Reading Poetry at Angel Island

The view from approximately halfway up the island.

When one steps off a ferry and takes in the scenery of the golden hills and sweeping views of San Francisco Bay that make Angel Island a favorite destination for tourists and locals alike, it is difficult to believe that so much injustice and inclusion took place there.

Perhaps it is the uncontainable spirit possessed by confined immigrants at Angel Island who knew they did no wrong, but traces of pride can be found in the haunting poems etched into the walls of the island’s Immigration Station.

Established in 1910, Angel Island served as the west coast’s Ellis Island, processing thousands of immigrants on the last leg of their journey to a, hopefully, better life. Due to the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, hundreds of Chinese immigrants were either denied or detained as they awaited entrance to the United States. This caused families to be torn apart for years. The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation has preserved evidence of the hardships endured by these immigrants, the most poignant being the collection of poems scratched into the walls of the detainees’ dormitories.

According to Andrew Luskus, the Park’s tour guide, descendants of immigrants who passed through Angel Island often come the island to learn more about what their ancestors went through and to reflect on what it was like. “It [the island] is a family connection for a lot of people,” Luskus said. “They really start to think about the trials and tribulations that their ancestors faced.”

Another photo of a poem at the Immigration Station.

Though the immigrants’ prospects were often grim, not all the poems freed from layers of lead paint sing a tune of melancholy and despair. For example, the following poem written by an unknown Chinese immigrant conveys a sense of hope and dignity:

“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.”

The poems aren’t the only place on the island where pride can be found. Luskus thoroughly enjoys teaching people about the oppression that took place in a land believed to be the land of the free.

“We like to think about the United States as being an inclusive place, you know, part of the mythology is welcoming people from all over the world,” Luskus said. “But that wasn’t always the case and it’s really just a shame that this happened here.”

If Luskus were in captivity, he is certain that his words would echo the vexed voices of the immigrants who were fuming about their situation rather than depressed. “I think I’d go with the indignant poem type,” Luskus said. “There are a lot of them [indignant poems] actually, on the walls as well. They’re not all sad.”

Whatever the feeling the poems convey, one thing is for certain, according to Luskus. “It’s more than just something you read about in a textbook,” he said.

 The dock where immigrants would first arrive when they came to Angel Island. Prospective citizens could be detained for upwards of 12 months.

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