Him Mark Lai


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Island Summary

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Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910–1940 is a collection of poems and oral histories documenting the experiences of Chinese immigrants at the United States Immigration Service’s detention facility on Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay. Edited by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, this volume was first published in 1980 by the History of Chinese Detained on Island Project and later reissued by the University of Washington Press. The poems gathered here are the works of unknown Chinese detainees on the Island, who scrawled their innermost thoughts in their native language on the walls of the barracks. The oral histories come from a diverse assortment of survivors who experienced the Island, providing riveting first-person accounts of their imprisonment. Island is sweeping in its scope as it bears witness to a dark and ugly period in American history, ultimately underscoring the imperative need to recognize our shared humanity and welcome the outsider as we would welcome ourselves.

A comprehensive introduction establishes the beginnings of Angel Island. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers to America. This was the culmination of an onslaught of anti-Chinese sentiment and anti-Chinese laws that had been slowly building since the first Chinese immigrants arrived during the California Gold Rush.

On January 21, 1910, the Angel Island station opened. For the next three decades, this was the port of entry for some 175,000 Chinese immigrants, most of them laborers, and most of them imprisoned on the Island. Some stayed for just a couple of weeks; others for as many as six months. In a few notable instances, authorities held some detainees for up to two years.

The Island held between 200 to 300 men and between 30 to 50 women; immigration officials kept it at full capacity. Many of the prisoners were new arrivals to the country, while some had been sent back to the Island after submitting dubious immigration documents. Other detainees waited for deportation back to China. The authorities detained Mexican and Cuban deportees at the Island as well.

As they waited for the ship that would take them home or for the verdict on their deportation appeals, many prisoners wrote on the barracks walls in Chinese verse, capturing their hopes and dreams, outrage and disappointment, depression and despair. These novice poets largely came from the Pearl River Delta in the Guangdong Province. They wrote on the walls in ink, which was later covered over with paint, but a few carved their words into the wood.

Scholars unearthed and recorded more than 135 poems from the Island’s walls. The poets drew inspiration from both classic Chinese writers and from one another to find their own respective voices and to create their own styles. None of these poets were educated writers, but that is perhaps precisely why their words reverberate across time. They were ordinary folks caught up in the crossfire of extraordinary times. Their plaintive words speak to the eternal human needs for solace, understanding, and community. “When I arrived on Island,” one writer muses, “I heard I was/ forbidden to land./ I could do nothing but frown and feel angry at heaven.” Others are more pointed in expressing their frustrations: “Heartless white devils,/ Sadness and anger fill my heart.” Another leaves a bracing call to action: “I leave word with you gentlemen that you should all endeavor together./ Do not forget the national humiliations; arouse yourselves to be heroic.” In this instance, is the writer calling on their fellow detainees to be heroic in their captivity? Or are they asking their American captors to be heroic and stand up to the inhumanity of the law? It is not entirely clear, but anyone—prisoner or jailer—could find wisdom there.

Island contains testimonies from thirty-nine detainees held at the station. Interestingly, even when volunteering to be a part of this record, they all requested anonymity, still fearing reprisals and ever anxious to put a painful past behind them. Their stories, as well the poems from the barracks walls, read in a loose chronological order. They begin with the voyage to America; then the imprisonment on the Island; followed by accounts of life on the inside, thoughts on Westerners, and, finally, the experiences of deportees and transients. Dozens of photographs accompany the text, giving even more shape to the Island and its shameful history. The book presents all the poems in both English and Chinese.

In the end, what Island teaches us is a lesson that still needs learning. As George Santayana said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” With the story of Angel Island and the Chinese Exclusion Act virtually absent from many history curriculums, it is no wonder anti-immigrant sentiment remains an issue in the United States. This volume reminds us to look at our shared pasts—even those uncomfortable parts—to learn from them. That is the whole point of Island. In the words of the editors, these poems are “a mirror capturing an image of [the] past. Let us collectively examine that image and contemplate its meaning.”