Angel Island Poetry

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

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.

I Claim Ignorance By Way of Location

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

Growing up in Massachusetts, I feel I was taught very little about history that didn’t involve Pilgrims, Puritans, and Revolutionary War heroes.  Ellis Island was definitely thrown into the mix somewhere around the 5th grade, but it was not until I began reading for this class that I had ever even heard of Angel Island.  Feeling like the most ignorant person on the planet, I immediately started Google-ing Angel Island in order to learn what I had been missing and why I had been missing it.  But this initial response of ignorance made me wonder: how important is geographical location in relation to what gets taught in the United States?  If you attend public school in the Boston area like I did, does that mean that teachers are more likely to spend extra time with you on the Boston Tea Party than teachers would in say, Portland Oregon?  And if this is the case, are educators spending more time on the West Coast talking about Angel Island than we are on the East?  Perhaps some of you have lived on the West Coast or in other parts of the US and can help me answer that.  Or (hopefully) some others are in the same boat as me?

In my quest for information, I found this great video on the multi-million dollar renovation of Angel Island.

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Also, if you visit the Angel Island website, it’s interesting to see how Angel Island is being advertised as a great “family outing” and ideal wedding destination.  I don’t know about you, but I think it would be a little odd to get married in a place that has such a rich history of anxiety, oppression, and despair.

AND, going into the whole Angel v. Ellis thing, here is a very interesting paper that I found via Dartmouth College.  It covers a few obvious similarities between Angel Island and Ellis Island, but then looks into the differences which get to be pretty crazy.  Not to mention the fact that the writer seems to lament with me towards the end of the piece, talking of how he/she was not exposed to Asian-American immigration and Angel Island until college.  I myself definitely feel a little cheated.