Week 5 – Island : Poetry of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island

Throughout this book of poetry, I appreciated that even though each poem is individual, they are grouped and flow as one, longer story. Put into categories like “the voyage”, “in detention”, and “about westerners”, it gives the reader an idea of just how many people were writing on the walls about their experiences. The poetry that was carved into the walls of Angel Island, San Francisco where many Chinese immigrants were detained is striking, especially with the added effect of photographs and annotated notes.

The craziest part about this time and what was happening was the fact that whether the people on Angel Island spent a few months or a couple of years there, they could still be deported. The families who had come over for a better life were sent back home before they could even reach the mainland U.S. I found it interesting that the quality of the writing varied so much; how many people got a formal education? On the walls, some of the writing was written in calligraphy while some was written as graffiti. The different handwriting allowed historians to further connect the writer to other poems they may have written. I was disappointed to read that poems written mostly by men; whether it was an education issue or they were lost to time, we don’t know, but I feel like only having one gender’s story isn’t a complete narrative.

The poem that I found most striking was #33:

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.
By Chan

Not only is this poem significant to me because of the blatant and obvious disrespect for Chinese immigrants at this time, but also because I still see these words being reflected in today’s immigration policies. While the immigration policies we know today are being targeted towards people coming over the southern border, there are still detention centers and terrors that those people are facing. Chinese immigration seems to be a dark spot in U.S. history because of the very obvious racism occurring… what will people say about immigration during this time in the history books?

4 thoughts on “Week 5 – Island : Poetry of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island

  1. While It might be disappointing to only hear from one gender, this Chinese immigration was predominated by nearly all the male gender, so it’d only make sense that the majority of writings were from them.
    I’m a little confused when you compare the Chinese detention to the detention centers of common Mexicans on the southern border. Having detention centers is inevitable and they themselves are not the problem here. The problem is actually much more expansive than just “disrespect” in these detentions center, it’s the abuse, mistreatment, racist discrimination and bias from the American guards referred to as “Western Barbarians,” it’s the low quality food, low quality medical care, and the isolation which regurgitated loneliness in distress from the detained immigrants. Without any of those points brought up, I am not confident the comparison to just the existence of detention centers on our border is nearly meaningful or valid. Now, there are numerous laws and high expectations and necessities for treatment and conditions in those centers today.

    1. I agree with you that the sole existence of detention centers isn’t the problem, the problem is the mistreatment of the individuals that are held in these centers. Although, there may be laws that are now set in place for the centers, these detention centers are still essentially doing the same thing just under stricter laws. There are psychological repercussions of being held in the centers, separation of families, the lack of medical attention provided, the food is still low quality, among other issues. So I think the comparison that was made was valid because there still is injustice and mistreatment in detention centers today.

  2. These poems do portray a unified vision despite being written by different people, which I think is very interesting. As you mentioned many of these poems show that the people writing these had varying degrees of education and it does make me wonder what education was like at the time. I also understand that having a mostly male perspective is disappointing but it seems that it was quite rare for women to have crossed at this time so I suppose that it was less likely for one of them to have written a poem.
    I thought that poem 33 represented many of the sentiments that were expressed throughout the book. Many of these people wanted to improve their lives and rather than treat these people as if they migrating to the United States, they are treated like criminals and placed in a detention center where they are abused in many forms. It is upsetting to read this especially when it feels like the sentiments of this era did not go away and were instead directed to another group of people today who also face a lot of abuse albeit in a different form.

  3. I also found the layout of the book, to be quite interesting. I felt the book gave the reader an insight into the life of these Chinese immigrants, coming to America.

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