Huang Ruo
Angel Island Oratorio composer Huang Ruo is known for such operas as An American Soldier, presented by the Opera Theater of St. Louis, and Dr. Sun Yat-sen, at Santa Fe Opera | Credit: Wenjun Miakoda Liang

Scratched into the wall on Angel Island were Chinese characters that translate to:

I took passage on the President Lincoln.
I ate wind and tasted waves for more than 20 days.
Fortunately, I arrived safely on the American continent.
I thought I could land in a few days.
How was I to know I would become a prisoner suffering in the wooden building?
The barbarians’ abuse is really difficult to take.
When my family’s circumstances stir my emotions, a double stream of tears flows.
I only wish I can land in San Francisco soon,
Thus sparing me this additional sorrow here.

Chinese poem at Angel Island
Poetry carved into the Immigration Station walls | Credit: California Parks & Recreation

Immigrants spent months in Angel Island incarceration, pouring out their fear, sorrow, and hopes in poems written on the walls.

San Francisco’s Del Sol Quartet and the vocal ensemble Volti will give the world premiere of a work inspired by the poems, Huang Ruo’s Angel Island: Oratorio for Voices and String Quartet at the newly renovated Presidio Theatre on Oct. 22, and on Angel Island the next day, weather permitting.

The oratorio depicts an immigrant’s journey through three large choral settings sung in Mandarin — “The Seascape,” “When We Bade Farewell,” and “Buried Beneath Clay and Earth.” The premiere will include talks by experts in immigration law, civil rights, and Chinese American cultural history.

According to the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, “Approximately 500,000 immigrants from 80 different countries were processed, detained, and/or interrogated at the site.” They were part of a much larger movement from around the world in the U.S.: Beween the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, millions of people came to America in pursuit of a better, freer life.

Angel Island Station
Angel Island Immigration Station | Credit: California Parks & Recreation

On the East Coast, most of the huddled masses were met by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. On the West Coast, between 1910 and 1940, most were met by the wooden buildings of Angel Island. These immigrants were Australians and New Zealanders, Canadians, Mexicans, Central and South Americans, Russians (among them: Sergei Prokofiev, arriving at Angel Island aboard the SS Grotius in 1918, during the great flu pandemic), and in particular, Asians — with Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans in greatest numbers.

Circumventing the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act became a first order concern for most immigrants from China, as it allowed only merchants, clergy, diplomats, teachers, and students as “exempt” classes to come to the U.S. Many Chinese immigrants resorted to buying false identities at great cost, which allowed them to immigrate as either children of exempt classes or children of natives.

In 1906, the San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed municipal records, which created an opportunity for the city’s Chinese residents to claim that they were born here and therefore were American citizens. As citizens, Chinese could bring their children to this country, and on return visits to their ancestral villages, claim new children had been born to them.

Some of these were “paper sons” or less frequently “paper daughters” — children on paper only without a direct family connection. One such “paper son” was artist Tyrus Wong. At age 100, Wong still had vivid memories of his Angel Island arrival as a 9-year-old and the subsequent paper manipulation it took to be allowed in San Francisco. Wong went on to become an influential and celebrated artist, illustrator, and set designer.

Huang’s oratorio brings to life the poems inscribed on the walls by Chinese immigrants detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station. Huang, born in China, but long a New York resident, says as an immigrant himself, his first visit to Angel Island was a moving experience:

I was stunned by the power of the poems carved into the walls of the old immigration station and the feel of those painful strokes ingrained in the wood. The experience of being in the Island brought the tragic history of the Chinese Exclusion Act to life and into the context of immigration issues we are still dealing with now.

The poems by Chinese detainees on Angel Island, which are documented in the book Island, continue to resonate in my head. For Angel Island Oratorio, I’ve set three movements with poems (sung by Volti) along with three movements with some prevailing anti-Chinese documentation from newspapers and books of that period [spoken].

