For There is Always Light

Today, January 21st is National Angel Island Day.

On this day, we take time to remember the stories, events, and people from the Immigration Station’s 111-year history.

“An Island Light” Angel Island, in sight; January 21, 2021

The light of San Francisco
is a sea light
an island light

— from The Changing Light, by LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed a proclamation declaring January 21st as National Angel Island Day.

“From the cities, villages, and farms of their birth, they journeyed across the Pacific, seeking better lives for themselves and their children. Many arrived at Angel Island, weary but hopeful, only to be unjustly confined for months or, in some cases, years. As we remember their struggle, we honor all who have been drawn to America by dreams of limitless opportunity.

Unlike immigrants who marveled at the Statue of Liberty upon arrival at Ellis Island, those who came to Angel Island were greeted by an intake facility that was sometimes called the “Guardian of the Western Gate.” Racially prejudiced immigration laws of the time subjected many to rigorous exams and interrogations, as well as detention in crowded, unsanitary barracks. Some expressed themselves by carving poetry and  inscriptions into the walls in their native language — from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean to Russian, German, and Urdu. These etchings remain on Angel Island today as poignant reminders of the immigrant experience and an unjust time in our history.

If there is any vindication for the Angel Island immigrants who endured so many hardships, it is the success achieved by those who were allowed entry, and the many who, at long last, gained citizenship. They have contributed immeasurably to our Nation as leaders in every sector of American life. The children of Angel Island have seized the opportunities their ancestors saw from across an ocean. By demonstrating that all things are possible in America, this vibrant community has created a beacon of hope for future generations of immigrants.”

The History That We Stand On, and The Future We Stand For

22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman, America’s first Youth Poet Laureate

On January 20, 2021, Amanda Gorman became the sixth and youngest poet, at age twenty-two, to deliver a poetry reading at a presidential inauguration. She was invited to write a poem inspired by the theme, “America United.” Amanda wanted to write about a new chapter in our country, while acknowledging the dark chapter in American history that we are living through. “Now more than ever, the United States needs an inaugural poem,” Gorman said. “Poetry is typically the touchstone that we go back to when we have to remind ourselves of the history that we stand on, and the future that we stand for.” 

We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
and every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it

— from The Hill We Climb, by AMANDA GORMAN

“A Sea We Must Wade” Angel Island, in sight; January 21, 2021

In response to the Inauguration Day, poet Flo Oy Wong wrote this new poem, inspired by Amanda Gorman, America’s first National Youth Poet Laureate, and Kamala Harris, the first woman, as well as the first African American and first Asian American, to serve as Vice President of the United States. Kamala means “lotus flower” in Sanskrit.

As a Petal of Hope Takes Shape

In brackish water, hope emerges
from a cracked seed like the lotus.
In search of light, hope wends itself,
stretches towards illumination,
waits to dance with dreams.
As a petal of hope takes shape
it tastes like delectable kindness.
It smells sweet like heartfelt compassion.
It feels like golden silk stitched

to goodness of humankind.

FLO OY WONG, January 5 – 19, 2021

Dancing with Dreams: Angel Island, in sight; January 21, 2021

The world premiere performance of Huang Ruo’s “Your Wall is Our Canvas: The Angel Island” with The Del Sol String Quartet is currently planned for October 2021 on Angel Island.

“Sound of Home” Summer Learning with the Del Sol String Quartet

Summer vacation provided an interesting opportunity to explore virtual learning with students at Dianne Feinstein Elementary School. When the 2019-2020 school ended, students entering the fifth grade were presented with an open invitation to participate in a free summer music workshop with the Del Sol String Quartet. Our stated goal: To work with workshop participants to create a book and recording of an original musical composition for The Del Sol String Quartet & Huang Ruo’s “Your Wall is Our Canvas: The Angel Island Project.”

With a more relaxed summer schedule, the pre-workshop assignments and on-line music workshop were designed to give students a self-driven, hands-on arts exploration over the course of a month. Students were presented with two assignments, in advance of a July 13th online Zoom workshop with the members of Del Sol. The online workshop aimed to create a low-stress experience where the participating students would have fun socially connecting with their peers through musical play.

