Chinese Poetry of Angel Island

Poetry found on the barracks walls has long been a centerpiece of the Immigration Station’s rebirth as a National Historic Landmark.

By Angel Island Immigration Station

Angel Island Immigration Station

Chinese Men's Dormitory (2020-02-12)Angel Island Immigration Station

History of the Poetry

From the time the Immigration Station opened, the walls of the detention barracks became the voice for the detainees held inside.

Chinese Immigrants with the Immigration Commissioner (1934)Angel Island Immigration Station

From 1910 to 1940, it is estimated that 300,000 immigrants were held at the U.S. Immigration Station, Angel Island, and approximately one-third were of Chinese descent.

Letter to the Commissioner of Immigration Describing the Inscriptions Found on the Walls (1916-03-04) by Department of Justice. Immigration and Naturalization Service. 6/14/1940-3/1/2003Angel Island Immigration Station

As they waited for their cases to be heard, Chinese men expressed themselves through poetry. Some were held on Angel Island for a few days, while others were detained as long as two years.

The proliferation of Chinese poetry led other immigrants to leave behind their own messages. Writings in Japanese, Russian, English, and South Asian languages can also be found in the barracks.

Detention Barracks Pre-Restoration (1971)Angel Island Immigration Station

Decades after the site's closure, demolition plans were ordered for the Immigration Station. Ranger Alexander Weiss entered the barracks in May 1970 and discovered writing on the walls.

Alexander Weiss (1973-06-05)Angel Island Immigration Station

“I looked around and shined my flashlight up and I could see that the entire walls were covered with calligraphy, and that was what blew me away.”

- Alexander Weiss

Immigrant Poem "Random Thoughts While Staying in the Building" (1973)Angel Island Immigration Station

Some of the poems were written in ink, while others were carved with a classical Cantonese technique.

Immigration Station Wharf in Disrepair (1971)Angel Island Immigration Station

Defying orders to ignore the "graffiti," Weiss reached out to San Francisco State professor George Araki about the inscriptions. That meeting soon led to a movement to save the Immigration Station.

Immigration Station Museum (2004-09)Angel Island Immigration Station

It was determined that the writings were historically significant, and the poems should be preserved for future generations. By 1983, the barracks officially opened as a museum to the public.

National Historic Landmark Plaque (2018-12-08)Angel Island Immigration Station

Almost three decades after Ranger Weiss's discovery, the Immigration Station was recognized as a National Historic Landmark, the highest distinction bestowed to places of national significance.

Chinese Men's Dormitory (2020-08-14)Angel Island Immigration Station

Selected Poems

The following poems represent a small selection of the 220 poems and poem remnants that were found inside the barracks.

Chinese Poems (2013-05)Angel Island Immigration Station

Poetry reading in Toishanese by Yui Poon Ng (伍銳泮)of the Ing Suey Sun Tong Association of Vancouver (溫哥華伍胥山公所). Producer: Joanne Poon (潘美珠).

A majority of immigrants who came from China were from an area of Guangdong Province called the Toishan District. When these poems are read aloud, many rhyme in their native dialect.

Poem 135

Detained in this wooden house for several tens of days, it is all because the Mexican exclusion law which implicates me. It's a pity heroes have no way of exercising their prowess. I can only await the word so that I can snap Zu's whip. From now on, I am departing far from this building. All of my fellow villagers are rejoicing with me. Don't say that everything within is Western styled. Even if it is built of jade, it has turned into a cage.

Immigration Official and Asian Boys Outside the Immigration Station Hospital (1923) by Department of the Treasury. Public Health Service. 1912-7/1/1939Angel Island Immigration Station

Feelings of disappointment, anger, depression, and homesickness are frequently found in the poems.

Chinese Poetry Translation (2018)Angel Island Immigration Station

Poem 2

Because my house had bare walls, I began rushing all about. The waves are happy, laughing "Ha-ha!" When I arrived on Island, I heard I was forbidden to land. I could do nothing but frown and feel angry at heaven.

Yee Tet Ming (Tet Yee) (1930s)Angel Island Immigration Station

There are poems that reference historical figures, legendary mythic characters, and quotations from earlier masterpieces.

