Poetic Injustice at Angel Island

Angel Island
Angel Island Immigration Station. Photo by Hart Hyatt North from wikimedia commons.

Last month, the first year students of the Cooperstown Graduate Program took their annual field trip to New York City.  During our romp through NYC we visited many museums that focused on immigrant experiences in New York. On our third day in New York, we took the ferry to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, the most recognizable immigration station and entry point into the United States.  Ellis Island welcomed thousands of immigrants, primarily from Europe, from 1892 to 1954.  Ellis Island is a focal point within the triumphant immigration story in the United States. Angel Island, another immigration station and entry point to the United States is located in California, and primarily served Asian Pacific immigrants, most notably Chinese Immigrants from 1910 to 1940.  It served the same function as Ellis Island did; however, its story is completely unique from that of Ellis Island.

Ellis Island has typically overshadowed the story of Angel Island.  Angel Island was open for a short period of time and received less visitors then Ellis Island in New York. The biggest difference between the two stations was in the treatment of the immigrants they served.  During the mid to late 20th century, the U.S. government restricted immigration from China to just over one hundred immigrants a year thanks to a series of immigration laws, most notably the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  Chinese immigrants who tried to enter the U.S. were stopped at Angel Island and tested for disease and interrogated on the validity of their identity, since only those with families inside the U.S. could enter.  At Ellis Island, many European immigrants were able to enter the country after a few hours of health screening, while at Angel Island, it could take weeks or even years for immigrants to enter the country.

Dormitories at Angel Island Immigration Station. Photo by Hart Hyatt North from wikimedia commons.

The website Poetic Waves introduces the Angel Island story from the prospective of the detainees by using the poetry etched on the walls of the barracks.  The site uses the poetry as a focal point to highlight the conditions at the station and provide insight into the thoughts of the detainees while incarcerated at Angel Island.  Four poems are arranged thematically on the web pages and are available in both English and Chinese.  Poetic Waves also utilizes brief individual stories of former detainees.  There is also a brief description of the site’s main buildings and a timeline of significant events related to the Chinese American experience.

Although the site contains great technology features and is a jumping off point for the story of the Angel Island experience, I feel that the website could do more.  In author Ha Jin’s Shame, Professor Meng’s challenges as a recent immigrant such as finding a job are mitigated by his connections within the Chinese community [1]. What happens to the Chinese detainees after they enter America? How does the immigration story continue for these immigrants?  The web developer writes, “I want to challenge viewers to relate this story of Chinese immigrants to their own lives, and the struggles of immigrants from all races.”[2] I don’t feel he provided the environment to facilitate this reflection as of yet.

The weakest part of the website is found under the Articles tab, which tries to provide further historical details surrounding the Chinese American experience and Angel Island.   The articles are more like informal blog posts. They contain important historic information; however, there are no references to scholarly sources nor is there clear organization of the articles.  Also, it is unclear how often the site is updated. The last article was posted in March of 2010 and contained errors that visitors have pointed out need correcting.

Overall, I think that the story of Angel Island and Asian Pacific immigration can be fleshed out by Poetic Waves. The website deserves more attention from its developer and a clearer idea of its intended audience and goals. The site should focus on the continuation of the immigration story to the mainland and provide additional resources and make connections to contemporary immigration issues.  With these changes, I think Poetic Waves will be on the right path to providing an important American story, equal to that of Ellis Island.

[1] Jin, Ha. “Shame.” In A Good Fall, by Ha Jin. Vintage International, 2009.

[2] Yip, Garman, and Native Interactive. Angel Island: Poetic Waves. http://www.poeticwaves.net/about-us/ (accessed May 2011).

One thought on “Poetic Injustice at Angel Island

  1. Thank you for that picture of the dormitories. I didn’t think it was possible, but those beds look like they may have been even more uncomfortable than the ones we had on exhibit at Ellis. Imagine sleeping for weeks or months on those things.

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