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8.12.3a Poem from the Angel Island Internment Camp
Text of a poem, translated from the original Chinese language, as reproduced in Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940.
The Chinese immigrants who arrived in the United States after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act had the added challenge of proving to immigration authorities that they had the legal right to be in this country. When Chinese immigrants did make the journey abroad, they had to convince US authorities that they were not laborers but were instead employed in middle-class professions like teaching or sales (merchants). Or they could try to prove that they were children of Chinese Americans already living legally in the United States. Chinese immigrants viewed the Exclusion Act as discriminatory and unfair, and some chose to pretend to be the children of those already living here in order to get around the exclusionary law. A number of immigrants successfully convinced immigration authorities that they had a parent already living in the United States, and these immigrants came to be known as “paper sons” — sons on paper only, not actually related to the person already here. While waiting to prove their right to immigrate, hopeful Chinese immigrants were kept at Angel Island, sometimes for many months or even years. This is when they had the opportunity to write such poetry as you see in this picture from Angel Island and read in the transcription above. (Note: The picture and the transcription are two different poems.) How does the author of this poem describe immigration to the United States?
Though Chinese in California had been the victims of discrimination and violence since the Gold Rush, it wasn’t until the economic downturn of the 1870s that serious talk of excluding Chinese immigrants began. By 1882, American workers had successfully used economic and racist arguments to convince Congress that Chinese laborers unfairly competed with American laborers. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 outlawed skilled and unskilled laborers. It stayed in effect until 1943, when World War II made the United States and China allies against Japan. The immigration station on Angel Island opened in 1910 and processed immigrants from all parts of the world. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, this immigration station served as a place to detain Chinese immigrants while subjecting them to intense verbal and physical examination.
There are tens of thousands of poems on these walls
They are all cries of suffering and sadness
The day I am rid of this prison and become successful
I must remember that this chapter once existed
I must be frugal in my daily needs
Needless extravagance usually leads to ruin
All my compatriots should remember China
Once you have made some small gains,
you should return home early.