The Walls Speak: Excavating the Chinese Immigration Experience at Angel Island

By Teow Lim GohJanuary 13, 2019

The Walls Speak: Excavating the Chinese Immigration Experience at Angel Island
MORE THAN A CENTURY before Donald Trump issued a flurry of executive orders restricting the entry of foreign nationals from certain Muslim-majority nations, demonized Central American refugees seeking asylum, and voiced his desire to end birthright citizenship, the United States was in the grip of its first potent anti-immigrant fever. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was aimed at keeping Chinese laborers out of America. The law restricted entry only to those Chinese who were diplomats, merchants, teachers, students, and US citizens, plus their immediate families, and denied all Chinese people the right to become US citizens.

The law was initially set to expire in 10 years, but Congress renewed it in 1892 and extended it indefinitely in 1902. The 1917 Immigration Act expanded those exclusion laws to the Asiatic Barred Zone, which included Japan, India, and most of Southeast Asia. The Immigration Act of 1924 then denied admission to all “aliens ineligible to citizenship,” which, given the naturalization clause in the original exclusion laws, was effectively a ban on Asians. The offending laws were not repealed until China became an ally during World War II in 1943, 61 years after the Chinese Exclusion Act first passed.

During that time, many incoming Chinese were detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay as they waited for the outcome of their cases. Before Angel Island opened in 1910, Chinese who arrived in San Francisco were held in an old warehouse on the Embarcadero where conditions were overcrowded and unsanitary, and from which escaping detainees could flee into the anonymity of the city. The Angel Island facility was larger, and like Alcatraz its seabound location prevented jailbreaks. Until 1940, when a fire destroyed its administration building and the station was closed, Angel Island was the main port of entry for immigrants on the West Coast.

Because of the exclusion laws, all Chinese at the border were treated as suspicious until they could prove that they were eligible to land. In practice, this meant that upon arrival most were ferried to Angel Island, where they waited weeks, months, and in a few cases years before they received a determination of admission or deportation. Most were young men from Canton province, which had been impoverished by the Opium War. They had saved or borrowed money to make the passage across the Pacific, and their relatives had invested their hopes and futures in them. To return without having set foot in San Francisco was to bring shame and disappointment on the family.

In recent years writers and academics, many of them children or grandchildren of Angel Island detainees, have been exploring the Chinese immigrant experience at Angel Island in historical scholarship, in anthologies and translations of the poems detainees wrote on the barrack walls, and, as in my book Islanders (Conundrum Press, 2016), in verses that imagine voices and experiences outside the official record. All of the preserved Angel Island poems were found in the men’s barracks — the women’s barracks on the second floor of the administration building were destroyed in the 1940 fire. Initially, historians thought the women did not write poetry because they were illiterate, but in interviews conducted by the authors of more recent studies and anthologies, former female detainees claimed that they wrote and saw poems on their walls, too.

Chinese women were subjected to higher levels of scrutiny at Angel Island. The groundbreaking Page Act of 1875 forbade the entry of “immoral Chinese women” — that is, prostitutes — so every Chinese woman at the border had to prove her virtue to inspectors, which meant that she was questioned about her sex life. The Immigration Act of 1882 also excluded immigrants of any race or gender likely to become a public charge, a statute still on the books today. With maddening circular logic, these two laws denied admission to Chinese women not accompanied by husbands or fathers on the grounds that because of racism and sexism they were unlikely to find work and would either become a public charge or resort to prostitution.

My contribution to the corpus of Angel Island literature outlined below is a volume of original, English-language poems that imagine what these women might have said. I used the stories gathered in these books as well as the labyrinth of exclusion laws to develop my work. In writing fiction that is rooted in historical and cultural facts, I aimed for larger truths about the effects of unjust policies on the lives of real people.

In this era of rising xenophobia, this history reminds us of the harsh realities immigrants and refugees around the world have always faced. There is, of course, still much work to do in excavating the stories and poems of these early Chinese immigrants. Even so, the five works below provide a strong beginning.

Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung (1980, reprint University of Washington Press, 1991)

The first major book on the Chinese experience at Angel Island, Island is an anthology of the surviving poems that includes translations and interviews with former detainees. Some brushed their words onto the barrack walls in ink, some carved them into wood. The guards painted over them, but they continued to write, covering the walls with heartbreaking poetry. On two separate occasions in the 1930s, detainees Jann Mon Fong and Tet Yee copied down many poems and snuck the manuscripts into San Francisco when they were finally released.

After the immigration station closed, it was used to house prisoners of war during World War II and then abandoned. By 1970, the state was ready to demolish the Angel Island ruins and turn the land into a recreational site until California State Parks ranger Alexander Weiss stumbled upon the wall writings in a derelict building. He disobeyed his bosses, who had dismissed the writings as graffiti, and told San Francisco State College professor George Araki about his find. Araki, whose Japanese mother had been detained on the island, brought photographer Mak Takahashi to document the inscriptions.

Island preserves 135 poems taken from the Jann and Yee manuscripts as well as the Takahashi photographs. The translations and interviews describe life on Angel Island, from humiliating interrogations and medical exams to lonely nights spent waiting and wondering if they would ever enter the land they called Golden Mountain.

Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, Erika Lee and Judy Yung (2010, reprint Oxford University Press, 2012) 

In the first comprehensive study of the Angel Island Immigration Station, historians Lee and Yung tell the stories of the immigrants who tried to come to the United States via the “Ellis Island of the West.” There is a strong focus on the Chinese, the first group to be excluded from the country, but the book also delves into the experiences of the Japanese, Indian, Korean, Russian, Mexican, and Filipino immigrants detained there. (Asked by an Angel Island interrogator in 1918 if he had ever been in jail, Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, who was fleeing the tumult of the Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War, replied, “In yours.”)

Lee and Yung describe the system of “paper sons” the Chinese in San Francisco developed. Because of inadequate records, many Chinese men in the United States could claim unrelated men in China as their sons. Inspectors on Angel Island wised up to the scheme and tried to determine family ties by separately asking each man about the minutiae of his home life, from the location of the rice bin to the number of steps to the front door. If the details matched, they were considered blood relations and the newcomer was allowed to land. The Chinese continued to game the system, though: brokers drew up “coaching papers” full of such details for prospective immigrants to memorize on their journeys to San Francisco.

Drawing on archival records, interviews, newspaper articles, and more, Lee and Yung weave a wealth of historical detail into Angel Island’s engaging narratives. 

Wild Geese Sorrow: The Chinese Wall Inscriptions at Angel Island, Jeffrey Thomas Leong (Calypso Editions, 2018)

English and Chinese are vastly different languages, and it is difficult to translate from one to the other. In Island, translators Him Mark Lai and Genny Lim write that they made the choice to stay as close to the original meaning as possible: “The form [of the poems] is oftentimes compromised in order to retain the content, which we for historic reasons feel is our first priority.”

In Wild Geese Sorrow, Leong translates 70 of the Angel Island poems with an eye toward the original poetic forms.

Most of the poems were written in the classical Tang tradition, which many of the detainees would have studied in school even if their education had been cut short. Each line has five or seven syllables — the line length is consistent throughout the poem — and each poem usually has four or eight lines. As Chinese has very few non-lexical or multisyllabic words when compared to English, the seven-syllable line would have far more content in Chinese than in English.

Leong employs longer lines — they could be interpreted as accentual lines of five to seven beats — and creates a lyric quality that approximates the original. He does not follow the original rhyme schemes. Here is one of his translations:

In the still of night, small sounds are a howling wind.
Shadows, an ache of old wounds, so I recite verse:

Fog and mist drift, a gloomy sky,
Insects rub crick-crack beneath the moon’s faint light.
My sad and bitter face matches these heavens.
A worried man sits alone, leans at the windowsill.