Over the course of the oratorio, the text takes us on a journey arriving at the Immigration Station where Chinese were detained, the anguish of be stuck in limbo (sometimes for months or even years) while waiting for the opaque processing system to determine if the detainee would be cleared or sent back to China, and finally the death of one of the detainees.

“In my discussion with the composer,” says Volti Artistic Director Robert Geary, “it became clear that he has a full grasp of the circumstances of Chinese immigration to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The music he has created is a memorial and testimony to the humanity of the immigrants.”

Volti Executive Director Barbara Heroux speaks of “what it looks like when a chamber chorus rehearses during COVID-19 — masked and distanced. It’s no fun. Singing in Mandarin while masked, and being coached in a language that is unfamiliar to most of our singers by somebody wearing a mask, is challenging. But it’s worth it — the piece is beautiful and very moving, and being able to sing in the same room together after 18 months of separation is wonderful, even with the difficulties.”

Del Sol Quartet
The Del Sol String Quartet | Credit: Lenny Gonzalez

Del Sol violinist Samuel Weiser says of the work: “Huang Ruo’s music for this project is sublime. The weaving of folk melodies and string quartet doubling of the vocals with heart-wrenching, layered harmonic language gives such a unique voice to the poems. There is despair and isolation in the words, but so much hope. I think the music highlights that perfectly.”

Weiser also remembers fondly of performances in the Joy Project in May, and of Huang’s A Dust in Time in Grace Cathedral last October.

Del Sol Artistic Director Charlton Lee, violist, told SF Classical Voice: “I first met Huang at the premiere of his piece Calligraffiti (which Del Sol has also performed many times) and was immediately captivated by his fiery musical language, which encompasses tradition along with the contemporary, and can be shamelessly beautiful while carrying an emotional and sonic edge.

“We then had an opportunity to collaborate with Huang Ruo for chamber music concerts in conjunction with the performance of his opera Dr. Sun Yat-sen at the Santa Fe Opera in 2014. It is the first major Western opera to be sung in Chinese and I was especially impressed by his melodic treatment of the words. We began to dream of a way to amplify the Chinese poems on Angel Island through a piece for quartet and voices.”

Volti in rehearsal
Volti, whose slogan is “Singing without a net,” rehearses in person for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic — masked, vaccinated, distanced — the new oratorio about Angel Island | Credit: Barbara Heroux

With grants from the Hewlett Foundation’s 50 Arts Commissions and the Wattis and Heller Foundations, Del Sol launched the Angel Island Project, planning to give the premiere last year, but the pandemic interfered.

With the premiere now scheduled Oct. 22–23, Lee says, “We hope to bring more light to the stories that have always been there, but remain hidden from view. So many Bay Area people have never been to the island, even those whose relatives may have passed through the immigration station. We wish to bring this island, its history and incredible artistic richness into mainstream consciousness.”

Del Sol cellist Kathryn Bates adds:

Jenny Lai
Jenny Lai designed Del Sol’s costumes for the concert

“The oratorio sets the poetry against its own ugly historical backdrop, and yet there is a direct continuity to our current moment in history when Asian Americans are still told to ‘go back to your country’ and ‘you don’t belong here,’ and elders are getting beaten and killed in the streets.

“The same fear about the ‘Chinese Invasion’ is echoed in the model minority myth and anti-Asian discriminatory practices that we are just barely starting to acknowledge as a larger society.

“This project has revealed so many connected stories for us and also built so many wonderful relationships. One amazing example is when our community coordinator, Andi Wong, discovered that one of our Angel Island liaisons, Grant Din, was her distant relative via immigrants who came through Angel Island!”

New York designer Jenny Lai, a Bay Area native, whose NOT Company created Del Sol’s wardrobe for the performances, told SF Classical Voice: “I was particularly moved reading about the histories from Angel Island and how people were purposely kept very far from the San Francisco shore.

“I was struck by the poetry of ‘I ate wind and tasted waves ...’ and drawn to this feeling of being kept in, while looking outwards at the sea with longing and the desire to connect, communicate, and be free.”

Angel Island is again open to visitors, following pandemic restrictions, but with a different schedule — check information.