These poems of loss, anger, hope, and memory were written by Chinese immigrants. In the classical style (four lines, seven characters per line), mostly, they are carved into the wooden walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay. Between 1910 and 1940, nearly 175,000 Chinese immigrants were detained and processed at Angel Island. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), the island served more as a detention and deportation site than an immigration processing center. Thousands of Chinese were detained and interrogated at the barracks in a prison-like atmosphere for weeks, months or years. Life for the detainees has been described in the Internet account as “strange, stressful, demoralizing, and humiliating. Separated from family members, they were placed in crowded communal living quarters. One hundred persons would sleep in bunk beds, three high in columns, in a room about 1,000 square feet.” As for the poems themselves, each stanza below represents a separate work. Most are undated and unsigned, presumably for fear of retribution.
-– D.H. Melhem
There are tens of thousands of poems
composed on these walls.
They are all cries of suffering and sadness.
The day I am rid of this prison and attain success,
I must remember that this chapter once existed.
In my daily needs, I must be frugal.
Needless extravagance leads youth to ruin.
All my compatriots should please be mindful.
Once you have some small gains, return
By an immigrant from Heungshan
The sea-scape resembles lichen twisting
and turning for a thousand li.
There is no shore to land and it is
difficult to walk.
With a gentle breeze I arrived at the city
thinking all would be so.
At ease, how was one to know he was to live
in a wooden building?
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
Random Thoughts Deep at Night
In the quiet of night, I heard, faintly, the
whistling of wind.
The forms and shadows saddened me; upon
seeing the landscape, I composed a poem.
The floating clouds, the fog, darken the sky.
The moon shines faintly as the insects chirp.
Grief and bitterness entwined are heaven sent.
The sad person sits alone, leaning by a window.
Written by Yu of Taishan
America has power, but not justice.
In prison, we were victimized as if we were guilty.
Given no opportunity to explain, it was really brutal.
I bow my head in reflection but there is
nothing I can do.
I am distressed that we Chinese are detained
in this wooden building.
It is actually racial barriers which cause
difficulties on Yingtai Island.
Even while they are tyrannical they still
claim to be humanitarian.
I should regret my taking the risks of coming
in the first place.
I thoroughly hate the barbarians because they
do not respect justice.
They continually promulgate harsh laws to
show off their prowess.
They oppress the overseas Chinese and also
They examine for hookworms and practice
hundreds of despotic acts.
This is a message to those who live here not
to worry excessively.
Instead, you must cast your idle worries to
the flowing stream.
Experiencing a little ordeal is not hardship.
Napoleon was once a prisoner on an island.
*Source: Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991). A slightly altered version appears on the Internet (from the PBS series, Ancestors in the Americas, www.cetel.org/angel_poetry.html)