Replicating Carved Poetry at Angel Island

“The poems at Angel Island are among the most dramatic finds in American literature”
Karen L. Polster, University of California, Riverside.

Between 1910 and 1940, as many as 175,000 Chinese immigrants were detained and processed at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco, California.  While interred under harsh conditions, many people carved poems into the Douglas Fir wall boards.  More than graffiti, these poems have become a touchstone for aspects of the Chinese experience in California.

The Museum of Chinese in America, when planning their new building in New York City, chose to include a prominent reference to the poems at Angel Island.  Cynthia Lee, VP of Exhibitions, Programs & Collections for MOCA, proposed creating a replica of an important poem in the Immigrant Station.  While there are hundreds of poems carved into the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station, a poem referred to as #69 is regarded as an especially fine example of classical Cantonese techniques.

Angel Island Immigration Station Poem #69

The authors of the poems at Angel Island are unknown but their writing is now being protected

With the support of the Angel Island Immigrant Station Foundation and David Matthews, public safety coordinator, California State Parks, and an INSIGHT partner non-profit CyArk, an INSIGHT team completed digital capture of Poem #69.  A detail of the resulting scan data is shown in a false-color image, below.  The sampling density was ~0.1mm in order to capture the subtleties of carving present in the work.

Numerous individual laser scans were taken and subsequently merged into a single polygonal mesh, shown below.  We then adapted the mesh into a ‘watertight’ STL milling file suitable for use by a CNC machine.

Sandra Wheeler at the Brooklyn-based design firm Matterpractice received our milling file and contracted a CNC vendor to mill a replica of Poem #69 in new Douglas Fir planks.

The wooden reproduction of Poem #69 is now a featured object in MOCA’s new main exhibit hall, which opened in late 2009.  While it’s meant to evoke the original artifact, not match it, the final replica has a high level of spatial fidelity and has proved to be a practical, non-destructive ‘casting’ technique for the museum.

The AIISF has published the following translation for poem #69, which is pictured in the photograph below:

Detained in this wooden house for several tens of days,

It is all because of the Mexican exclusion law which implicates me.

It’s a pity heroes have no way of exercising their prowess.

I can only await the word so that I can snap Zu’s whip.

From now on, I am departing far from this building

All of my fellow villagers are rejoicing with me.

Don’t say that everything within is Western styled.

Even if it is built of jade, it has turned into a cage.



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