Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation

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Poetry on Barrack Walls

Because of the long delays associated with testimonies, living conditions became the focal point of immigrants’ frustrations. Immigrants became prisoners under lock and key 24 hours a day, the barracks had been deemed by public health officials to be a firetrap, the food was barely edible, recreation or time allowed outside was limited, and under such conditions, some even demanded to be returned to China on the next boat out. It was common to hear rumors of suicide by those who were schedule to be deported. The most visible and durable testimony to their suffering are the famous poems, some written, some carved with a classical Cantonese technique into the wooden walls of the barracks. This was not mere graffiti. Couched in classical allegories and historical references, these poems poured forth the aspirations of the immigrants with their anger and sadness at the injustice of their initial reception by America.

Detained in this wooden house for several tens of days,
It is all because of the Mexican exclusion law which implicates me.
It’s a pity heroes have no way of exercising their prowess.
I can only await the word so that I can snap Zu’s whip.

From now on, I am departing far from this building
All of my fellow villagers are rejoicing with me.
Don’t say that everything within is Western styled.
Even if it is built of jade, it has turned into a cage.

– From the walls of Angel Island Immigration Station, author unknown, Poem 69 from Island, p. 134.

Imprisoned in the wooden building day after day,
My freedom is withheld; how can I bear to talk about it?
I look to see who is happy but they only sit quietly.
I am anxious and depressed and cannot fall asleep.
The days are long and bottle constantly empty;
My sad mood even so is not dispelled.
Nights are long and the pillow cold; who can pity my loneliness?
After experiencing such loneliness and sorrow,
Why not just return home and learn to plow the fields?

– From the walls of Angel Island Immigration Station, author unknown, Poem 32 from Island, p. 68.

Click to hear readings of Chinese poems in Cantonese and English (Mandarin) (Mandarin and Cantonese)


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