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  • Denis Englander

Memories From Working At Angel Island

Updated: May 4, 2021

We always appreciate feedback from visitors to our website and those who have attended our online book talks. These photos and comments come from Mr. Denis Englander who attended the January Chinatown book talk hosted by Dave Christensen and the Harvey Milk Photography Center. It turns out that Mr. Englander, who worked as a park aide in 1971 on Angel Island, discovered, photographed and helped preserve some of the carvings in the walls of the detention centers that year. Following are a couple of his original photographs and his poignant comments about the experience – Dick Evans

"Here are a few photos that I took back around 1971 or so, while I was working on Angel Island as a Park Aide.

I was a Sociology Student by then, at SF State University, and school was out for the summer.

I had been on a hike with Marcy, on Mt. Tam, and I asked a Ranger if there were any summer jobs with the State Parks.

He referred me to Angel Island, where he thought they were hiring.

I went to the Island the next morning on Saturday to inquire, and they said I could add my name to the list of applicants.

I told them, better yet, how about I just show up on Monday morning ready to work, that way they would be done with their search for hired help.

Those in the office looked around at each other, and said, “Ok, come back with your back ground check including finger prints from the police department on Belvedere Island, and you’ll be hired as an Angel Island Park Aide.

And so it started. I was able as a Park Aide to conduct active participant sociology to study the dynamic of those who worked and lived on the island with their families.

I lived on the island, in the kitchen of the fire house, where I slept on a piece of foam on the kitchen floor, and had use of the bathroom in the fire house. My Park Aide pay scale was around $2.50/hour.

It was during my free time on the island that summer, that I took a few shots of deserted buildings. Later, after I developed the film, I took pictures back to my Sociology professor to show him what I had uncovered. Especially the image of the calligraphy carved into the wooden walls of a building which served to house immigrants from Asia. Angel Island was being used as an immigration quarantine and admissions center for the West Coast, just as Ellis Island was being used on the East Coast.

My professor quickly got ahold of an Asian Studies group, to form a visit to the island to document the discovery. I was told, that Asians at the time, rarely spoke of their hardship as immigrants arriving on the Island, out of a sense of embarrassment for being treated that way.

Following that, I was assigned to help a squad of National Guard reservists to make the area “Visitor Safe”, removing any windows, and other items that might hurt a visitor. This included clearing items in the military hospital that was located on the East side of the island.

So, having watched the Zoom Chinatown gathering the other day, the presenter mentioned Angel Island, even mentioning the calligraphy carve into the wooden walls. I realized I had original images of that calligraphy, and others that depicted conditions for those rooms … the dire doors #2 and #3, the bunk bed support poles with their holes for multiple levels of bunks, the machine gun platform and mount outside of the room that housed immigrants, as well as the receiving dock where immigrants would disembark on to the island.

The whole area was overgrown with “Scotch Broom” foliage, and I even startled a deer that had taken the area for itself. A real mess. But we got it cleared up for visitors." – Denis Englander

For anyone who is intrigued and would like to learn more about the Angel Island poems and inscription, here is a link to the book Island published by the University of Washington Press which is a marvelously documented and complete reference of the inscriptions on the walls.

Thanks again to Dave Christensen and Denis Englander.

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