A Change of Perspective with Digital Photography

The first summer assignment explored digital photography, through a series of prompts, inspired by nine collaborative poems written by the 4th grade class. Using a camera can help to open up new ways of appreciating and enjoying familiar physical surrounds, and the students had been sheltering in place at home since March 13. After confirming that each student had access to a cell phone that would enable them to take digital photos, the workshop participants were presented with nine exercises that would encourage students to explore their everyday surroundings. When we gathered online, it was a fun treat to enjoy seeing each of the individual responses to the same prompt and appreciate the personal way that each photographer addressed the assignment.

A Sonic Scavenger Hunt

The second assignment was inspired by Del Sol musical collaborator, composer Danny Clay, who enjoys creating playful games that help people to create music together. His Sonic Scavenger Hunt calls for students to look for objects at home based on a list of ten sounds types.

An eclectic collection of sounds, gathered at home by Leah:

Students brought their discoveries to the workshop, and together the group explored how their mini-orchestras could be put together into a musical composition. Students were also invited to record three sounds that describe “home,” found either inside their homes or outside. Sound of Home is the resulting collection, preserved for the future on the Internet Archive.

In addition to the sounds gathered at home by 4th graders, another collection, Sound of Home: San Francisco was recorded from a variety of San Francisco locations, and both collections shared in celebration of World Listening Day 2020. Since 2010, every July 18th, thousands of people all over the world have participated in World Listening Day by sharing soundscapes, in remembrance of renowned Canadian composer, music educator, and author, R. Murray Schafer. His World Soundscape Project developed the fundamental ideas and practices of acoustic ecology in the 1970s.

Teaching artist Andi Wong’s first visit to Angel Island was in 1989, when she and her husband brought her father-in-law Billy back to the island, for the very first time since he was admitted to the United States in February of 1931. Touring the barracks, Billy shared painful childhood memories of being held on the island for 18 days, not knowing when he would be allowed to leave. He sadly recalled how lonely and isolated he felt, especially when evening fell, and the sounds of music and people laughing drifted across the Bay.

The familiar soothing sounds of ocean waves lapping at the shore opens the collaborative musical composition featuring our youth orchestra of found sound. A new poem shared by artist/poet Flo Oy Wong, spoken in the Hoisan-wa dialect of the Angel Island immigrant poets, transitions to the sounds of the Del Sol String Quartet, playing a musical selection from composer Huang Ruo.

9 Poems for “Your Wall is Our Canvas: The Angel Island Project”

“九 9 poems for Your Wall is Our Canvas: The Angel Island Project,” an online book of the poetry and artwork created by the soon-to-be 5th graders at Dianne Feinstein Elementary, builds upon existing school programming. 2020 marked the tenth anniversary of Author’s Day at DFES, a highly anticipated school event which brings children’s book authors and illustrators to read to children in every classroom. Sadly, this event was cancelled, along with most of the arts events planned for Spring, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Working to help the students to create their own book was a nice way to acknowledge this special school tradition. By archiving the book of student poems, photographs and essays on the Internet Archive for open access and download, this project also offers an example of how bookmaking might be explored by classes in the future. In addition to the students, staff key to the history of the school, the librarian Carol Fuerth and the art teacher Sharon Collins, were also engaged in the project, and the history of their contributions acknowledged, recorded and preserved for the future.

Reflections on Learning: 2019-2020

The Del Sol String Quartet’s partnership with Dianne Feinstein Elementary School is as an example of an integrated, expansive artistic collaboration that is possible with community engagement. In a time that calls for both collective imagination and coordinated action, there is great benefit in giving young people the opportunity to learn alongside artists, who model both discipline and adaptability in art and life.

The artistic project also serves as a record of an unusual time, when so much of what was considered to be “normal” changed. There will certainly be challenges ahead in these most uncertain of times, but as students, teachers and families prepare to begin a new school year, we take a moment of reflection to appreciate the lessons that we learned in 2020.

Since we can’t go to school, I really miss it. I miss DFES, my friends, my teachers, and everything from DFES. I grew up there and can’t believe I used to be in Kindergarten. DFES is important to me because of everything I have learned there.

In the course of developing this project with the school community, personal connections were made, internal resources discovered, and bridges were built across generations, between school and home. This arts project encouraged and amplified the diverse voices of a school’s community, while recording and preserving community history. Children were presented with a multitude of ways to reflect upon their own personal identities and consider the importance of their family, school and culture, as they created their own works of art. Del Sol String Quartet’s Angel Island Project at Dianne Feinstein Elementary School presented an opportunity to see Art as the Ocean, not just as the Island.

