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Between 1910 and 1940, Chinese immigrants to America were detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station in the San Francisco Bay. As they waited for weeks and months to know if they could land, some of them wrote poems on the walls. All the poems we have on record were found in the men’s barracks: the women’s quarters were destroyed in a fire.

Islanders imagines the lost voices of the detained women. It also tells stories of their families on shore, the staff at Angel Island, and the 1877 San Francisco Chinatown Riot. A blend of fact and fiction, politics and intimacy, these poems chronicle a forgotten episode in American history and prefigure today’s immigration debates.


Featured in PBS NewsHour, Colorado Public Radio, and The New Yorker.

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My first encounters with Angel Island in 2010, including a detour to Alcatraz:

Some pictures from my second visit in 2013: Angel Island: A Photo Essay.


In between seeing and saying. In between shadow and fire. The voices and words in Islanders honor the bodies of women disappeared from history, reminding us how it is that America has always been standing on the bodies of those it swallowed whole. In the lost voices of Chinese women detained at Angel Island we have the chance to yet hear something from the ruins: song. – Lidia Yuknavitch

These poems are imagined out of ash—script written on walls of a detention building that burned down and took the record with it. Teow Lim Goh would have those voices back, voices from the barracks, voices at the gates, on sea crossings to China, on bay crossings to San Francisco, amid riots and in cold examination rooms, in a brothel, in a prison shower, in rooms of privilege and power, challenging readers to navigate layered tone and intersubjectivity, all of it staged at the theatre of lost history, recovered.  – Chris Ransick

More Praise.

Collaborations and Permissions

Book artist Gail Watson and I made a selection of these poems into an artist book, The Walls Speak.

Conceptual artist Jenny Holzer features some of these poems in White Light, her permanent LED installation in San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center.

Further Reading

Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung’s oral histories and poetry translations: Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910 – 1940.

Erika Lee and Judy Yung’s comprehensive history of Angel Island: Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America.

Jeffrey Leong’s new translations of the Angel Island poems: Wild Geese Sorrow: The Chinese Wall Inscriptions at Angel Island.

Garman Yip’s interactive tour of Angel Island, including readings of the poems in Chinese and in their English translations: Poetic Waves.


Angel Island is now a part of the California State Parks system. It is accessible by ferry from San Francisco and Tiburon.