Week Five Reading

The collection of poetry in Island, salvaged from the walls of the immigration facility on Angel Island, provides a great, tragic insight into the thoughts and feelings of Chinese immigrants awaiting interrogation and entrance into the United States. They frequently referenced historical or mythical characters to draw parallels to their own situation and gain strength, wrote about loneliness and missing their families, and expressed anger towards the situation. Island separates their poetry into five main themes: the voyage, being in detention, the weak shall conquer, westerners, and deportees and transients.

Poetry in the section about the voyage often refers to the reasons for leaving, such as poem 4, which states, “the gold and silver of America is very appealing,” but also refer to their own unhappiness, the difficulty of the voyage, and the yearning for the family they have left behind. They also mention the poverty the left behind, such as in poem 18, which states, “wishing to escape permanent poverty, I fled overseas” and expresses the writer’s desire to provide for his family in the line “I feel sorely guilty for having not yet repaid my parents’ kindness.”

The section with poetry about being in detention reflects the deep sadness and loneliness felt by many of the immigrants. “Sadness kill the person in the wooden building,” states poem 23, and Yee of Toishan writes in poem 24, “Grief and bitterness entwined are heaven sent. The sad person sits alone, leaning by a window.” Poem 26 writes that the “inmates often sigh. Thinking of affairs back home, unconscious tears wet my lapel.” The writer of poem 27 is “depressed from living on Island,” and the writer of poem 28 is “discontent” and worried. They also express the passing of time. Poem 23 states that “one year’s prospects have changed to another”, in poem 25 the writer counts “the time that’s elapsed; it is already mid-autumn,” and in poem 31 the author writes, “it is already another autumn.” Anxiety around uncertainty of the future is also present. Poem 27 states that “the uncertain future altogether wounds my spirit” and the writer refers to himself as a “drifting leaf,” perhaps reflecting his undetermined status between two countries. In this section, I especially liked poem 33 by Chan, particularly the lines, “America has power, but not justice. In prison, we were victimized as if guilty.”

The third section reflects the feelings of injustice, humiliation, and the desire for revenge some immigrants felt, wanting to become strong themselves or for China to become strong. Regarding China being a weak country, poem 65 claims that he is in the center “only because my country is weak and my family poor” and poem 67 reinforces the idea, stating that if his “country had contrived to make herself strong, this never would have happened.” Poem 68 acknowledges that foreign powers have not recognized China and that “foreigners pushed to control finances and to seize power.” Similarly, poem 75 states, “our country’s wealth is drained by foreigners, causing us to suffer national humiliations.” Expressions of violence are also written, such as in poem 66, which states that the author “will certainly behead the barbarians,” and poem 87, which reveals the desire for China to grow in power and use “bombs to obliterate America.” Many poems also indicate the feelings of shame. In poem 72, the writer is “ashamed to be curled up like a worm on Island” and in poem 88, due to poverty, the writer “rushed about and must tolerate humiliation.” I found it interesting to read this section knowing about what China calls its century of humiliation and that in the twenty-first century China is arguably one of the most powerful countries in the world.

The section of poetry about westerners indicates the crushed hope for America and the anger from the situation. Some of the poems use questions, as poem 96 notes, “who was to know the barbarians would change the regulations?” and poem 99 asks, “how was I to know the Western barbarians had lost their hearts and reason?” They frequently characterize Americans as cruel and brutal. The writer of poem 107 writes that “the barbarians’ cruelty is overwhelming” and poem 108 claims that “users of brute force have no sense of justice.” Devil imagery is invoked several times, such as in poem 97, in which the writer writes, “after sacrificing a huge sum of money, I am now being disemboweled by the devils,” and in poem 109, which calls Americans “heartless white devils.” There are also some more expressions of violence, such as in poem 99, in which the writer, “will surely cut out the hearts and bowels of the Western barbarian.”

Some deportees and transients struggle to find strength or encourage each other in poetry, while others commiserate through poetry. In poem 124, the writer compares the experience of Chinese immigrants on Angel Island to Napoleon, who was also “once a prisoner on an island.” Others believed that “with extreme misfortune comes the composure to await an opportunity for revenge,” as in poem 123, while some expressed that they would discourage others from attempting to immigrate to the United States.

I typically do not like poetry, but I was very moved by these poems. I feel like they revealed significant insight into life on Angel Island, their experience, and direct access to their emotions during the time. I am very grateful that someone stumbled onto the poems and that the poetry was able to be salvaged, collected, and translated. I think that this poetry serves as a very valuable primary source.

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