Poetry by Paper Sons

OMCA’s symposium on the San Francisco Bay was a few weeks ago now, but we’re still thinking about islands. Here’s a little more information about Angel Island Immigration Center and the poignant poetry Chinese detainees etched on the walls:

From 1910 to 1940, about half a million immigrants were processed at Angel Island Immigration Station, often called the “Ellis Island of the West.” Although the facility was built to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943), which barred Chinese laborers from entering the United States, immigrants also came to Angel Island from Japan, Korea, South Asia, Australia, Russia, Mexico, and many other countries.

Angel Island

U.S. Immigration Station, Angel Island, San Francisco Bay. Dormitory. Courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

Immigrants were frequently detained, for various reasons. Chinese immigrants in particular needed to demonstrate their relation to a US citizen before they were released. Those with no kin in the United States were forced to prove otherwise. Such immigrants were known as "paper sons"—they claimed a familial relationship that in fact existed only on paper. Authorities knew the ruse, and held immigrants until they were satisfied with their documentation.

During their period of detainment, some Chinese detainees wrote poetry on the walls of the Angel Island barracks. A park ranger was wandering the dilapidated structure in 1970 (then slated for demolition, now restored) and discovered the poems; one such poem is below.