In this weeks reading titled Island Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island we read and learn about the lives of Chinese immigrants making their journey to the United States in the early 1900s. In the beginning of the novel we get a historical introduction to the times and what was going on in both China and the United States at the time. The country of China was dealing and going through issues such as famine, many were impoverished, there was internal conflicts within different groups of Chinese, there were also conflicts with external forces such as countries like Japan. All of these were push factors for many Chinese to find money, whether raised or borrowed, to get on a boat across the Pacific Ocean. In the United States on the other hand, specifically on the west coast where the Chinese immigrants would arrive, there was word of a gold rush in California. This was most certainly a pull for said Chinese immigrants to travel across the vast ocean in search of wealth and a better life. However, we know that unfortunately for many Chinese that was not as easily achievable as was thought to be. While Chinese immigration to the United States increased so did the blatant racism towards the immigrants. Upon arrival they were to come in through Angel Island and wait there in the so called “wooden building” for permission by the United States government to enter. Many were denied entry due to occupation, health status, etc. and were deported.
While reading the poems that were left inscribed on the walls of the wooden building we can see prevalent themes and emotions that were shared amongst the Chinese immigrants. We learn that many of these immigrants were in fact impoverished and gave up everything to make the journey. Many expressed feeling sad and even stated they would cry upon being stuck on Angel Island for so long waiting to see if they were to be given entry or not. They reported not being treated well by the barbarians, the Americans. The Chinese were regularly checked for disease such as Hookworm by doctors who would stab them in the ear and give them liquid to dispel the disease. Many expressed anger, stating they could not wait for the day when they themselves could rise up against the barbarians. Some other common themes were the act of looking or praying to the Blue Heaven, wishing China’s history and current situation was different, and travelling back home or to different countries instead. Truly this novel is an emotional and informative read that really captures the sentiments on Chinese immigration in the early 1900s.
I also noticed a lot of push and pull factors in the poetry! Escaping poverty was clearly a large motivator for many Chinese immigrants, and as you said, there seemed to be a desire for wealth that they believed could be found in America, especially as they called California Gam Saan, meaning Gold Mountain. I thought it was interesting, though, that while on Angel Island, some people expressed regret or a desire to return home, like in poem 43, which ends with the line, “why not just return home and learn to plow the fields?”
I thought their sentiments regarding their treatment by the bargains was very telling. Not only did Americans wrongfully imprison a specific race of people who were risking everything to start a better life, but they physically abused them as well. I cannot imagine the onset of depression and hopelessness I would feel if I ventured to an entirely new country to escape the depths of poverty only to be held captive upon arrival. The unnecessary hookworm tests were plainly inhumane and savage; this almost reminds me of the mindset behind the holocaust.
Great point! I’m curious what you thought of the “health concerns” many of the people working on these islands touted as the reason they were detaining so many Chinese at the time. Do you think it may have sprouted from any genuine health concerns, or do you think it was entirely used to try and justify their apparent racism? I’m also curious what you thought about the many interviews that took place decades after the fact. Did you find anything about the way their lives turned out after the island?
When I was reading this book, I had no inkling or prior knowledge of Angel island, or the experience these Chinese immigrants endured in America.