Angel Island and Chinese American Literature
The ride to Alcatraz is often portrayed as the typical historical ferry trip to show to visiting friends and family. Before my brother-in-law and sister asked me if I would take them to Angel Island during their stay in San Francisco, I hadn’t even heard of it. I quite literally had no idea what to expect, but I never could have imagined the incredibly intimate nature of the island’s history and its narrative of detainment.
Angel Island has gone through many iterations in its possession and use. It was originally used by the Miwok Indian Tribe for hunting and collecting herbs before they were enslaved by Spanish invaders in the late eighteenth century and forced to work as cattle herders. During the Civil War, the U.S. army was worried that the Confederate navy would attack San Francisco, so battle fortresses Point Stewart and Point Knox were built on Angel Island. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the whole island was renamed “Fort McDowell” and it served as a discharge depot during the Spanish American War. And finally, after the Spanish–American war concluded, Angel Island was repurposed as an immigration station from 1910-1940 and used to detain approximately one million Asian immigrants over its thirty years in operation. Although Angel Island processed immigrants from nearly eighty countries, the large majority of these immigrants were from China.
After the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882 as a blatantly racist attempt to bar entry to Asian immigrants while still allowing entry to European immigrants, massive numbers of immigrants from China and other Asian countries were eventually brought to Angel Island. The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake destroyed city hall, where the immigration records were kept, which allowed the Chinese residents in San Francisco to register falsified lists of their family members in China. This gave rise to the immigration of “paper sons”-- young men in China who purchased the falsified names that the Chinese residents in San Francisco registered. Hundreds of thousands of these young men boarded ships bound for America, along with the legitimate family members of the Chinese immigrants in San Francisco.
These immigrants’ first experience of America was the loading dock on Angel Island. They were immediately sent into the boarding house, where they would wait anywhere from two weeks to several years before either being sent back to China or registered as an American citizen. American immigration officials concocted a massive and ridiculously comprehensive exam to test whether or not the newly arrived immigrants were actually related to the Chinese family in San Francisco that claimed them. Some examples of these questions are: “Who lived in the third house on the street four streets in front of your house?” and “What is the floor of your home made out of?” Even the legitimate family members could not successfully answer questions of this nature, and the immigrants were at the whims of the examiners, who had the ultimate jurisdiction over whether or not they would be allowed entry to America.
Imprisoned within the confines of the boarding house and subjected to the overwhelming pressure of uncertainty, the immigrants sought ways to express their pain and frustration. Because protesting would lead to their immediate deportation, the Chinese immigrants began to carve the truth of their struggles into the wooden walls in the form of poetry. Here are two of the hundreds of poems carved on the walls of the Angel Island boarding house in Cantonese:
There are tens of thousands of poems on these walls
They are all cries of suffering and sadness
The day I am rid of this prison and become successful
I must remember that this chapter once existed
I must be frugal in my daily needs
Needless extravagance usually leads to ruin
All my compatriots should remember China
Once you have made some small gains,
you should return home early.
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.
The U.S. government tried to suppress the writing of this poetry by repainting the walls and applying wood putty on seven separate occasions, but ironically, these very acts of destruction and denial of expression were what preserved these poems for future generations. A fire in 1940 would have destroyed the history of these poems had they not been preserved by the seven layers of lead paint and wood putty. The senseless and violent oppression of these immigrants served to ensure that their voices would continue to be heard and uncovered through conservation efforts. Angel Island has been called one of the most important sites for Asian American literature, as it contains some of the first poetry written by Chinese immigrants in the twentieth century upon their arrival in America.
Whether or not you are a lover of history or literature, Angel Island possesses a unique and profound lesson for all who visit. We should not forget the immigrants who were detained on Angel Island for long and indefinite periods, often times only to be sent back to their original countries and denied access to America. In consideration of the repeal of DACA, it’s evident that our society continues to have something to learn from the poetry written by these immigrants and their experiences.
“Miwok History.” Angel Island Conservancy Miwok History Comments, Angel Island Conservatory, angelisland.org/history/miwok-history/.