And the learning continues…

“Your Wall is Our Canvas: the Angel Island Project,” composed by Huang Ruo and performed by the Del Sol String Quartet with the contemporary chamber choir, Volti, will weave a story of immigration and discrimination of then and now.  https://www.delsolquartet.com/angelisland

This project is supported in part by the Hewlett Foundations 50 Arts Commissions, the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation and the Phyllis C. Wattis Foundation. Del Sol String Quartet’s partnership with Dianne Feinstein ES, was made possible thanks to an Artists and Communities Partnership – Creative Youth Arts (ACIP-CY) grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Your Wall is Our Canvas: The Angel Island Project at Dianne Feinstein ES

ISLANDS & WALLS

THE ANGEL ISLAND IMMIGRATION STATION was a global crossroads for immigrants from 80 countries around the world. (An estimated 300,000 people were detained at Angel Island, including 100,000 Chinese, 85,000 Japanese, 8,000 South East Asians, 8,000 Russians and Jews, 1,000 Koreans, and 1,000 Filipinos.) When the doors of the Angel Island Immigration Station shut in 1940, the hundreds of poems carved on the barracks walls by Chinese immigrants were locked inside and forgotten. The poems were rediscovered in 1970 by park ranger Alexander Weiss.

The Angel Island poetry carved into the barrack walls imitates a well-known classical style called “jueju poetry,” developed in the T’ang Dynasty (618-907), when the arts flourished and there were many advancements in the areas of engineering and technology. Perhaps the most important of these, especially in regards to the lives of children today, was the invention of woodblock printing. Woodblock printing allowed books to be printed in mass production. Books helped to increase literacy and to pass on knowledge. It was during this time that poetry became an integral part of the Chinese culture.

In 1976, California appropriated $250,000 for the preservation of the poetry and the building. Today more than 200 poems from the Angel Island barracks have been recorded. Using the latest computer graphics technology, research teams have discovered 172 Chinese poems, 33 graphic images, and 200 inscriptions in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Punjabi, Spanish, Italian, German and English.

I look forward to the day when the descendants of the one million immigrants who came through Angel Island, including approximately 175,000 Chinese-Americans, can revisit the spot where their ancestors made such great sacrifices for them.

There are few more intimate and personal reminders of our history as immigrants than the poems carved on the walls of the Detention Barracks by those who awaited word on whether they would be admitted into this country.

Statement of Senator Dianne Feinstein on Angel Island Bill, April 28, 2005

NAMES & NATURE

The Dianne Feinstein ES fourth grade classrooms opened the door to The Angel Island Project on January 16, when the fourth graders were introduced to Angel Island history in a poetry workshop led by teaching artist Andi Wong.

The classroom poetry workshop began with an artifact found in her grandfather’s suitcase, which was used during his travels between China to the United States. As the object was passed from hand to hand around the room, the students were invited to guess what the mysterious object might be, and why would someone might pack this item for an ocean crossing? The student’s keen sense of smell offered an important clue, and the students agreed that this object smelled a lot like cinnamon!

Cinnamon (from far away Toishan)

Ancestors (uprooted)

Scent (wafts from the battered brown)

Suitcase. (Whispers from the)

Island (of Immortals to)

Angels (here on Earth)

Collaborative acrostic poem by Ms. McCullough’s 4th Graders, (with grace notes by Andi)

The fourth graders began by creating acrostic poems inspired by their names and nature, using words to capture and express their impressions of self and nature. The student poems will inspire the creation of a book and a musical composition that will be shared with audiences at the world premiere of Your Wall is Our Canvas.

THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE

Ms. Harrington, Ms. McCullough, and Ms. Rondone’s classes were working on the poetry project, as news began reporting of a COVID-19 pandemic, which required citizens all over the world to shelter in place. In this time, the classroom poetry inspired the grade level auction project, a mirror of words, framed with art created by the fourth graders working with art teacher Sharon Collins. Words and phrases were set in “stone”— stamped into earthen clay, using solar dyes to paint with sunlight in a time of great uncertainty. The visual art piece was created to inspire self-reflection and hopes for a future where Nature and Humanity are in harmony, joined together as One. The community was invited to come to school for an Art Walk on Friday, April 13, the final day on site for the 2020 school year. The work was auctioned to raise much needed funds for school programs.

