Carved on the Walls: Poetry by Early Chinese Immigrants

    Contributing Editors: Him Mark Lai,
    Genny Lim, and Judy Yung

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Because of the exclusion of racial minorities such as Chinese Americans from our American education and their continuous stereotyping in the popular media, most people do not have the historical or literary background to understand and appreciate Chinese poetry as written by the early immigrants at the Angel Island Immigration Station.

    The headnote includes background information on the history of Chinese Americans and their detention experience at Angel Island as well as explanations of the literary style and content of the Chinese poems. We have also included footnotes to explain the literary and historical allusions used in the poems. It is important that students be aware of this background material in their reading of the poems as well as their significance as part of the earliest record of Chinese American literature and history written from the perspective of Chinese immigrants in America.

    As you teach these selections, consider a simulation exercise where students can experience how Chinese immigrants must have felt as unwelcome aliens arriving at Angel Island. As students read these poems, they are made aware of the impact of discriminatory laws. They also learn to appreciate a different poetic style of writing. On the other hand, most students are puzzled by the historical context of the poems and by the larger moral issues of racism.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    The poems express strong feelings of anger, frustration, uncertainty, hope, despair, self-pity, homesickness, and loneliness written by Chinese immigrants who were singled out for exclusion by American immigration laws on the basis of race. As such, they are important fragments of American history and literature long missing from the public record as well as strong evidence that dispels the stereotype of Chinese Americans as passive, complacent, and illiterate.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Most of the poems were written in the 1910s and 1920s, when the classical style of Chinese poetry was still popular and when feelings of Chinese nationalism ran strong. Of the 135 poems that have been recovered, about half are written with four lines per poem and seven characters per line. The remainder consist of verses with six or eight lines and five or seven characters per line. The literary quality of the poems varies greatly, which is understandable considering that most immigrants at this time did not have formal schooling beyond the primary grades. Many poems violate rules of rhyme and tone required in Chinese poetry and incorrect characters and usages often appear. However, these flaws do not appear in the translation, in which we chose to sacrifice form for content.

    Original Audience

    The Angel Island poems were written as a means to vent and record the response of Chinese immigrants to the humiliating treatment they suffered at the Angel Island Immigration Station. They were intended for other Chinese immigrants who would follow in the footsteps of the poets. But as read now, they are an important literary record of the experience and feelings of one group of immigrants who, because of their race and a weak motherland, were unwelcome and singled out for discriminatory treatment.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    The only other work published so far that would serve as a useful tool of comparison in terms of form and content is Marion Hom's Songs of Gold Mountain: Cantonese Rhymes from San Francisco Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987)--a collection of Chinese folk rhymes first published in 1911 and 1915. It would also be useful for students to read about the European immigrant experience at Ellis Island in order for them to see the different treatments of immigrants to America due to race.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing

    1. (a) What are the themes of the Angel Island poems and how do they reflect the historical circumstances for Chinese immigrants coming to the United States between 1910 and 1940?

    (b) How would you describe the nameless poets based on your reading of the Angel Island poems?

    2. (a) Compare and contrast the Angel Island poems with those written by another American poet in the early twentieth century.

    (b) Show how the image of Chinese immigrants as reflected in the Angel Island poems confirms or contradicts prevailing stereotypes of Chinese Americans in the popular media.


    Chan, Sucheng, ed. Entry Denied: Exclusion and the Chinese Community in America, 1882-1943. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

    Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung. Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991.

    Lim, Genny. Paper Angels and Bitter Cane: Two Plays. Honolulu: Kalamaku Press, 1991.

    Lowe, Felicia. "Carved in Silence." A film about the Chinese immigration experience at Angel Island, 1988, available from Felicia Lowe, 565 Alvarado St., San Francisco, CA 94114; video available from National Asian American Telecommunications Association, 346 9th Street, 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94103.

    Mark, Diane Mei Lin and Ginger Chih. A Place Called Chinese America. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1993.

    Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989.

    Tsai, Shih-Shan Henry. The Chinese Experience in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.