In the poems of Island, Chinese immigrants expressed their understanding of their experiences being locked up in Angel Island, or as they referred to it, “Island,” and their reactions to these experiences. Although the poems were short in length, they were packed with rich cultural nuances, mixed emotions of hope and despair, and common themes of longing and resentment. Many of the poems expressed that the Chinese immigrants felt duped. They took the risk of leaving behind their established communities in China to voyage across the Pacific into unknown territory based on the promise of quick and plentiful economic opportunity. This Chinese conception of what America would be like is best represented in their referring to California as “Gold Mountain.” They pictured a land full of gold and opportunity. However, upon arrival they were faced with a starkly different reality. Far from their expectations, they were locked up in cells for indefinite periods of time without even having the opportunity to step foot on American soil. After experiencing such a major disappointment, the Chinese immigrants reflected on their feelings of longing to return home, as they believed work at home with their communities would be better than wasting away in a cell despite the tumultuous political and economic climate at home. This longing and feeling of being tricked soon developed into resentment for the Western world and for white people. It also inspired strong Chinese nationalist sentiments among the prisoners. They frequently wrote ill of the West and of white people, and dreamt of taking revenge on them for disgracing China.
While most of the immigrants expressed anger at being tricked into believing America was a land of economic opportunity, their responses to this hardship differed. While some were woeful at their misfortune and regretted coming to America, others clung to a hope of being released and fully reaching the land of their aspirations. Those who wished to return home thought of their life with their family and desired to do farm work. Although they would still be poor as farmers, farming was still a better endeavor compared to the situation they found themselves in while on Angel Island. It was no longer seen as advantageous to be far away from loved ones because they could not even make money in exchange for the emotional toil of the separation. For others, however, being in America was still worth the struggle. They expressed a small sense of optimism about leaving the cells and gaining prosperity by practicing Chinese ideals such as hard work and frugality.
This mix of emotions and responses to being held as prisoners was nicely summed up in the many references to various Chinese legends in many of the poems. Legends with themes of sorrow and struggle and pitiful characters were the most commonly cited legends. For example, some poems incorporated the story of Ruan Ji, who cried when he reached the end of his road and pathetically walked back home. Others made references to stories of warriors and generals who faced turmoil from enemy forces. The poems also noted the passing of different Chinese festivals such as the Mid-Autumn Festival as a reference for how long the prisoners had been in their cells. They then expressed deep sorrow at not being able to properly participate in said festivals. These cultural references served as the lens through which the Chinese immigrants understood their experiences as prisoners and largely shaped their reactions to imprisonment.