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Artifacts and Fiction - Workshop in American Literature
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Home > Discipline Tutorials > Social History overview > Social History: Slide 9
Discipline Tutorial: Social History
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serial: #8183
Anonymous, THE VOYAGE, #8 (ca. 1920) reprinted in ISLAND: POETRY AND HISTORY OF CHINESE IMMIGRANTS ON ANGEL ISLAND, 1910 - 1940, courtesy of University of Washington Press.


serial: #8185
Anonymous, THE DETAINMENT #31 (ca. 1920) reprinted in ISLAND: POETRY AND HISTORY OF CHINESE IMMIGRANTS ON ANGEL ISLAND, 1910 - 1940, courtesy of University of Washington Press.

Because the contributions of immigrants have had such an enormous impact on American culture, historians are very interested in gaining insight into the immigration experience. Unfortunately, immigrants to America often faced poverty, prejudice, and language barriers that made self-expression difficult. In light of these obstacles, the fact that so many immigrants managed to sustain their cultures and record and pass down their stories is a testament to their ingenuity and creativity. The poems that Chinese immigrants carved and wrote on the walls of the barracks of Angel Island, the immigration center off the coast of California, are excellent examples of this kind of creative self-expression in the face of great hardship.

Chinese immigrants often faced a particularly harsh reception when they arrived in the United States. Unlike immigrants from Europe, the Chinese were extensively questioned, sometimes deported, and often quarantined for long periods of time in barracks on Angel Island. Some of them poignantly expressed their hopes, frustrations and anger by composing traditional Chinese poetry and carving it into the walls of what many of them referred to as their prison in the detention center. The extant poems on the barracks walls have recently been collected and translated by historians and literary scholars who regard them as unique and valuable artifacts of the Asian immigrant experience.

The Angel Island poems are, of course, literary texts in their own right. Often relying on traditional Chinese forms and imagery, the poems combine visions of the Old World and the New. Some of the poets regret their decision to leave China, while others hope for a better life in America. Almost all of them express bitterness and frustration at the bureaucracy that held them captive in Angel Island; as one poet puts it, "The harsh laws pile layer upon layer; how can I dissipate my hatred?" These examples of immigrant self-expression can be usefully paired with fiction by Asian-American writers like Sui Sin Far, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Amy Tan, who focus on the ways Chinese immigrants and their descendents have balanced "Americanization" with their commitments to maintaining their traditional culture.

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