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The Poems at Angel Island

From 1910 until 1940, Angel Island, located in the San Francisco Bay, served as an immigration processing station. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, disallowing Chinese immigration into the United States, meant that Angel Island was used more as a detain and deport center rather than a processing center. Some Chinese were held in deplorable conditions for months and sometimes years. The poems written on the walls of the old immigration station buildings at Angel Island reveal their frustrations, anguish, despair, and at often times, hope. These works are widely considered to be amongst the most dramatic pieces of American literature. The poems examined here clearly show the immigrants’ attachment to Mother Nature and the importance of avoiding excessive behavior.

In discussing the various poems discovered on the walls one should first read the summary of all poems, which was an original wall poem in of itself:

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.”

There are thousands of poems on the walls of the old immigration station at Angel Island. Unfortunately, the scope of this article is to remain within the context of the introductory wall poem, discussing three additional pertinent poems found on the walls. It is important to illustrate the immigrants’ attraction to nature’s beauty:

In the quiet of night, I heard, faintly, the whistling of wind.

The forms and shadows saddened me; upon
seeing the landscape, I composed a poem.
The floating clouds, the fog, darken the sky.
The moon shines faintly as the insects chirp.
Grief and bitterness entwined are heaven sent.

The sad person sits alone, leaning by a window.

A strong ability to focus on the peaceful elements of Earth, are clear. The idea of being close to the environment is a Daoist tradition going back centuries. In Chinese Daoism, it is important to understand that the Earth and all human lives are intertwined, creating a delicate balance. This next poem was written by someone describing his or her personal situation in terms of natural occurrences (a li is one-third of a mile):

“The sea-scape resembles lichen twisting

and turning for a thousand li.’
There is no shore to land and it is
difficult to walk.
With a gentle breeze I arrived at the city
thinking all would be so.
At ease, how was one to know he was to

live in a wooden building?

The idea of avoiding excess has been seen in cultures across the world. Those more familiar with Western traditions might draw a comparison with hubris. This way of taking only what you need is essential for living a humble life as well as for making the best of a bad situation through perseverance. The final piece to be analyzed was written by an immigrant who was concerned about the harm of worrying excessively:

“This is a message to those who live here not

to worry excessively.
Instead, you must cast your idle worries to
the flowing stream.
Experiencing a little ordeal is not hardship.

Napoleon was once a prisoner on an island.

This writer clearly is not easily broken. Even someone as successful in life as Napoleon was forced to face adversity, yet he continued to live after his humiliating exile to the island of St. Helena.

9 Responses to “The Poems at Angel Island”

  1. Daniel Kiick says:

    Nice and I would love to be able to read more of the thousands that reside there whence they are translated. I would also like to continue manifesting the Headquarters of the D.O.P. (Department of Peace) residing upon Angel Island. Peace to all Soulfish122469

  2. Fernando Gomez says:

    This was an inspiring piece of art. I could not have enjoyed it anymore! These poems express much emotion. God Bless.

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  8. Joseph Broseph says:

    It was sad, but I really enjoyed it!

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