In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Angel Island Poetry

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Texts
  • Anthologies
  • Archives
  • Videos
  • History
  • Chinese American Women
  • Teaching the Angel Island Poetry
  • Children’s Literature
  • Angel Island Poetry in Chinese-Language Sources

American Literature Angel Island Poetry
Ying Xu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0205


Angel Island poetry refers to Chinese poems carved on the barrack walls of the US Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay, which was in operation from 1910 to 1940. An estimated 50,000 Chinese were processed and detained during that period there and left their words, recording a dark chapter of racial exclusion in history. These poems were written in the classical style of Chinese poetry and were discovered by California State Parks ranger Alexander Weiss in 1970, who contacted his teacher George Araki from San Francisco State College. Araki brought the site to the attention of the community and invited San Francisco photographer Mak Takahashi to photograph these poems. Today, around two hundred poems from the Angel Island barracks have been deciphered and published in various places, though many still remain indecipherable. The Angel Island poetry sources include the Jann and Yee collections, Mak Takahashi’s photographs, Kearny Street Workshop (KSW) rubbings, poems published in various Chinese newspapers, and the findings of poetry consultants commissioned in 2003 by the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation for an evaluation. In this article, the Angel Island poetry more specifically refers to two editions of Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910–1940, edited by Him Mark Lai (who passed away in 2009, between publication of the two editions), Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, since most scholarship has derived from these two books. The first edition of Island was self-published in 1980, which set up a model of editing and presenting Chinese-language material, consisting of a historical introduction, 135 poems in Chinese and English, excerpts from thirty-nine oral-history interviews, and twenty-two photographs. Island went into a second printing in 1983 and was republished by the University of Washington Press in 1991. The second edition of Island, published in 2014, combines all 135 poems into one section and expands the Chinese poems by adding those on the walls from the immigration stations at Ellis Island in New York and Victoria, British Columbia. Yung and Lim rewrote the historical introduction and replaced the excerpts of oral histories in the first edition with twenty full profiles and stories, with new translations, correction of errors in the first edition, and more photographs. Island possesses a unique place in Asian American studies, ethnic studies, US immigration history, and American literature classes.

General Overviews

H. M. Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, three descendants of Angel Island detainees, were among the first scholars to examine the history of Angel Island Immigration Station and the poems at Angel Island, as shown in Lai 1976, Lai 1977 and Lai 1978 (both cited under History), and Lim and Yung 1977. Yu 1977 digs into historical information on a variety of people involved in the exclusionary project, and discusses community resistance. While Evans and Heron 1987 provides a broader history of Angel Island, Meißenburg 1987 extends the examination of Angel Island to other federal, state, civic, and institutional apparatus, in the author’s study of Chinese American literature. Daniels 1997 is the first to situate the study of the Angel Island poetry within the issue of historiography of Asian American immigration and Asian American studies, and Yin 2000 echoes such an approach and discusses literary merits of Chinese-language publication. A seminal contribution to the history of Angel Island and to the comparative study of immigrant experiences on the island, Lee and Yung 2010 exemplifies the numerous complications that define American ethnic history. It transcends the binary of exclusion versus admission, connecting with broader issues such as race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and political beliefs. Yung and Lee 2015 is a research guide to students on the history of Angel Island.

  • Daniels, Roger. “No Lamps Were Lit for Them: Angel Island and the Historiography of Asian American Immigration.” Journal of American Ethnic History 17.1 (1997): 3–18.

    Viewing Angel Island as an icon of suspicion and rejection, compared to Ellis Island, icon of welcome and acceptance, Daniels scrutinizes the history of Angel Island as an immigration facility barring Chinese immigration and enforcing Chinese exclusionary laws. In particular, Daniels examines historiography of Asian American immigration in relation to the development of Asian American studies programs.

  • Evans, Elliot A. P., and David Heron. “Isla de Los Angeles: Unique State Park in San Francisco Bay.” California History 66.1 (1987): 24–39.

    DOI: 10.2307/25158426

    Provides detailed geological descriptions as well as the history of Angel Island, from the late 18th century to the 1970s.

  • Lai, Him Mark. “The Chinese Experience at Angel Island.” East West Chinese American Journal 10.7 (11 February 1976).

    Continued in East West Chinese American Journal 10.8 (18 February 1976) and 10.9 (25 February 1976). Earliest bilingual accounts on the immigration station and the Angel Island poetry, published in three sequential issues of the journal. Includes editorials on the Chinese American experience and selections of Angel Island poems.

  • Lee, Erika, and Judy Yung. Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    A fine example of historical scholarship, the book combines data, public records, and oral histories to present a compelling narrative of Angle Island that juxtaposes Chinese immigrants’ experiences with those of Japanese, South Asians, Koreans, Russians, Jews, Mexicans, and Filipinos to present a balanced picture of all the groups who went through the island.

  • Lim, Genny, and Judy Yung. “Our Parents Never Told Us.” San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle, 23 January 1977: 88–103.

    Along with Lai 1976, Lai 1977, and Lai 1978 (the latter two cited under History), Lim and Yung explain the experience of Chinese detainees at Angel Island through recalling their family history. This piece, which appeared in the California Living section of the newspaper, and Lai’s publications on the history of the immigration station can be read as the preface to their collaborative work in Lai, et al. 1980 (cited under Primary Texts) and later editions.

  • Meißenburg, Karin. The Writing on the Wall: Socio-historical Aspects of Chinese American Literature, 1900–1980. Frankfurt: Verlag für Interkulturelle Kommunikation, 1987.

    One of the first researchers to study Angel Island and its literary representations, Meißenburg examines the immigration station along with other federal, state, and Euro-American civic and community institutions as apparatus affecting Chinese American experience in the United States. In her case studies of Chinese American literature, she discusses Genny Lim’s yet-unpublished play The Paper Angels and poems by George Leong concerning Angel Island and its legacies.

  • Yin, Xiao-huang. “Plea and Protest: The Voices of Early Chinese Immigrants.” In Chinese American Literature since the 1850s. By Xiao-huang Yin, 11–52. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

    Devoting a section titled “Song of Hearts of Sorrow: The Angel Island Poetry” to the topic, Yin examines the Angel Island poems, the nature of these poems as collective work, and how they provide a counterargument against the stereotype of detainees at Angel Island as illiterate.

  • Yu, Connie Young. “Rediscovered Voices: Chinese Immigrants and Angel Island.” Amerasia Journal 4.2 (1977): 123–139.

    DOI: 10.17953/amer.4.2.085p252p10l42316

    One of the first historical investigations of the ordeal of Chinese detainees at Angel Island. Discusses resistance from the Chinese community and includes interviews and information from a variety of sources, including inspectors, interpreters, physicians, and detainees. Helpful for research on community resistance.

  • Yung, Judy, and Erika Lee. “Angel Island Immigration Station.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. New York: Oxford University Press, September 2015.

    Written by two distinguished scholars in the field for Oxford Research Encyclopedias in 2015, the article provides the most comprehensive information on the Angel Island Immigration Station, covering its history, detainees both of Asian immigrants and European immigrants going through the station, a comparison of differential treatments of detainees, and a useful literature review for further research. Available online by subscription.

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