Chinese Workers, 1800s
Image credit:  Modesto Art Museum

I ate wind and tasted waves for more than twenty days.

Fortunately, I arrived safely on the American continent.

I thought I could land in a few days.

How was I to know I would become a prisoner suffering in the wooden building?

The barbarians’ abuse is really difficult to take.

When my family’s circumstances stir my emotions, a double stream of tears flows.

I only wish I can land in San Francisco soon,

Thus sparing me this additional sorrow here.”

–Poem inscribed in Angel Island barracks wall

The story of large-scale Chinese immigration to the United States begins in the 1850s. Most came from Guangdong Province, wracked for decades by civil and economic unrest. Gam Saan, or “Gold Mountain,” held the promise of wealth that could enrich an entire village.

When the Gold Rush subsided, Chinese men found work on the Transcontinental Railroad. They would build 90% of the Central Pacific Railroad, laying track in record time. However, while the Chinese were initially heralded for their industry and efficiency, they would become targets of harassment and violence. In 1882, when Chinese immigrants were 0.21% of the population, Congress passed the Exclusion Act. From 1910 to 1940, the Angel Island Immigration Station played an important role in the enforcement of the law. Poems inscribed into the barracks walls give us a glimpse into life for those waiting to learn their fates.

Additional Reading and Listening:

Angel Island Immigration Station (website)

Angel Island Poems read in Toishanese (YouTube)

Building the Transcontinental Railroad by Linda Thompson (for school-age readers)

The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad by Gordon Chang

History that Doesn’t Suck Podcast Episode 85

Text of the Chinese Exclusion Act

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