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The poems that were carved on the walls of the Immigration Station by Chinese immigrants continue to move people. Those poignant, angry, reflective and visceral expressions are universal declarations of the human spirit In the coming months, we will share some recently translated poems written by Japanese immigrants to Angel Island. Written both by men and women, these poems were sent to Bay Area Japanese newspapers from 1910 to 1930.
As part of the celebration of the Immigration Station’s 100th anniversary in 2010, we will publish the works of contemporary poets who have been inspired by the Angel Island poems. Nancy Hom and Leon Sun are artists and community activists as well as poets. We are pleased to share their work with you.
Nancy Hom is an artist, writer, and community organizer. Her work has been published in several publications and her art has been exhibited in numerous galleries, mostly recently at the de Young Museum of San Francisco. Formerly the executive director of Kearny Street Workshop (1995-2003), she is currently a freelance curator, grantwriter, and arts consultant for several non-profits in the Bay Area.
On Angel Island We Shed Our Skins
The Angel Island Immigration Station was where Chinese and other immigrants were detained and interrogated from 1910-1940 before they were allowed into America. Many adopted false identities in order to escape the strict Exclusion Acts.
On morning strolls to Mountain Lake Park
my wife of 50 years stays a step behind.
She needs my arm for balance but avoids my touch.
Carefully she counts the ten signposts,
five stop signs, two mailboxes to our destination.
She moves her lips as if remembering.
Before I came here, I had a name.
Four palm trees faced us when we landed.
They loomed before us like guardians.
To pass the golden gate we told them what they
wanted to hear. On this island of desperate dreams
we shed our skins and wore new ones.
We burned our parents' names
and let our past curl into smoke.
No longer my father’s daughter,
No longer my husband’s wife.
Only the seagulls know who I really am.
For months we were held in separate rooms.
The dampness seeped through the bunks
and gnawed our bones. At night the wails of ghosts
kept us awake. We colluded our answers.
32 steps to my father’s house, four windows facing north.
24 steps to my uncle’s house, two doors facing south.
I have three sisters, two brothers, four cousins on my father’s side.
Now I store the memory in a drawer
along with bitter herbs and rhinoceros horns.
We dine at restaurants on the better side of town,
with pink tablecloths and real flowers in the vases.
We hardly go to Chinatown.
Before I came here, I held his hand.
Now my heart is a Chinese box of riddles.
No one understands.
I brew hot soup for her on foggy nights.
She trims the ends of my thinning hair.
Still, she can’t forget that day she faced the
interrogation officers and said she was my sister.
I have not told anyone.
We move like shadows
in a haze
of secrets and lies.
Now stairs fascinate her.
She knows the neighbor’s house by heart.
21 steps to the door. Nine windows. 1 1/2 bathrooms.
She counts every time we visit, just to make sure.
In case, one day, she has to know.
Before I came here, I had a name!
© Nancy Hom 1999
Leon Sun is a San Francisco based visual artist who “dabbles” in poetry, finding writing a refreshing counterpoint to his painting – currently his main medium – photography and graphic design. Born 1948 in Shanghai, he left China at an early age and grew up partly in Hong Kong before coming to the United States as a student in 1966. He has, since then, become a citizen of the United States.
“My immigrant experience has been an easy one compared to those who came before me. I feel I owe them an extra dose of respect for what they’ve been through and how their unbreakable spirit has been an inspiration for me. As Chinese, I feel a deep sympathy for all Chinese who have suffered bitterness at one time or another.”
Birds fly south under an Autumn sky
unaware of my envious gaze
from this anonymous window.
What do they know of
wretched wooden houses
and the bitterness
of being human?
Brothers of the yellow earth
We travel the Four Seas with no fear
We are strong and willing to work
Our fathers taught us to eat bitterness
Our mothers taught us to endure
Our ancestors have moved earth and water
For five thousand years.
The barbarian builds stone houses and steel ships
He has his gun and his god
But shows no reason or compassion
knows not right from wrong.
He calls us “immigrant.”
What is that?
He makes things up so he can have his way.
I stand before Tian Lao-yeh* and
Demand to know,
Who will prevail?
*Lord of Heaven