Burning Paper

At the dawn of the twentieth century, immigrants from Korea, India, the Philippines, and China, among others, arrived at immigration and deportation centres on Ellis and Angel Island.

In 1897, a fire of unknown origin burned Ellis Island Immigration Station to the ground. No lives were lost, save forty-two years of immigrant records, turned to ashes. And so the 'paper son' was born—a Chinese immigrant who assumed an invented identity to claim a fictitious heritage and enter a new life in the West. Soon, ships full of paper people began to arrive from across the ocean—imagined descendants of those first visitors, whose legacy had been burned beyond recognition.

These paper sons and daughters, like all of the third-class immigrants sent to Angel and Ellis island, were detained for weeks and months under oppressive conditions, and subjected to exhaustive, violating interrogation. Even after naturalisation, even the children of these paper people were not privy to their parents' secret histories until decades later.

Burning paper is the image of our beginning—erasure making space for reinvention and re-imagination. It is also a portrait of lost identity—mothers, fathers, families, homes that we have been forced to forget. Finally, and most importantly, burning paper is the future we seek: a a fiery destruction of the suppression that stands in the way of our selves.

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