Carved poetry reminds visitors of lonely days

SAN FRANCISCO — Art is inspired by so many different ideas and feelings, whether it is a painting, a carving or a piece of poetry. The people detained at The Angel Island Immigration Station were often lonely, grieving or just sad because of the uncertainty of their situations. To ease the pain, many Chinese immigrants wrote poetry and carved it into the walls.

A display at the California State Park explaining the poetry on the walls. Photo by: Breezy Culberson

There are more than 200 poems written on the walls of The Angel Island Immigration Station. As time passed, they’ve become harder to read but they’re still being uncovered and still amazing visitors to Angel Island. The immigrants sometimes wrote poems on paper and then someone would paint them on the walls or later carve the words into the walls, Sam Louis, a volunteer with the California State Parks Service, said, as he showed some of the many Chinese characters that remain there despite immigration officials’ constant painting over them to try to erase what at the time was seen as graffiti. The emotional poems enlighten people on the hardships the Chinese endured while awaiting approval to stay in the United States or be deported. Here’s one of the many that has been translated:

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 powers.

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.

The Chinese, who initially arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s to work on the railroads or take on other labor, had to pass through Angel Island after new U.S. laws allowed them to enter and stay only under special circumstances, such as to teach, although “natives” were allowed to remain.  After the major earthquake and fire in 1906, in which many records were burned, many of the Chinese said they were native, and then tried to bring their “paper sons” over as well, though these could well be nephews rather than their own children, said Louie. This lack of records led to an interrogation process on the island in which family members were separated and quizzed about minute details of their home life in an attempt to see if these incoming immigrant groups were real “families” or “paper” families only.

The immigrants also had to pass the medical checkups, which they grew to fear, said Louie, because doctors wore white coats. White was a symbol of death in China, he said. In addition, American doctors touched the Chinese to check them, but in China they barely touched the patient, he added, and instead often just prescribed herbal remedies.

An uncovered poem at The Angel Island Immigration Station. Photo by: Breezy Culberson

While they waited through the interrogation process, which could days or weeks, many people wrote. Not all the carvings in the walls aren’t poems; some are just statements, letting others know that they were there at a certain time. For example, a Russian man marked the date he was at the station, Christmas Day. But the poems steal the day with their descriptions of their past, what they missed, and what they were enduring.