Chinese Poetry Translation (2018)Angel Island Immigration Station

Poem 75

I left the native village well behind me, bade farewell to my father and mother. Now I gaze at distant clouds and mountains, tears forming like pearls. The wandering son longed to be wealthy like Taozhu. Who would have known I would be imprisoned on Island? I beat my breast when I think of China and cry bitterly like Ruan Ji. Our country's wealth is being drained by foreigners, causing us to suffer national humiliations. My fellow countrymen, have foresight, plan to be resolute. And vow to conquer the U.S. and avenge previous wrongs! 

World War II Mess Hall Construction (2007)Angel Island Immigration Station

Detainees were held inside the barracks except for meals and two exercise periods per day. Because they spent most of their time indoors, a few inscriptions reflect on the view from their windows.

Chinese Poetry Translation (2018)Angel Island Immigration Station

Poem 70

Being idle in the wooden building, I opened a window. The morning breeze and bright moon lingered together. I reminisce the native village far away, cut off by clouds and mountains. On the little island the wailing of cold, wild geese can be fairly heard. The hero who has lost his way can talk meaninglessly of the sword. The poet at the end of the road can only ascend a tower. One should know that when the country is weak, the people's spirit dies. Why else do we come to this place to be imprisoned?

Chinese Poetry Translation (2018)Angel Island Immigration Station

Some poems observe strict rhyming patterns, couplet requirements and the regulation of tones, while others do not.

Chinese Poetry Translation (2018)Angel Island Immigration Station

Poem 45

Imprisoned in this wooden building, I am always sad and bored. I remember since I left my native village, it has been several full moons. The family at home is leaning on the door, urgently looking for letters. Whom can I count on to tell them I am well? Prisoners in this wooden building constantly suffer sadness and boredom. I remember the hardships I had to endure when I was coming here. I cannot prophesy which day I will cross the barrier. The years and months are easily spent in vain.

Interrogation of a Chinese immigrant (1923) by Department of the Treasury. Public Health Service, 1912-7/1/1939Angel Island Immigration Station

In 1921, the Mexican government banned Chinese labor into Mexico. The following poem references Angel Island's role as a detention facility for immigrants to and from Latin American countries.

Chinese Poetry Translation (2018)Angel Island Immigration Station

Poem 109

Because of the many hard years at home, after thinking it over a thousand times, I began this journey. When I arrived at the island, I was put in the detention center. Who could tell that even Mexico forbids entrance?

Poem Remnant (2020-02-12)Angel Island Immigration Station

Immigration officials applied paint and putty to the walls, leaving many poems illegible. However, it also acted as a sealer that helped preserve carvings from further deterioration.

Chinese Poem in the Men's Dormitory (2013-05)Angel Island Immigration Station

Poem 110

A thousand sorrows and a hatred ten-thousand-fold burns between my brows. Hoping to step ashore the American continent is the most difficult of difficulties. The barbarians imprison me in this place. Even a martyr or a hero would change countenance.

Chair Inside the Men's Dormitory (2020-02-12)Angel Island Immigration Station

Fifty Years Later

In May 2020, the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation launched a virtual exhibit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Ranger Weiss's discovery.

Voices of Resilience (2020-05) by R. NaumanAngel Island Immigration Station

Voices of Resilience featured 22 historic Angel Island poems and 33 poems written by the public.

"Day Dreamer" a Poem by Former Angel Island Immigrant Calvin Ong (2020) by Calvin OngAngel Island Immigration Station

One poem came from former detainee Calvin Ong. His poem discusses his experience as a child immigrant in 1937 compared to his life as an American citizen, 83 years later.

Detention Barracks Exit (2020-02-12)Angel Island Immigration Station

Writing on the Walls

America’s immigration story can be found on the walls of Angel Island. Remembering this history helps us recognize what is still great about the United States and what remains to be done to fulfill America’s promise as a nation of immigrants.

Credits: Story

Poetry was translated and published in Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung’s book, Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, 2nd edition (Seattle: University of Washington Press), 2014.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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