VOICES OF RESILIENCE

Fifty years ago, Alexander Weiss found long-lost poems carved into the detention barracks walls. This discovery led to the Angel Island Immigration Station’s rebirth as a National Historic Landmark

The poetry written by fourth graders in the January 16 workshop at the start of 2020, took on a whole new meaning by March 13th, when the COVID-19 pandemic closed Bay Area schools, ultimately for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year.

Nine collaborative poems from the 4th grade were submitted and selected for the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation’s first virtual exhibition. Voices of Resilience celebrates the 50th anniversary of the re-discovery of over 200 Chinese poems carved into the walls of the detention barracks at the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island. The rediscovery triggered a set of efforts to preserve the building, ultimately resulting in the designation of the site as a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1997.

The exhibition features a total of 55 poems including 22 historical poems and 33 contemporary poems selected from online submissions from the general public. In addition to the fourth grade DFES student work, the contemporary poems included contributions from former Angel Island detainees, their descendants, including The Last Hoisan PoetsIsland author Genny Lim, Nellie Wong and Flo Oy Wong – and an anthology by the Sato/Bukowski/ Haechler Family. The online exhibition ran from May 1 through through June 30, 2020, where the poems remain on the walls of the AIISF’s website archives — Voices of Resilience to be discovered by future visitors.

“At a time when there are significantly increased reports of anti-Asian harassment and assaults related to the COVID-19 pandemic, it felt important to AIISF’s Board and Staff to continue to ensure that the histories and stories related to the immigrant detention at Angel Island are not forgotten. Our hope is that Voices of Resilience serves a reminder of the empathy, connection, and resiliency that is important especially in times like this.” stated AIISF Executive Director Edward Tepporn.

BREAKING BARRIERS

“Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” 

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from The Drum Major Instinct, (1968)

In the future, it is hoped that the Del Sol String Quartet & Huang Ruo’s “Your Wall is Our Canvas: The Angel Island Project” will premiere on the island. The new Angel Island Immigration Museum, the former Public Health Service hospital, will open in the future, allowing visitors to apply history’s lessons to nurture civil society and protect civil rights. The AIISF Virtual Gala, “Celebrating Our Dreams, Imagining Our Future,” takes place online on August 19, 2020. The event is free to attend, so please spread the word among your friends and family members. We can all help to ensure that the important histories and stories related to the former U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island are not forgotten, especially at a time when we are seeing increasing discrimination and attacks against Asians and other immigrant groups.

The 2020 Spirit of Angel Island award will acknowledge the dedication and service of California State Park Interpreter, Casey Dexter-Lee. For the past 20 years, Casey has worked on Angel Island, teaching the Immigration Station’s history to thousands of visitors, while also supporting the various programs and restoration efforts at the site.

In the same spirit, the young artists at DFES are using sound and images to communicate their ideas and emotions and inspire action and movement towards a more just society. The Breaking Barriers” assembly on Monday, January 13 with composer/bassist Marcus Shelby marked the 25th anniversary Martin Luther King Jr. holiday by kicking off the fifth annual Blake Mini Library Book Drive led by the DFES student council to benefit homeless children in San Francisco. Students gathered at lunch time to process books donations by writing special notes of encouragement for future readers. The 2020 Blake Mini Library Breaking Barrier’s collection was created based on community donations and student reading recommendations.

Lunchtime origami workshops were also held to teach children how to fold tsuru, paper cranes symbolizing peace, compassion, hope and healing. In the traditional Japanese folk art of paper folding (origami), the crane is a popular, easy-to-learn figure that children and adults of all abilities can create. At lunchtime, working together until our last day of gathering on the schoolyard, the children folded hundreds of cranes of all sizes and colors, in response to a call to action by Tsuru for Solidarity. All can contribute to the project which aims to fold 525,000 cranes, equalling the number of immigrants incarcerated annually. A community gesture to show that immigrant children, youths, families and other detainees seeking safety in our country will not be forgotten.


The Angel Island Project at Dianne Feinstein Elementary School was made possible by an Artist and Communities in Partnership – Creative Youth (ACIP-CY) grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission.

