Island Reading : Caleigh Deane

When reading Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910-1940, I noticed very specific themes and sentiments that were echoed by various imprisoned Chinese immigrants on Angel, Ellis, and Victoria Island. The collection begins by giving a brief overview and context of the poetry, explaining that Chinese immigrants, specifically those of Cantonese descent, etched poems onto the walls of the detention centers on the three islands. Most commonly, the detainees were either imprisoned for a lengthy time or were waiting to be deported back to their homeland. After the Chinese wrote on the walls with ink and pencil lead, the walls were painted over. Eventually, the immigrants began to etch their words into the walls with knives. The walls were then covered with putty and paint, which only persevered the carvings for historians to analyze in the future.  These poems contained feelings of resentment, shame, embarrassment, depression, anxiety, hopelessness, anger, and vengeance, just to name a few. As stated in Island, these poems embodied “an increasing national consciousness among the Chinese” (38) at the beginning of the twentieth century. The poems also represented the varying political ideologies of the immigrants, with some being Marxists, and others in full support of the Nationalist Party. The poems served as a device to understand the education of said immigrants as well. According to Island, “Most immigrants at that time did not have a formal education beyond the elementary school level” (39). It is also revealed in this introduction to the poetry that the majority of the poems were written before the 1930’s, and none remaining were composed by women, most likely because their dormitory burned down due to a fire in 1940. As the introduction concludes, it is evident that the poems from Ellis, Angel, and Victoria Island as a whole “represent the first literary body of work by Chinese in North America…the poems express a vitality and spirit of indomitability never before identified with Chinese America” (42). The following themes appear within the poems of Island: anger towards China’s weakness as a nation, anger towards the false advertising of America, depression and anxiety due to detainment, fear of being deported, and regret about coming to the United States, most commonly because of poverty originally. The first section of poetry titled “The Voyage” details the conditions that the immigrants faced when traveling to America. They constantly reference the wind and waves when on the actual ship in transit. As stated by one poet, “Waves big as mountains often astonished this traveler” (54). Another poet echoes the harsh conditions by saying that “As a traveler in wind and dust, half the time it was difficult” (58). The immigrants also express their sadness and despair throughout this section regarding their imprisonment in their detention structure on Angel Island. One poet writes that “discontent fills my belly, and it is difficult for me to sleep” (52). 

The second section, entitled “In Detention” details in depth the sadness, sorrow, and anxiety associated with being trapped in a prison. One poet states that “Sadness kills the person in the wooden building” (66). Many other poets echo this sentiment, expressing their woes as their depression deepens. Along with their communal treachery in “the wooden building”, many of the immigrants are ashamed of China for their weakness in the face of American torment. One poet states that “When I see my old country fraught with chaos, I, a drifting leaf, become doubly sad” (68). This perfectly embodies the thoughts of many of the Chinese Immigrants who were kept away from their failing country as they further descended into depression and general malnutrition. In the third section, “The Weak Shall Conquer”, a vehement hatred towards the Americans, also known as the “barbarians”, is obvious. One poet states that “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” (100). Many other poets also emphasize how all Chinese immigrants must stick together in the face of such peril. One poets echoes this sentiment by stating that “Someday after China rises and changes, she will be adept at using bombs to obliterate America” (118). There is a sense of community among the majority of Chinese immigrants due to their shared torture at the hands of Americans. In the fourth section titled “Deportees and Transients” immigrants share their stories regarding deportation and their wasted time in a cell only to be sent home. Some speak of the shame they will have to face upon arrival at home in accordance with tradition. One poets states that “I cannot face the elders east of the river. I came to seek wealth but instead reaped poverty” (146). Other complain about the needless delay of being imprisoned, only to return home with no accomplishments. In the fifth section titled “Detention in the MUK UK” the immigrants detail the abuse Americans carry out against them. One poet writes that “At times, the barbarians would become angry with us; they kick and punch us severely” (170). The sixth section titled “Poems from Ellis Island” is significantly shorter but reinforces the feelings and concerns of those from Angel Island. In the last section titled “Poems from Victoria, B.C.” many immigrants discuss their poverty that brought them to another country. One poet states that “Had my family not been poor, I would not have traveled far away from home” (186). Another laments that “I have always yearned to reach Gold Mountain—Unexpectedly, I found only poverty and hardship” (190). Many immigrants referred to the United States as the Gold Mountain due to the California Gold Rush as well. In summation, these three accounts provided by immigrants through poetry on prison walls perfectly encapsulate the changing attitudes of not only Chinese immigrants but the entirety of America regarding the Chinese population as well. 

One thought on “Island Reading : Caleigh Deane

  1. I think you did a really good job of analyzing and summarizing this reading in your post this week, following the shift in the shared sentiments of shock with conditions met in America and sadness to anger and resentment as their imprisonment went on sometimes only to be met by denial and deportation. One factor you wrote on that I failed to mention and really think about was the influence of education on these poems, stating that these immigrants did not often have a formal education beyond elementary level had me rethink many of these poems and think about the influence of their journey and education prior to with these poems. I think that looking at the education of immigrants is very interesting to look at and would be interested in looking into this topic more.

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