Translation is always interpretation, and an exact reproduction of Chinese forms in English is impossible. But in paying attention to form, Leong captures something of the compression, tone, and elusive beauty of these poems. Leong’s translations remind us that the Angel Island poems were not merely graffiti or a way to pass time. They were works of art made by a people with a rich poetic and cultural heritage.

Songs of Gold Mountain: Cantonese Rhymes from San Francisco Chinatown, Marlon K. Hom (University of California Press, 1992)

At the turn of the 20th century, Chinese people in San Francisco formed poetry clubs. At these meetings, members would write poems on chosen subjects and present them to the group leader, often a high-ranking diplomatic official, for evaluation. A literary society emerged in Chinatown complete with contests, journal and newspaper publications, and anthologies. Many of these poems were written in classical forms such as parallel couplets, but there also emerged an oral tradition of Cantonese folk songs and popular rhymes.

A Chinatown bookseller published two anthologies of such folk rhymes: Jinshan ge ji (1911), which contained 808 poems, and Jinshan ge erji (1915), which added 832 pieces. Hom collects and translates 210 of these poems in Songs of Gold Mountain. His introduction outlines the history of the Chinese community in San Francisco and its early literary culture, and offers a critical analysis of the forms, themes, and cultural context of the rhymes.

Hom organizes the poems by subject, beginning with Angel Island. These pieces were written in San Francisco, but the trauma of detention clearly stayed with the poets long after the fact. While the wall poems were written in classical forms, these folk songs were written in a vernacular form of lines of varying syllables (5-5-7-7-3-5-7-7), with all lines rhyming. The themes and subjects are similar, however, and in many of the folk rhymes the speaker is situated on Angel Island rather than looking back from San Francisco; psychologically, many of these poets were still trapped there.

The other poems in the book deal with everyday life in San Francisco’s Chinatown: workingmen alone in a hostile country, married couples separated by the vast Pacific, children and family struggles, and the inevitable vices of addiction and prostitution. Taken together, these poems depict the intimate world of a community living in the shadows of Angel Island and Chinese exclusion.

The Tribute Horse, Brandon Som (Nightboat Books, 2014)

Winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, Som’s The Tribute Horse opens with an elegy for his grandfather:

A Chinese immigrant, on his Pacific-crossing, carried coaching papers for the memorizing. Approaching the island station, these pages were tossed to sea. A moon’s light in a ship’s wake might make a similar papertrail. My grandfather, aboard at twelve, practiced a paper-name. What ensued was a debt of sound.

That paper-name is the poet’s own: “Som – aspirate, vowel, liquid. / There is a sea on the coaching pages.” This origin story — it is, after all, where the family name began — becomes a touchstone in this series of lyrical experiments that span ekphrastic poems about Japanese landscapes and Chinese scrolls; recollections of his father and grandfather, and the Spanish of his mother’s family; homophonic translations of Chinese poet Li Po’s “Quiet Night Thoughts,” which had been carved into the Angel Island barrack walls; and a collage of found text that keeps circling back to the Angel Island poems translated in Island.

Som eschews narrative and historical evidence in favor of sound and image. His collection is not so much about Angel Island and Chinese exclusion per se. Rather, he weaves images of the sea and birds with fragments of history and family lore to make gorgeous sonic tapestries that resonate far beyond the cold waters of San Francisco Bay.


Teow Lim Goh is the author of the Islanders(Conundrum Press, 2016). Her work has been featured in Tin House, Catapult, PBS NewsHour, Colorado Public Radio, and The New Yorker.

LARB Contributor

Teow Lim Goh is the author of two poetry collections, Islanders (Conundrum Press, 2016) and Faraway Places (Diode Editions, 2021), and an essay collection Western Journeys (2022). Her essays, poetry, and criticism have been featured in Tin House, Catapult, Los Angeles Review of Books, PBS NewsHour, and The New Yorker.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!