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Many Americans know about Ellis Island. Less well-known and considerably darker is the story of Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay. That's where U.S. authorities detained hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants between 1910 and 1940 under harsh conditions. Now a Chinese American composer, string quartet and vocal ensemble are using music to bring those immigrants' struggles to life. Chloe Veltman of member station KQED reports.
CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: It's easy to miss the poems detainees carved into the walls of the Angel Island immigration station. But if you look carefully, thousands of Chinese characters start to emerge from the dingy layers of green and yellow paint.
CHARLTON LEE: (Non-English language spoken).
VELTMAN: What does it mean?
LEE: Roughly, unable to achieve your ambitious goals, now you're buried in the dirt.
VELTMAN: I'm visiting the station, now a national historic landmark, with Charlton Lee. He plays the viola with the Del Sol Quartet.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VELTMAN: His group commissioned "Angel Island." They'll perform the new musical work alongside the San Francisco vocal ensemble Volti.
LEE: Seeing these poems here in this context is pretty shocking.
VELTMAN: Lee is a second-generation Chinese immigrant. He's from the San Francisco Bay Area, but he says he only found out about Angel Island's immigration history as a college student.
LEE: It's like, you don't learn anything about this history at all.
CASEY DEXTER-LEE: So for this 30 years of operation, this facility, while nicknamed the Ellis Island of the West - the people that worked here called it the Guardian of the Western Gate, and their job was to keep people out.
VELTMAN: California State Parks interpreter Casey Dexter-Lee says the majority of the immigrants who traveled through Angel Island were from places like China, Japan and India. As a result of racist immigration laws, Chinese newcomers faced particularly grueling interrogations and average stays of weeks or even months. Other applicants typically stayed just a couple of days. Dexter-Lee says deportation and appeal rates for Chinese people were also higher.
DEXTER-LEE: About 50% of Chinese immigrants failed their initial entry hearing.
VELTMAN: After the Second World War, the station was decommissioned and was almost torn down. But in 1970, a visiting park ranger noticed poems carved into the walls.
DEXTER-LEE: The poems on the walls are what saved this building from destruction.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).
VELTMAN: This is a clip from a video made in 2018. Chinese American composer Huang Ruo stands in a bare room on Angel Island, improvising a melody to one of the wall poems accompanied by members of the Del Sol Quartet. Speaking from his home in New York recently, the composer says that research trip was a visceral journey. He went from basking in the beautiful outdoor scenery to understanding something of the horror of being confined indoors.
HUANG RUO: I feel I could relate, being there, looking out from inside.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VELTMAN: The music Ruo went on to compose takes the listener on a similar journey. It sets three of the Angel Island war poems, moving from a hopeful immigrant's experience of traveling to America...
RUO: The journey through the ocean and so many unknowns.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VELTMAN: ...To a detainee's anguish at seeing that hope slip away to nothing.
ANDI WONG: If you know that all of us are here because somebody in our past made that journey, you're more likely to care and be empathetic.
VELTMAN: That's Andi Wong. She lives in San Francisco. Her grandmother came through Angel Island in 1929. Wong says her grandfather, who had already emigrated, was forced to pay a hefty fee for his wife's release.
If he'd refused, what would have happened?
WONG: She would have been sent back. So I wouldn't be here standing, talking to you.
VELTMAN: Wong says this country's attitude towards many immigrants hasn't improved much since then, what with the ongoing crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border and the lack of leniency towards Haitian asylum-seekers today. And that's where art comes in. Wong says works like "Angel Island" can help us reconnect with the past in a new way, like forgotten Chinese characters emerging through thick layers of paint on a wall.
For NPR News, I'm Chloe Veltman in San Francisco.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ORATORIO FOR VOICES AND STRING QUARTET")
THE DEL SOL QUARTET AND VOLTI: (Singing in non-English language).
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