commemorate the history of Chinese immigrants. The stone monument will be open to the public after the museum opens next year. (Reporter Li Wei Photography)

Among the Chinese communities, there has always been a call to raise the popularity of Angel Island. Only San Francisco and Tiburon in Marin County have ferries to reach Angel Island every day.

Therefore, there have been community calls to invite the famous Chinese architect Maya Lin to build a statue or building on Angel Island to become a reason for visitors to visit. Maya Lin’s father, Henry Huan Lin, is Lin Huiyin’s half-brother. Huiyin is also well-known in the American architectural design community.

"It's like a dream," said David Lei, a former director of the Asian Art Museum, who is active in the Chinese community. They have never really mentioned this idea to Maya Lin.

On the east coast, Ellis Island is also a detention station for immigrants, but because of the Statue of Liberty on the island, there are a lot of tourists every year. In contrast, Angel Island is relatively low-profile, even worse than Alcatraz.

Russell Nauman