Writing on the Walls


In 1970, United States park ranger Alexander Weiss found writing on the walls. He was in the abandoned wooden barracks on Angel Island, a bit of rock in San Francisco Bay. Inside those barracks, Weiss found thousands of characters carved into the walls. Those characters were eventually determined to be Chinese and their likely authors, immigrants awaiting entry into the US.

In July 2016, I visited Angel Island to see those wall inscriptions for myself. Some are no more than a name and a date. But the vast majority uncovered to date are poems. Wild Geese Sorrow is a collection of 70 Angel Island poems presented in the original Chinese and new translations by Jeffrey Thomas Leong.

The New World

From 1910 to 1940, Angel Island served as the United States port of entry for Asian immigrants. Nearly a million men, women, and children came to that Western gate. Some passed through within hours or days. Others languished for months and, in some cases, years.

Today, the end of winter,
Tomorrow morning, the spring divide.
One year's circumstance is replaced by another's
Worries to death the man in the wooden barrack.

Those who waited the longest were Chinese men, approximately 160,000 of them, mostly from the south of China. They were constrained by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which severely restricted the types of Chinese allowed into the country. Their only hope was to pass themselves off as the child of a native-born American. The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 created the loophole they needed. In the absence of US birth records, witness corroboration and oral testimony were the only means to prove a family tie.

It’s true that most of these men were paper sons. One US immigration judge complained that, for all these applicants to be true sons and daughters, every Chinese woman in the United States had to have borne 500 children. There was, on the US side, a valid need to verify every claim. Immigration authorities chose to do so through repeated interrogation into the most arcane details on the putative relative.

One misstep could lead to deportation and shame for the would-be immigrant. It would also mean financial ruin for the family back home who had borrowed heavily to finance the trip.


Wild Geese Sorrow is organized into sections that roughly parallel the life of a detainee on Angel Island. The initial shock of detention, the long wait in the Wood House, the indignity of hookworm and other medical inspections, failure, fury, and exhortation.

Imagine the scene: it is nearing dawn, and you have spent a sleepless night in your Angel Island barrack, awaiting tomorrow’s interrogation. Your thoughts turn homeward, and they turn to the forms and sensibilities of the Classical Chinese poetry which you studied and memorized in school. And now, carrying a contraband candle and pen-knife, while your fellow detainees snore in their bunks, you offer up your own poem. You do not write the poem, you incise it into the soft wood of the barracks wall, knowing full well that your captors will destroy it as soon as it is discovered. You do not even sign your name to your creation.

David Wojahn, Foreword to Wild Geese Sorrow

The first poems appeared on barracks walls within one month of Angel Island’s opening. Their authors wrote in brush-stroked ink but these poems were easily painted over. To erase the carved versions, immigration officials used putty, thus inadvertently preserving them.

Bored in the wood house I held open a window,
Dawn breezes, the day-bright moon, linger together.
In distant memory, an old village, hills obscured by clouds,
On this small island, tiny cries of wild geese sorrow.

The mighty hero who's lost his way speaks emptily of the sword,
A troubled scholar on a poor road writes only high poems.
You should know when a country is weak,
the people's spirit dies.
How else have we come to be trapped here as prisoners?


Yunte Huang is an English professor with the University of California at Santa Barbara. He places the Angel Island poems within the long tradition of Chinese travel writing. For centuries, the imperial court appointed its official historians and dictated the manner and content of their writing. Chinese travel writing – seemingly casual musings on sites visited – was in fact subversive alternative history.

Tibishi is a sub-genre of Chinese travel writing. The term means wall poetry, though walls were not the only surfaces available. Poets used cliffs, rocks, doors, windows, rafters, and even snow fields. Travelers found poetry boards at inns and popular viewing pavilions.

The detainees at Angel Island brought this tradition of wall poetry into America, fusing the old and the new. Wild Geese Sorrow is a collection of

arguably the first Chinese American literary text, albeit published on walls, by persons literally fresh off the boat and caught in their first moments of becoming American.

Jeffrey Thomas Leong, Introduction to Wild Geese Sorrow


It cannot have been easy to translate these works. Not all of these poems are as fluid as I would have liked. Does the fault lie with the translator? Readers of traditional Chinese characters can tell for themselves since the original wall inscriptions are reproduced for each poem presented.

The rigid form of Tang Dynasty poetics must have created extra difficulties, with its prescribed number of lines and slant-end rhyming. Add to this the fact that not all the inscriptions are legible. Some merged together in that confined space while a few were even carved backwards. Age and erosion at the site have also taken their toll.

Odd errors of fact plague some poems. For example, Poem No. 32 describes a view of the immigration hospital to the south and the army camp to the west. In fact, those directions should be north and east. Such an error, made in the context of an interrogation, could have been fatal. Immigration authorities would ask: Who lives in which house? What are their names and ages? How many steps to the village well?

The same set of questions would be asked of each of the other applicants from the same village, and the answers would have to match, or all of them would be denied entry to the U.S.

Yunte Huang, “Angel Island and the Poetics of Error” in UbuWeb Papers

East-West Poetics

The author of Poem No. 32 was not directionally-challenged. He was writing an homage to the Tang Dynasty original by Liu Yuxi. Both appear in Wild Geese Sorrow, respectively, as Poems No. 31 and 32. In Poem No. 31, Liu argues that the crude nature of a dwelling need have no influence on its inhabitant’s refined spirit. Poem No. 32 takes the opposite position.

A building need not be tall; with windows, it will have light.
An island need not be far; here, Angel Island.
Alas, a wooden building blocks my journey. [...]

This author says, "When a prisoner lives there,
what happiness can it have?"

To appreciate fully the aesthetics of the Angel Island wall poems, a reader would need a thorough grounding in Tang Dynasty classics. But even then, there is a critical distinction between Chinese poetics and its Western counterpart.

“poem,” with its Greek roots in poiêma and poein (to make), suggests an object made, an outside separated from an inside; by contrast, shi, the Chinese word for poetry or poem, is not an object made by the writer but IS the writer.

Yunte Huang, “Angel Island and the Poetics of Error” in UbuWeb Papers

The Angel Island poems were once seen as graffiti, an act of defacement, a crime against property. Yet, as Huang reminds us, graffiti can also “draw our attention to the act of their saying and not merely to what they say.”

Maybe what I feel in reading Wild Geese Sorrow is the power these poems have lost by appearing on the written page. If so, there is no other solution but to return to Angel Island to see the writing on the wall.

A version of this review first appeared on Bookish Asia on 20 April 2019.