Angel Island Poetry

Much like the last post, my education never extended to the West Coast’s version of Ellis Island. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never even heard of Angel Island prior to this class on Asian-American literature. In order to not  mirror Sarah’s post, I’d like to examine the reactions of the Asian immigrants who traveled to Angel Island through their poetry. Below are a few poems that particularly struck me, which can be found within the book Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940 by Him Mark Lai or off of the websites: and

There are tens of thousands of poems on these walls
They are all cries of suffering and sadness
The day I am rid of this prison and become successful
I must remember that this chapter once existed
I must be frugal in my daily needs
Needless extravagance usually leads to ruin
All my compatriots should remember China
Once you have made some small gains,
you should return home early.

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.

Instead of remaining a citizen of China, I willingly became an ox.
I intended to come to America to earn a living.
The western styled building are lofty; but I have not the luck to live in them.
How was anyone to know that my dwelling place would be a prison.

Leaving behind my writing brush and removing my sword, I came to America.
Who was to know two streams of tears would flow upon arriving here?
If there comes a day when I will have attained my ambition and become successful,
I will certainly behead the barbarians and spare not a single blade of grass.

These poems and over a hundred more like them were carved into the walls of the men’s barracks and into the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station. The sheer emotive power behind these words displays the shattered expectations of these immigrants. The word “prison’ shows up multiple times throughout the different poems, completely obliterating the notion that America is the “land of the free” or a nation devoted to liberty for foreigners entering this land. For these Asian immigrants, the America they first experienced was trapped within the walls of Angel Island.

2 Responses to “Angel Island Poetry”

  1. mesanders Says:

    For me, the first of these poems stands out in particular. It really exempliefies the disillusionment of the immigrants: “Once you have made some small gains, you should return home early.” Your note that the “land of the free” has been obliterated really sums up these poems.
    The tone of the poetry has a resolve, a determination, to never forget the prison and the way they arrived here. There is unity between these “compatriots” against the “barbarians” that brings up their pride. These poets do not seem effeminate or weak. Tired, and disappointed in this new country, but I think these poets would laugh in the face of anyone who dared to call an Asian-American weak.

  2. seamushoo4 Says:

    These poems are beautiful. It is absolutely unbelievable to think that people were stuck at Angel Island for weeks, months and maybe even longer than that.

    It is particularly chilling to think that most of these people truly believed that this place was in fact like a prison. Like I had mentioned in a previous class period that American curriculum rarely highlights the journey through Angel Island and solely focuses on the romanticized journeys and stories of Ellis Island, I decided to do some research on the process of going through immigration at Angel Island.

    This site gives a brief overview of the process of going through Angel Island. IN my reading of this article and several others from the library, it seems to me that there was almost a predetermined outcome for most of these immigrants. Immigration in the U.S. has traditionally never been easy, as we are always wary of foreigners; however, it seems as if the people on Angel Island had a much more difficult time in transitioning and even getting into the U.S. than that of Western immigrants from Europe.

    also, to address the comment “but I think these poets would laugh in the face of anyone who dared to call an Asian-American weak.”: you are absolutely correct. Those people who endured this “hell” would laugh in the face of anyone who would label Asian-Americans as weak. Their journey to America was terrible and what they faced was more grueling and terrifying than anything most of their critics could even begin to imagine.