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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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 against.

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 barely edible.

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 poetry.

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
Genny Lim
Judy Yung

In the Heath Anthology
from About Westerners
      51 [I hastened here for the sake of my stomach and landed promptly in jail] ( 1980)
      55 [Shocking news, truly sad, reached my ears] ( 1980)
from Deportees, Transients
      57 [On a long voyage I travelled across the sea] ( 1980)
      64 Crude Poem Inspired by the Landscape ( 1980)
      69 [Detained in this wooden house for several tens of days] ( 1980)
from The Detainment
      20 [Imprisonment at Youli, when will it end?] ( 1980)
      30 [After leaping into prison, I cannot come out] ( 1980)
      31 [There are tens of thousands of poems composed on these walls] ( 1980)
from The Voyage
      5 [Four days before the Qiqiao Festival] ( 1980)
      8 [Instead of remaining a citizen of China, I willingly became an ox] ( 1980)
from The Weak Shall Conquer
      35 [Leaving behind my writing brush and removing my sword, I came to America] ( 1980)
      38 [Being idle in the wooden building, I opened a window] ( 1980)
      42 [The dragon out of water is humiliated by ants] ( 1980)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
text file Angel Island Immigration Station Website
text filetext file Images of Chinese and Chinese Americans in California

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Angel 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 Page
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.

Secondary Sources