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Angel Island Poems Written by Chinese Immigrants

Updated on July 4, 2014

Chinese Immigrant Poetry at Angel Island San Francisco

The Angel Island poems reflect the experiences and viewpoints of the detained Chinese immigrants who were held there. Angel Island was an immigration station set up in San Francisco to detain Chinese immigrants.

When America was still a young country, Chinese immigrants came to this nation in hopes of making a better life for themselves and their families. These immigrants came to America for one main purpose--to work. They built the transcontinental railroad and provided much needed labor for California's growing agriculture and light industries. Unfortunately for these immigrants, they were extremely good workers. Americans began to see them as labor competition, thus Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This act prevented Chinese immigrants from entering the United States unless they were merchants, government officials, students, teachers, visitors planning to return home, or claiming American citizenship. Angel Island was established to detain the immigrants who claimed to fall under one of the above exemptions.

They were kept in barracks on the island for an indefinite amount of time until the status of their claim was fully investigated. During their long waits, many of these immigrants etched their thoughts and feelings in poetic verse on the barrack walls. These unique poems were not discovered until 1970 and are now preserved for future generations to read.

Photo credit: Cloodlebing and Great Kindness on Flickr.

Angel Island Poems Themes

Due to the circumstances imposed upon the Chinese immigrants during their long detainment, three main themes are seen throughout the poetry etched on the dormitory walls at Angel Island: 1) the passage of time, 2) sense of powerlessness, and 3) retribution. This page will discuss those three themes as evident in the Angel Island poetry.

Angel Island San Francisco
Angel Island San Francisco

The Symbolism of Lost Time in the Angel Island Poems

The immigrant's lengthy detainment is apparent in the poetry

The passage of time is evident throughout the Angel Island poems. These immigrants were kept in the barracks for the entire time their specific investigation would require, meaning no one knew how long their detainment would last. The uncertainty of a departure date seemed to make the stay even more unbearable. In poem 5, The Voyage, one immigrant wrote:

Time flew like a shooting arrow.
Already, a cool autumn has passed.
Counting on my fingers, several months have elapsed.
Still I am at the beginning of the road.
I have yet to be interrogated.

The immigrant who wrote these lines had watched months pass by, witnessing the changing of the seasons, yet his questioning had not even begun. The immigrants were growing impatient, but had no control over their situation. Many were held captive at Angel Island for three whole years.

The Chinese immigrants came to the states with the desire to work, but were forced to sit and wait "idle in the wooden building" (poem 38 form The Weak Shall Conquer). Men, women, and children were all forced to stay at the Angel Island Immigration Station and with no estimated date of release to look forward to. They watched time tick by minute by minute, hour by hour while the US government held their lives captive.

Image courtesy of Wiki Commons

Angel Island Barracks
Angel Island Barracks

The Sense of Powerlessness as Seen in the Angel Island Poems

The Chinese immigrant's poetry communicates their loss of control

The Chinese immigrants who migrated to America during the Chinese Exclusion Act were victims of circumstance. They were detained and interrogated like criminals. They were housed and fed like children. The immigrants had no control over their situations. Their poetry reflected this sense of powerlessness. One immigrant described his feelings of situational helplessness in poem 42 from The Weak Shall Conquer.

The dragon out of water is humiliated by ants;
The fierce tiger who is caged is baited by a child.
As long as I am imprisoned, how can I dare strive for supremacy?

The dragon and tiger are both strong, fierce creatures, yet if you remove them from their environments they can be controlled and manipulated. This idea of control and manipulation is how the author of the above lines viewed the detainment of the Chinese immigrants at Angel Island. They were fish out of water, powerless as a result of the circumstances the US government enforced upon them. Li Jingbo, a Chinese immigrant, wrote, "After leaping into the prison, I cannot come out" (poem 30 from The Detainment). Jingbo came to this nation vountarily, but was then imprisoned against his will. The only time he was in control of his situation was when he decided to migrate to the United States. Once he arrived to America, his fate was placed in the hands of its government.

Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Angel Island Dormitories
Angel Island Dormitories

Angel Island Poems Illustrate Anger

The Angel Island poetry expresses a sense of retribution

The extended amount of time in which the immigrants were detained coupled with the awareness of the powerlessness they had over their own lives, let to anger and hostility against the very nation to which they had chosen to migrate. Their resentment grew to the point of desiring retribution for their mistreatment. In poem 35 from The Weak Shall Conquer one immigrant wrote:

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.

Seeking revenge for the injustices they faced while on Angel Island is a common theme throughout the amazing poetry these immigrants etched on the dormitory walls. "An advantageous position for revenge will surely come one day: (poem 42 from The Weak Shall Conquer). These immigrants came to America to work and better themselves and found that they were either detained or refused the opportunity. They wanted retribution for the discrimination that they unjustly faced upon their arrival to the United States.

Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Which Theme from the Angel Island Poetry do You Identify With?

Angel Island
Angel Island

If you had experienced the unjust detainment for days, weeks, months, or even years that these Chinese immigrants endured, then which of the themes expressed in their poetry would you most closely identify with?

Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Which theme do you identify with most?

See results

The Angel Island Poems

The detainee poetry of Angel Island

Discovering the verses these immigrants etched on the walls that served as their prison during their forced detainment was truly a remarkable find. Since their discovery, these works of poetry have earned a respected place within American literature. These poems are a record of the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the Chinese immigrants who suffered as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. What makes these works such an amazing find is that it is untainted history. These poems were written by the immigrants themselves. The verses are in the Chinese immigrants' own words, etched in the walls by their own hands.

Photo credit: Cloodlebing and Great Kindness on Flickr.

Angel Island Chinese Monument - A monument to honor the Chinese Immigrants held captive and Angel Island

Angel Island Chinese Monument
Angel Island Chinese Monument

This monument is located just outside the Immigration Station at Angel Island San Francisco. In English, it reads: "Leaving their homes and villages, they crossed the ocean only to endure confinement in these barracks. Conquering frontiers and barriers, they pioneered a new life by the Golden Gate."

Image courtesy of Wiki Commons

Angel Island Poems - Angel Island history and Chinese immigrant poetry

This book recounts an accurate history of San Francisco's Angel Island. It does a beautiful job of illustrating the mistreatment the Chinese immigrants endured while being detained in the uncomfortable barracks there. The majority of this book are the English translations of the Angel Island poems which the immigrants carved into the walls during their forced stay.

Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940 (Naomi B. Pascal Editor's Endowment)
Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940 (Naomi B. Pascal Editor's Endowment)

Includes: The Voyage poems 1-11, The Detainment poems 12-33, The Weak Shall Conquer poems 34-46, About Westerners poems 47-56, Deportees poems 57-69. As well as an extensive history of Angel Island.


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What are Your Thoughts About the Angel Island Poems? - Thank you for visiting

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    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      I am intrigued and would like to read more. You've given me a teaser. The book is on my list! When I get to it, I'll come back here to order. Thank you for introducing me to this intimate view of another shameful story in our past.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Thank you for the lens, we rarely hear about Angel Island because it's overshadowed by Ellis Island and Asian contributions to America still aren't as widely appreciated or known. It's a shame how so many were held for a long time and posed no threat to anybody.


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