Event Coverage/Weekly Prompt: Angel Island

Angel Island Immigration Station

Last May, the LR Blog featured the Angel Island poems in our APIA Heritage Month “Poetry in History” series.  In the post, Iris explains:

Often called the “Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island served as the site for processing as many as 175,000 Chinese immigrants from 1910-1940.

Detainees were separated by gender [and ethnicity!] and locked up in crowded barracks while they awaited questioning, for weeks or months — sometimes, for years — at a time. To pass the time, many immigrants wrote or carved poems into the soft wood of the barrack walls.

The poems vary in theme, form, and in level of polish, and serve as a testimony to the experience of detention, chronicling everything from hope to anger to loneliness, to a sense of adventure.

At the time, I had never visited Angel Island or read any of the poems inscribed on the walls of the immigration station, but last week I made the pilgrimage: flew to San Francisco, drove to Tiburon, took the ferry, made the hike, etc.  It was an odd experience—I arrived at the dock at the same time as two groups of fifth grade history students, meaning that I toured the immigration station with them and heard all sorts of hilarious comments: “Who fought who during the Civil War?  China and America?” as well as some not-so hilarious ones: “Chinese, Japanese, itchy knees, money please…” a sing-song chant I remember hearing about from the mid-twentieth century, around the time the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed.  Amazing, really, what little impact four decades of activism have had on prevailing attitudes about who is/n’t included in “America” and why.

Swatches of paint removed to show the many layers accumulated below

Touring the immigration station barracks, however, was phenomenal.  The ghosted voices inscribed on the walls—some carved deep into the wood, some scrawled in pencil, some inked in pen or merely scratched on the surface—were everywhere, which, along with the milling crowds of fifth-graders, gave an acute sense of claustrophobia.  The air was heavy with history, the weight of all that had transpired within the close quarters of the barracks.

The photo on the left shows a corner of the men’s lodgings where sections of lead paint have been removed to reveal layers of ink below.  A park ranger informed us that at some point they decided not to strip the walls for fear of destroying the layers of poetry below.  Fascinating, the question of how to preserve these delicate poems, covered by layers of putty that have since sunk into the carvings, drawn in by the soft wood.

Bunks in the Immigration Station barracks

In considering how to best respond to these poems in my own work, however, I have found myself caught in the conundrum discussed in Josephine Park’s Apparitions of Asia: Modernist Form and Asian American Poetics (Oxford University Press).  Taking up classical Chinese (or Japanese) forms and responding to these voices in kind can be a risky or at least complicated venture for the Asian American poet whose work can be subjected to criticism for its clumsy importation of Asian forms into an American context.  Work like this, Park points out, can (sometime inadvertently) become aligned with the modernist tradition of American Orientalism, in which Japanese and Chinese forms are first conflated, and then appropriated by Western poets seeking a more authentically American voice.  In short: how to respond to these poems without sounding like a voice lifted out of Pound’s Cathay?

This is an issue taken up not only by Asian American poets and literary critics, but by our counterparts working in other realms of the creative arts as well.  How to respond to Asian heritages and cultural forms which constitute (at least a part of) our artistic lineage, while sidestepping the somewhat uncomfortable legacy of American Orientalism?  A possible model for consideration is the following piece of music composed in response to Poem #38:

Being idle in the wooden building, I opened a window.
The morning breeze and bright moon lingered together.
I reminisce the native village far away, cut off by clouds and mountains.
On the little island the wailing of cold, wild geese can be faintly heard.
The hero who has lost his way can talk meaninglessly of the sword.
The poet at the end of the road can only ascend a tower.
One should know that when the country is weak, the people’s spirit dies.
Why else do we come to this place to be imprisoned?

(as translated in Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1919-1940, University of Washington Press)

The song, written by Paul Sakai and performed by DuckDuckGoose (keyboardist Brian Woolford, guitarist John Broback, and Sakai on drums), is called “Angel Island“—click the link to hear the MP3.  It was featured by the Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Project in Seattle earlier this year, and is of particular interest to me because rather than responding to Poem #38 in a way one might expect, it reaches beyond the conventions of “Asian fusion” for a wholly new form of expression.  In talking about the piece—and his work as an Asian American musician in general–Sakai often expresses the desire to move away from clumsy attempts to “meld” cultures or too overtly juxtapose “Asian” chord progressions against “American” or Western strands.


Listen to “Angel Island” by DuckDuckGoose and respond to Poem #38 (or any of the Angel Island poems, for that matter).  In your drafting process, be aware of how you navigate your engagement with the classical and/or potentially “American Orientalist” sensibility of the poems’ translation.

Allow the spirit of the musical composition to inform your work; consider this a response to a response, yet another contribution to the rich creative conversation first instigated by these historic protest poems.

3 thoughts on “Event Coverage/Weekly Prompt: Angel Island

  1. Powerful topic / prompt, Mia.

    Just wanted to add my two cents that the “Chinese/Japanese/…knees” chant is definitely not a thing of the past (my own classmates used to sing a much lewder version of it when I was in elementary school, although of course, they had no idea of what they were saying meant at the time . . . children rarely do). And yet how ironic that it should surface again in the midst of an Angel Island tour!

  2. We would love to reprint your blog in our April e-newsletter, Mia. Please let me know how we can obtain your permission. Eddie Wong ewong@aiisf.org.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings upon your visit to AIIS.

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