The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Carved on the
Walls: Poetry by Early Chinese Immigrants
Angel Island in San Francisco
Bay, now an idyllic state park, was the point of entry for
the majority of the approximately 175,000 Chinese immigrants
who came to America between 1910 and 1940. Modeled after New
York’s Ellis Island, the site was the immigration detention
headquarters for Chinese awaiting the outcomes of medical
examinations and immigration papers. It was also the holding
ground for deportees awaiting transportation back to the motherland.
The ordeal of immigration and detention left an indelible
mark in the minds of many Chinese, a number of whom wrote
poetry on the barrack walls, recording impressions of their
voyage to America, their longing for families back home, and
their outrage and humiliation at the treatment America accorded
them. When the center’s doors shut in 1940, one of the bitterest
chapters in the history of Chinese immigration to America
came to a close. The poems expressing the thoughts of the
Chinese immigrants were locked behind those doors and forgotten
until 1970, when they were discovered by park ranger Alexander
Weiss and preserved in Island: Poetry and History of Chinese
Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910–1940 (1980).
The Chinese began emigrating to America in large numbers during
the California Gold Rush. Political chaos and economic hardships
at home forced them to venture overseas to seek a better livelihood.
Despite their contributions to America—building the transcontinental
railroad, developing the shrimp and abalone fisheries, the
vineyards, new strains of fruit, reclaiming swamplands, and
providing needed labor for California’s growing agriculture
and light industries—they were viewed as labor competition
and undesirable aliens and were mistreated and discriminated
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the inevitable culmination
of a series of oppressive anti-Chinese laws and violent physical
assaults upon the Chinese. For the first time in American
history, members of a specific ethnic group—the Chinese—were
refused entry. Only exempt classes, which included merchants,
government officials, students, teachers, visitors, as well
as those claiming U.S. citizenship, were admitted. The Angel
Island Immigration Station was established in 1910 to process
Chinese immigrants claiming citizenship and exempt statuses.
According to stories told by Chinese detainees, most immigrants
went into debt to pay for passage to America. Upon arrival,
they were given medical examinations and then locked up in
dormitories segregated by sex to await hearings on their applications.
To prevent collusion, no visitors were allowed prior to interrogation
except missionaries. Women were sometimes taken outside for
walks and men were allowed to exercise in a small, fenced-in
yard. Otherwise, confined inside, they spent their waking
hours worrying about their future, gambling, reading, sewing,
or knitting. Three times a day, they were taken to the dining
hall for meals which, although cooked by Chinese staff, were
Because the interrogation involved many detailed questions
about one’s family and village background, lengthy coaching
books were memorized by prospective immigrants before coming
to America. Inquiries usually lasted two to three days, during
which time one’s testimony had to be corroborated by witnesses.
For those whose applications for entry were rejected, the
wait could stretch to as long as two years while they awaited
appeals. Most of the debarred swallowed their disappointment
and stolidly awaited their fate. However, some committed suicide
in the barracks or aboard returning ships. Still others vented
their frustrations and anguish by writing or carving Chinese
poems on the barrack walls as they waited for the results
of appeals or orders for their deportation.
These poets of the exclusion era were largely Cantonese villagers
from the Pearl River Delta region in Guangdong Province in
South China. They were immigrants who sought to impart their
experiences to men and women following in their footsteps.
Their feelings of anger, frustration, uncertainty, hope and
despair, self-pity, homesickness, and loneliness filled the
walls of the detention barrack. Many of their poems were written
in pencil or ink and eventually covered by coats of paint.
Some, however, were first written in brush and then carved
into the wood. The majority of the poems are undated and unsigned,
probably for fear of retribution from the authorities.
All of the poems are written in the classical style, with
frequent references or allusions to famous literary or heroic
figures in Chinese legend and history, especially those who
faced adversity. Because the early twentieth century saw an
increasing national consciousness among the Chinese, many
of the poems also voice resentment at being confined and bitterness
that their weak motherland cannot intervene on their behalf.
Most of the poems, however, bemoan the writer’s own situation.
A few are farewell verses written by deportees or messages
of tribulations by transients to or from Mexico and Cuba.
The literary quality of the poems varies greatly. The style
and language of some works indicate that the poets were well
versed in the linguistic intricacies of poetic expression,
while others, at best, can only be characterized as sophomoric
attempts. Since most immigrants at that time did not have
formal schooling beyond the primary grades and for obvious
reasons were usually not equipped with rhyme books and dictionaries,
many poems violate rules of rhyme and tone required in Chinese
The poems occupy a unique place in the literary culture of
Asian America. These immigrant poets unconsciously introduced
a new sensibility, a Chinese American sensibility using China
as the source and America as a bridge to spawn a new cultural
perspective. Their poetry is a legacy to Chinese Americans
who would not be here today were it not for these predecessors’
pioneering spirit. Their poetry is also a testimony to the
indignity they suffered coming here.
The irony of exclusion was that it did not improve the white
workingman’s lot. Unemployment remained high and the wage
level did not rise after the “cheap” competition had been
virtually eliminated. As for the Chinese, their experiences
on Angel Island and under the American exclusion laws, which
were not repealed until 1943, laid the groundwork for the
behavior and attitudes of an entire generation of Chinese
Americans. The psychological scars—fear of officials, suspicion
of outsiders, political apathy—still linger as a legacy in
the Chinese American community today.
| Him Mark Lai|
In the Heath Anthology
from About Westerners
51 [I hastened here for the sake of my stomach and
landed promptly in jail] (
55 [Shocking news, truly sad, reached my ears] (
from Deportees, Transients
57 [On a long voyage I travelled across the sea] (
64 Crude Poem Inspired by the Landscape (
69 [Detained in this wooden house for several tens
of days] (
from The Detainment
20 [Imprisonment at Youli, when will it end?] (
30 [After leaping into prison, I cannot come out]
31 [There are tens of thousands of poems composed
on these walls] (
from The Voyage
5 [Four days before the Qiqiao Festival] (
8 [Instead of remaining a citizen of China, I willingly
became an ox] (
from The Weak Shall Conquer
35 [Leaving behind my writing brush and removing my
sword, I came to America] (
38 [Being idle in the wooden building, I opened a
42 [The dragon out of water is humiliated by ants]
Angel Island Immigration Station Website
Images of Chinese and Chinese Americans in California
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Island Immigration Station Foundation
A detailed history of the immigration station, including a
virtual museum and more resources.
Angel Island: Immigrant
Journeys of Chinese Americans
A site describing Lydia Lum's massive interview project, in
which the stories of immigrants passing through (or detained
at) Angel Island from 1910 to 1950 are being compiled.
The Angel Island Home
Information about the Island in its many incarnations, as
the home of the Miwok Indians or the Ellis Island for Asian
Immigrants to the West Coast.