Review of Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940
History of Chinese Immigration to the US is very complicated and it was analyzed in various books by American and Chinese authors. When first immigrants from China started coming to the US in seeking better job opportunities and advancement, they faced discrimination and xenophobia from the side of locals. In the following decades the situation did not change for the better, in turn, it was getting worth and relations of both communities were marked by anxiety and misunderstanding. The editors of the book Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940 applied a quite creative approach to the depiction of the history and showed the relations of both nations through the lens of poetry. Island is an excellent collection of simple and sincere poems written by Chinese immigrants during detention on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. Such approach helps the authors to examine very personal aspects of immigrants` life and go deep into their inner world, discovering their true thoughts, feeling and worries.
Island is not just a collection of poems it also provides concise, yet comprehensive description of historical context. The book consists of three main structural parts. The first one is the introduction, where the editors provide readers with necessary information about the history of Chinese immigration to the US and restrictive measures taken by the Americans. The introduction is followed by the poems themselves, which are divided into five categories according to their content and topics. The last part is an appendix with 66 poems, which do not fall under any category and cover plenty of issues. Generally, the book includes 135 poems, originally scratched on the wall of wooden sheds, where the immigrants lived, and afterward carefully rewritten and classified. Moreover, after each chapter with poems the editors add oral stories of Angel Island detainees. While preparation of the book the authors interviewed 39 people, 32 of whom experienced detention on the Island. So all their stories increase the volume of the feelings expressed in the poetry. Except oral stories, the editors add a lot of photos depicting living conditions of Chinese immigrants of Angel Island. Overall, the editors combine history, poetry and visuals to create the most comprehensive and multidimensional image of immigrants` lives on the Island.
Permanent Chinese migration to the US started when the Golden Rush broke out in California, in the middle of 19th century. “Political chaos and economic hardship at home forced them to venture overseas to seek a better livelihood”. At that time China was exposed to foreign intervention: European states and Japan divided the country into five circles of influence and used these territories as resource colonies. Therefore, the local population became poorer and tried to seek better opportunities abroad. However, White Americans were not very happy about aliens` arrival because the latter were taking jobs of locals and unemployment among Americans increased. Thus, Chinese immigrants faced mistreatment and discrimination within this society. In the following decades the situation was getting worth and worth: the government passed restrictive laws, the most famous of which is Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). Despite all these measures, the flow of migrants became even bigger, since the chaos continued in China, and it was a huge social challenge for California. Before creation of special station on Angel Island , in 1910, there was no special place to detain immigrants till their claims were validated. Even though, this step was made by the government to improve the living conditions of immigrants, but, in fact, it did not resolve any problems and even made the time of detainment longer.
The authors provide all these historical facts to make readers understand the context. It shows that Angel Island was the place where immigrants` hopes and dreams split upon the wall of American bureaucracy. It was the place full of desperation, sadness and hard anticipation. So it is impressive that in such atmosphere these sincere, touching and imaginative poems could be created. These lines scratched on the wall of wooden barracks contain the deepest feeling and worries of detainees and reflect their souls. The poems are full of anxiety and frustration; however there are some motives of hope for the better future. Although this poetry was written by average people yet not experienced artists, it is very imaginative and figurative. There are a lot of heroes of Chinese mythology and history, as well as plenty of phrases from Chinese traditional proverbs and just beautiful metaphors. That is why, the editors provide a lot of remarks with explanations on the margins of each page. Moreover, the poems are both in English translation and Cantonese original. Overall, this poetry is an important page in both American and Chinese literature and is essential for understanding of American Chinese relations. So, it is a great merit of the Island editors to organize these poems in such systematic manner, adapt them for English speakers and prepare this beautiful collection.
Unfortunately, the poetry of Angel Island depicts not the best way of intercultural communication. In fact, it is about mutual misunderstanding of two nations and about relations of oppressor and oppressed. Event though, the US were founded by immigrant from Europe, their successor applied restrictive measures toward aliens from other countries, trying to protect the rights of local Whites. Evidently, Chinese immigrants were shocked and disappointed by this government scrutiny. The authors divided the poems into few sections to show the major emotions dominating among immigrants on different stages – during the voyage or detention, during the communication with American officials or when detainees saw their friend and neighbors being deported. Generally, there is a lot of frustration and disappointment in the poems because the expectation of migrants and American reality turned to be not the same. A lot of people thought that they had experienced the worth in their own country and they perceived the US as a safe shelter but it was the opposite.
Flocks of fellow villages do not refrain from
spending thousands of gold pieces to get
Several hundred compatriots invested huge sums
But are no imprisoned on the Island (Lai. Et al., p. 151)
This poem illustrates that people from all over China had spent their last savings only to have a chance for the better future but American officials imprisoned them, depriving of this slight hope.
Furthermore, in the poems detainees talk a lot about very personal things. For instance, there are a lot of references to their families; they depict this tragedy of being apart from their relatives and friends. They try to explain the reasons for the migration, and basically it happened because they wanted to help their families to get out of poverty.
The situation forced one to go to another country
Separated from the clan, a thousand miles away
Apart from the ancestors, we are no longer close to one another (Lai. Et al., p.150)
People who enter this country
Come only because the family is poor (Lai. Et al., p. 150)
A lot of immigrants also express their thought and worries about their applications to the government and interviews with officials. A lot of them show the feeling of helplessness and doubt that will get a positive answer. For instance,
Still I am at the beginning of the road
I have yet to be interrogated
My heart is nervous with anticipation (Lai et al., p. 36)
Each day my sorrow increases as I stay on Island
… My detention and mistreatment has not yet ended
I am afraid y petition will be denied and I, sent back (Lai et al., p. 153)
The poetry of Angel Island embraces plenty of issues, which hardly can be discussed in one review. Reading these poems and the history behind them leaves readers with mixed feelings. It evokes sympathy, while the master figurativeness and sincerity of self-expression, reached by authors, makes readers experience the same feelings as migrants. It seems ridiculous that so many people could have been detained in that bad living conditions and humiliated for such a long time. And it is even more impressive how in this horrible atmosphere and in such difficult and depressive life situation people managed to create these beautiful and artistic poems.
Overall, the editors of the book Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910 – 1940, uses very creative and touching approach to the depiction of one of the most discussible pages in the history of Chinese-American intercultural communication. It is brilliantly organized collection of simple and sincere poems by detainees of Angel Island, inspired by hardships of their real life experiences. To make the audience understand the context better, the editors provide the comprehensive historical overview of the situation, so the readers can create a holistic image of migrants` life on the Island. The poems are full of sadness, disappointment and frustration and they reflect the difficulties of intercultural experiences and causes of discrimination. Despite, all this desperation the poems are of great artistic value and provide significant contribution to both American and Chinese literature.