Sep 24, 2020
In the pages of Lai’s Island, we get an in-depth look into Chinese immigration during the 1910s through to the 1940s, a time when U.S. policy demanded the mass-detainment of nearly 175,000 Chinese on Angel and Ellis Islands. Comprised of thousands of poems taken over nearly 30 years, Island runs the emotional, political, and ideological gambit. Beginning with its first section on the voyage itself, we see the myriad reasons why many Chinese left; most of which include poverty or a lack of opportunity in some way (As one person detained on Angel Island wrote: “people who enter this country come only because the family is poor.”). People also come looking to make a name for themselves, though, as we see that one person wanted to become famous upon arriving in the U.S.
Moving on to the second and arguably longest section of the book, we read poems depicting first-hand accounts of the types of struggles faced by those in detention on the island. Though there is some variance, most of these poems describe the struggles of detainment, and the looming uncertainty of their eventual department. People also lament over the fact that most don’t know why they’re there in the first place, something that will soon turn to rage, as we’ll see in other sections. In “The Weak Shall Conquer”, we hear genuinely uplifting tales about the Chinese’s historic resilience and how, these detainees too, will seek to rise above their admittedly pressing circumstances. In “About Westerners,” we see these chants of resilience turn into battle cries, as detainees convey their absolute contempt regarding their American captors. We’re repeatedly described as “barbarians” in these poems, to the point that I’m surprised the term hasn’t survived as a colloquialism today. We see similar claims in the section “Detention at Muk Luk.”
In the last section of Island, we get firsthand accounts of some of these immigrants’ lives both before and after their internment. What is interesting to note about these 20 or so stories is the insane amount of variance they have between one another. While their descriptions of their time at the island themselves may be relatively similar, the description of their lives both before and after their arrival couldn’t be more disparate. One person, for example, studied in Russia for several years before immigrating to the states. Another became a well-respected pastor in Oakland, California (shoutout to Reverend Lee, everybody). Yet another became wildly successful both at home in China and abroad in America. All of these stories go to show just how cruel the United States must have been to have lumped such a varied group of people into the same “ethnic” category and detained them on an island. I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for these people to have communicated to a guard or complained about their struggles, only to be beaten or harassed on account of the language barrier.