1883: Emma Lazarus Writes a Poem

Lazarus, a New York Jew, had little or no contact with China or Chinese. And yet a famous poem she wrote in 1883, ironically a year after the Chinese Exclusion Act, still has the power to bring tears to the eyes of Chinese-Americans. Imagining that the Statue of Liberty could speak, Lazarus has her say:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Her words are as meaningful now as 123 years ago. Most Chinese immigrants of that time were not homeless, wretched refuse of China’s teeming shores. All had homes, and some were middle class in terms of income and social position in Chinese society. But the poem must have seemed relevant nonetheless. Over the years it has been committed to memory by many Chinese-Americans and by many other Americans as well.