A Poem Lovely as a Tree

The Family Tree

Visual artist FLO OY WONG loves poetry. At the age of 75, Flo set her sights on becoming a poet, and she has worked diligently to master the art of writing poetry. To quote the National Center for Creative Aging, “There is no doubt Mrs. Wong will carry out her plan to keep working as long as she is able to do so.”  A vibrant elder, Flo dives into new challenges with whole-hearted gusto.

Last November 2013, the students of Rooftop School received a very special present from Flo — their own art show. Rooftop Art’s “A Slice of Life” at the Luggage Store Annex was a companion show to Flo’s 75th birthday show, “The Whole Pie.”  As a nod to Flo’s interest in poetry, visitors were invited to stroll through the Tenderloin National Forest to read poems written by Ms. Woo’s 4th graders.

This year, as Flo celebrated her 76th birthday with family in New York, Flo revealed that she was working on a new project with her granddaughter Sasha. As a visiting artist in Sasha’s classroom, Flo used visual art to help children to see the poetry in trees. At home, Flo and Sasha worked together to make a very special tree box.

We thank Flo, Sasha and Ms. Robin Farrell’s 3rd grade class at Hillside Elementary School in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York for sharing their process, their art, and their mutual love of trees.

Seeing Trees

FLO: My tree project with Sasha started when I was home in Sunnyvale.  I took pictures of these trees when I was going on daily walks.  I sent them to Sasha after she asked to see the tree trunks I was talking about.  My husband Ed knew about my tree-sharing and he began to point out trees to me.  There was one, in particular, which inspired me to write my poem, Tree Trunk.

Fast forward to mid-October when I taught a tree-drawing lesson in her 3rd grade class.  The day before the other lesson her teacher selected, Sasha gave me input. She told me she didn’t want me to repeat what I had taught in her 2nd grade class.

Flo suggested that the class learn how to draw trees, a spontaneous decision that met with Sasha’s approval. Flo discussed trees, focusing mainly on color of trunks.  After demonstrating how to draw a tree Flo told the 3rd graders they could draw either realistic or fantasy trees.  The criteria?  They had to fill their paper top to bottom, side to side. She introduced them to non-dominant hand drawing and requested one tree be drawn with their non-dominant hand.  Then, the students needed to create interest in the negative spaces. They also wrote tree stories.  One boy, a ballet dancer at the Met, drew a dancing tree.  A girl created one with swirling energy in the trees and the surrounding environment. The hour lesson turned the students into vibrant and energetic tree detectives.

When the class was through, Sasha conducted an exit interview with her grandmother about the lesson. Sasha’s critique: She would have cut back the drawing time so more artists could share their work with her grandmother.

FLO: What I liked so much about the lesson was this – I integrated my love of poetry and art for this eye-opening, heartwarming classroom experience. In the evening at home Sasha and I memorized Joyce Kilmer’s poem.  We recited it around the dinner table.

Sasha memorizes Joyce Kilmer’s poem Trees, just as her grandmother had done when she was a young student at Lincoln School in Oakland Chinatown. Flo learned and recited Trees for a tree planting ceremony. She recalled, “We buried a time box with the tree. I wonder if our box has been uncovered. I have remembered Trees for over 60 years.” Sasha and Flo also listened to Louis Armstrong and Paul Robeson sing their musical settings of Kilmer’s poem.

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Trees drawn by Ms. Robin Farrell’s 3rd grade class at Hillside Elementary School (Art by Andreas, Andrei, Aynsley, Bianca, Bruno, Clara, Dominick, Erin, Graham, Hamilton, Joshua, Leo, Luke, Max, Mia, Michaela, Nathaniel, Paul, Salett, Sasha, Yogev & Zev)

Flo and Sasha’s TREE BOX

When Sasha and Flo find a 1930s box at the local antique store, they decided to make a box tree art project. Sasha includes Joyce Kilmer’s poem (partial) and her Paw Paw’s poem.  Flo adds some color atop of the colored pencils Sasha used to render the tree.

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Sasha includes two blue porcelain miniature birds that she has purchased from the antique store.

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Sasha makes a tree out of a paper bag fragment to add to the tree box.

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As a surprise, Flo adds a bird to the lower right front of the box, while Sasha is away at school.

When the box is finished, grandmother and granddaughter take some time to reflect on the process of making The Tree Box together.  Flo and Sasha use Flo’s iPhone to record their shared memory of three and a half weeks of bonding and intergenerational learning.