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AAAYA NorCal – Yale Day of Service 2009 at Angel Island Immigration Station – Recap

Yale Global Day of Service, May 16, 2009 “Eating Bitter to Taste Sweet”: Preserving the Poetry at Angel Island with AAAYA

You know you’re in trouble when your day of service begins with the head of the organization you’re helping asks if you’ve seen “Cool Hand Luke” and then says, “Well, remember the scene where he’s working in the prison yard?  Yeah, well, you can just call me Boss.”  Last Saturday, almost 30 Yale alumni joined together for Yale’s Global Day of Service at Angel Island, the immigrant detention center (now bearing the innocuous rhyming label: “Immigration Station”) that is sometimes called the “Ellis Island of the West.”  However, unlike Ellis Island where the average stay was one to two days and whose purpose was primarily registering immigrants, Angel Island was built in 1908 at the height of the “Yellow Peril” to prevent what many Americans feared would be hordes of Chinese immigrants flooding into the US and changing its national character forever.  Chinese immigrants were separated from all other groups and the average detention for Chinese immigrants was two weeks  (though many stayed for months or even years when their cases were in dispute).  During these two weeks, the immigrants were quizzed on the members of their family tree, the layout of their ancestral village and home, and events from their childhood to prove their right to enter the country.  They were isolated from all communication to prevent them from cheating when answering the immigration questions.  Wrong answers meant returning to China.  Chinese immigrants did not engage in violent protests of their treatment, instead they expressed their anger, frustration, and sadness in poignant and often elegantly worded poetry carved into the walls of the “Immigration Station.”  It was the discovery of these poems that led to the detention center buildings being designated as historical landmarks and saved them from demolition. 

Organizers Grant Din and Wei-Tai Kwok made this special day both a day of service and a day of remembrance by sponsoring the Northern California Asian American AYA (AAAYA) at Angel Island.  We battled rank growths of invading Italian thistle patches, leveled paths for disabled access, posted signs, and set up for a poetry reading scheduled for the next day.  One visitor observing our efforts was overheard commenting, “They must be volunteers, they’re working much too hard to be government employees!”  We also enjoyed a short picnic lunch together looking across the beautiful San Francisco bay and a tour of the “Immigration Station.”  The week before, our family had attended a poetry discussion led by Elizabeth Alexander, and she talked both about the power of poetry to define our national character and to transform everyday life.  At last weekend’s day of service we were proud to be a part of preserving the poetry at Angel Island, the power of which transformed a rotting prison into an important historical site chronicling the hope and despair of a group of immigrants that in fact did become a part of changing the American national character forever.  Incoming Dean Alexander said her goal was for every Yale student to enroll in an African-American Studies course before graduating because these courses are an important part of the American Story.  Angel Island also tells an American Story.  The Chinese have a four character saying, “Eat Bitter Taste Sweet,” meaning remember the bad to appreciate the good.  Preserving our past is the only way we can walk forward into the light.  This is our American Story.     

To see photos and video from Yale Day of Service activities from other AAAYA chapters visit

For more information on all the Yale Day of Service events plus some photos visit

“The global Yale Day of Service was an overwhelming success with over 3500 members of the Yale community volunteering in nearly 170 sites in 40 states and twelve countries.  So much great work was done in soup kitchens, parks, homeless shelters, schools and more, all because members of the Yale community are committed to making a difference wherever they are.  Save the date now for next year’s Yale Day of Service: Saturday, May 15, 2010.”

Keep your calendars open for more great events coming up soon, including AAAYA NorCal – Yale Summer Happy Hour in San Francisco (June 24th) and AAAYA NorCal – Yale Summer Picnic in Palo Alto (July 12th).

Thanks to all that volunteered and especially to the AAAYA NorCal Yale Day of Service 2009 Chairs (Grant Din and Wei-Tai Kwok) for leading this event and to Julie Wong for the photos and writeup.

AAAYA NorCal – Yale Day of Service 2009 at Angel Island, CA

More photos, videos, articles/resources below in this post – select the More link.


Angel Island Immigration Station video tour produced by Jane Tyska of Bay Area News Group

Angel Island Immigration Station tour with Don Lee who was detained in 1939 at age 11  (Mark Prado / Marin Independent Journal)

US Immigration History Preserved on Angel Island – AP video story Interview with Harmen Guan in 1997-1998 who was detained in 1938 at age 15  (Eddie Wong / Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation)

Interview with Robertson Yee in 1997-1998 who was detained in 1921 at age 10  (Eddie Wong / Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation)

Interview with Wing Young in 1997-1998 who was detained in 1928 at age 13  (Eddie Wong / Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation)


Angel Island Immigration Station slideshow  16 photos detention barracks, poetry carved on walls, former dock & fog warning bell, detainee suitcase, detainee meal, game room. (Jane Tyska/Staff Bay Area News Group) from “Angel Island Immigration Station”

91 Photos (Marin Independent Journal) from “Angel Island Immigration Station Grand Re-Opening 15 Feb 2009”

8 Photos (Michael Macer / San Francisco Chronicle) from “Bitter memories of Ellis Island of the West”

9 photos  (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times) from “The Walls Still Talk at Angel Island”,0,1662647.photogallery


“A trip into Angel Island’s past” by Matt O’Brien / San Jose Mercury News 3/14/09

“On Angel Island, the walls really talk” by Maria L. La Ganga / Los Angeles Times 2/13/09,0,351864.story

“Angel Island Immigration & Detention Center Re-Opening” by Pam Gould / Marin Independent Journal 2/16/09

“Bitter memories of Ellis Island of the West” by Carl Nolte / San Francisco Chronicle  12/10/08

Angel Island Immigration Station – In the News

For more information about the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, additional restoration phases & how to donate time and resources go to

More information about Angel Island Poetry including major influences & themes such as alienation, immigration, labor, and race in America

Oral history project on Chinese detainees at Angel Island by Lydia Lum

#AAAYANorCal #YaleDayofService #NorthernCalifornia #Events #AngelIsland #News


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