Angel Island

Image Credit: Brian Gothong Tan

Angel Island has been a significant landmark in the United States’ history of immigration. With an area of around 740 acres, the island is the largest in San Francisco. Angel Island served as an immigration station from 1910 to 1940 with a processing centre for primarily Asian immigrants who sought entry into the United States during this time. Due to policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act, the facility’s focus centred around enforcing immigration restrictions against Chinese immigrants. Such immigrants who arrived at Angel Island had to endure a rigorous and extensive screening process as well as months or years long of detentions. Many of them found solace in inscribing poems on the walls of the centre that confined them, and it is those poems that will shed light into the brutal history of discrimination on that island.

Despite the harsh treatments they knew they would be subjected to, many Chinese still insisted on going to America. Loopholes from the Exclusion Act could be found and taken advantage of as merchants and sons and daughters of US citizens could be granted citizenship rights. The corroboration of the testimony of the applicant and his witness provided the basis for immigration hearings as there was no physical evidence. Therefore, in order to enter the United States, many immigrants made up fraudulent family ties by claiming to be the children of Chinese American citizens. Coaching books were frequently used to help immigrants by providing personal information and details of the Chinese American citizen they were supposed to impersonate. Once the information has been memorised, they burnt and destroyed the book. However, these loopholes were soon figured out by the immigration authorities, who resorted to subject all immigrants to a series of intense interrogations. Extremely detailed questions pertaining the exact locations and family members were asked and if their answers were not corroborated, the immigrant faced the risk of deportation. Some of them then chose to appeal, where they proceeded to face detainment for up to two years.

Image Credit: Brian Gothong Tan

It is in these years of detainment that many have found solace in the art of inscribing poems onto the walls of Angel Island. Over 200 poems have been inscribed into the walls. The style of each poem reflects the authenticity and creativity of the authors, and the content showcases the raw emotions of hopelessness and anger in them. Although greatly varied in words and imagery, the poems at Angel island all have one constant: they were written in the classical Chinese style. Some made use of Chinese mythology to express their rage:

The dragon out of water is humiliated by ants;
The fierce tiger who is caged is baited by a child.
As long as I am imprisoned, how can I dare strive for supremacy?
An advantageous position for revenge will surely come one day. (92)[1]

There were also others that were focused on the philosophical thoughts of likening detainment to imprisonment:

America has power, but not justice.
In prison, we were victimized as if we were guilty.
Given no opportunity to explain, it was really brutal.
I bow my head in reflection but there is nothing I can do. (58)[2]

Image Credit: Brian Gothong Tan

The poems of Angel Island remain a stark reminder of the discrimination and brutality faced by Chinese immigrants in a lesser-known side of American history. Today, the Angel Island Immigration Museum stands in the Angel Island State Park and encourages visitors to understand the significant efforts that many immigrants, especially Chinese, made in order to obtain citizenship in the United States.

Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) 2023 presents an upcoming musical theatre on Angel Island. With music composed by Huang Ruo, the stories of the Chinese poems on the walls of Angel Island will be brought to life. History will be intertwined with the reality of our modern lives as issues such as discrimination, systemic racism, and sexism are confronted. Together with Singaporean performance director and multimedia artist Brian Gothong Tan and San Francisco-based Del Sol Quartet, the show is definitely one not to be missed. After the performance on Saturday afternoon, a post-show talk with Huang Ruo and Brian Gothong Tan will also be featured.

Performance dates:

19 May, Fri, 8pm
20 May, Sat, 3pm & 8pm

Find out more:

[1] Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island. 1910-1940 by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim and Judy Yung

[2] Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island. 1910-1940 by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim and Judy Yung


Published by hissocnus

The National University of Singapore (NUS) History Society is a student-run organization that aims to encourage an interest for history among NUS students and members of the public. Its members include all History majors and other NUS students interested in history. Regular projects that aim to engage NUS students include writing and editorial opportunities at the Society’s publication Mnemozine, career development programmes as well as welfare activities. NUS History Society is a student society under the Office of Student Affairs, National University of Singapore.

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