Because of the long delays associated with testimonies, living conditions became the focal point of immigrants’ frustrations. Immigrants became prisoners under lock and key 24 hours a day, the barracks had been deemed by public health officials to be a firetrap, the food was barely edible, recreation or time allowed outside was limited, and under such conditions, some even demanded to be returned to China on the next boat out. It was common to hear rumors of suicide by those who were schedule to be deported. The most visible and durable testimony to their suffering are the famous poems, some written, some carved with a classical Cantonese technique into the wooden walls of the barracks. This was not mere graffiti. Couched in classical allegories and historical references, these poems poured forth the aspirations of the immigrants with their anger and sadness at the injustice of their initial reception by America.
Detained in this wooden house for several tens of days, It is all because of the Mexican exclusion law which implicates me. It’s a pity heroes have no way of exercising their prowess. I can only await the word so that I can snap Zu’s whip.
From now on, I am departing far from this building All of my fellow villagers are rejoicing with me. Don’t say that everything within is Western styled. Even if it is built of jade, it has turned into a cage.
– From the walls of Angel Island Immigration Station, author unknown, Poem 69 from Island, p. 134.
ANGEL ISLAND POEMS read in Toishanese
The largest percentage of Chinese immigrants who came to America in the first part of the twentieth century were from Toishan District in Guangdong Province. So too were many of the Chinese immigrants who were detained at Angel Island and Victoria, B.C. and who wrote the poems on the walls of the detention buildings. The following poems, published in Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung’s book, Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, 2nd edition (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014), are sung in Toishanese by Yui Poon Ng 伍銳泮 of the Ing Suey Sun Tong Association of Vancouver 溫哥華伍胥山公所. The video recording was produced by Joanne Poon 潘美珠 and donated to the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. We greatly appreciate the contributions of Mr. Ng and Ms. Poon.
Sitting alone in the customs office, How could my heart not ache? Had my family not been poor, I would not have traveled far away from home. It was my elder brother who urged me To embark on a voyage to this shore. The black devil* here is unjust— He forces the Chinese to clean the floor. Two meals a day are provided, But I wonder, when will I be homeward bound?
– Lee from Toishan District, September 4, 1911
* A pejorative to refer to those of African descent—here, presumably, an African Canadian working at the immigration station directed the detainees to sweep the floors.
We are poor, so you’re leaving home to seek wealth; Keep hold of propriety while on this journey. Never pick wildflowers along the road,* For you have your own wife at home! Before you depart, I admonish you a thousand times; Don’t let my words just whistle past your ears. Don’t worry about us, be diligent and frugal, And two years hence return to sweep the ancestors’ tombs. Your wife and children haven’t a thing to wear; Not half a cup of rice can be scooped from the pot. Our house and rooms are dilapidated; Our housewares are worn, and the curtains torn. In the past, you did nothing but gamble; You never thought of me and my flowing tears. You are fortunate your elder brother has paid the taxes— Always remember your great debt to him!
Lee from Toishan District, Arrived July 12, 1911
* To engage in romantic/sexual affairs while away from home.
Originally, I had intended to come to America last year. Lack of money delayed me until early autumn. It was on the day that the Weaver Maiden met the Cowherd* That I took passage on the President Lincoln. 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.
* Better known as the Festival of the Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon, the Qiqiao Festival is widely celebrated among the Cantonese. In the legend of the Cowherd and the Weaver Maiden (Niulang Zhinü), the Weaver Maiden in heaven one day fell in love with a mortal Cowherd. After their marriage, her loom, which once wove garments for the gods, fell silent. Angered by her dereliction of duty, the gods ordered her back to work. She was separated from the Cowherd by the Silver Stream, or Milky Way, with the Cowherd in the constellation Aquila, while she was across the Heavenly River in the constellation Lyra. The couple was allowed to meet only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh moon, when the Silver Stream is spanned by a bridge of magpies. On this day, maidens display toys, figurines, artificial fruits and flowers, embroidery, and other examples of their handiwork, so that men can judge their skills. It is also customary for girls to worship the gods and make offerings of fruit to them.
Poem 10, p. 55
說去花旗喜溢顏， 千金羅掘不辭艱。 親離有話喉先哽， 妻別多情淚對潸。
浪大如山頻駭客， 政苛似虎倍嘗蠻。 毋忘此日君登岸， 發奮前程莫懶閒。
Poem by One Named Huie from Heungshan Encouraging the Traveler
Just talk about going to the land of the Flowery Flag and my countenance fills with happiness. Not without hard work were one thousand pieces of gold dug up and gathered together. There were words of farewell to the parents, but the throat choked up first. There were many feelings, many tears flowing face to face, when parting with the wife.
Waves big as mountains often astonished this traveler. With laws harsh as tigers,* I had a taste of all the barbarities. Do not forget this day when you land ashore. Push yourself ahead and do not be lazy or idle.
* From “Tangong,” a chapter in the Book of Rites: Confucius was passing Mount Tai and saw a woman weeping and wailing at a grave. Confucius asked why she was wailing so sadly. She said, “My father- in-law and my husband were killed by tigers. Now my son has also been killed by a tiger.” Confucius asked why she didn’t leave this dangerous place. She replied that it was because there was no oppressive rule here. Confucius remarked, “Oppressive rule is surely fiercer than any tiger.”
In the quiet of night, I heard, faintly, the whistling of wind. The forms and shadows saddened me; upon seeing the landscape, I composed a poem. The floating clouds, the fog, darken the sky. The moon shines faintly as the insects chirp. Grief and bitterness entwined are heaven sent. The sad person sits alone, leaning by a window.
After leaping into prison, I cannot come out. From endless sorrows, tears and blood streak. The jingwei bird carries gravel to fill its old grudge.* The migrating wild goose complains to the moon, mourning his harried life. When Ziqing was in distant lands, who pitied and inquired after him?** When Ruan Ji reached the end of the road, he shed futile tears.*** The scented grass and hidden orchids complain of withering and falling. When may I be allowed to soar at my own pleasing?
By Lee Gengbo of Toishan
* According to a folktale, the daughter of the legendary Yandi was drowned while playing in the Eastern Sea. Her soul changed into a bird called a jingwei, which, resenting the fact that the ocean had taken her life, carried pebbles from the Western Mountains in her beak and dropped them into the ocean, hoping to fill it up.
** Another name for Su Wu (140–60 BCE), who, during the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE–24 CE), was sent by the Chinese government as envoy to the Xiongnu, a nomadic people north of the Chinese empire. Su Wu was detained there for nineteen years but refused to renounce his loyalty to the Han emperor.
*** Ruan Ji (210–263), a scholar during the period of the Three Kingdoms (220–80), enjoyed drinking and visiting mountains and streams. Often, when he reached the end of the road, he would cry bitterly before turning back.
Imprisoned in the wooden building day after day, My freedom withheld; how can I bear to talk about it? I look to see who is happy, but they only sit quietly. I am anxious and depressed and cannot fall asleep. The days are long and the bottle constantly empty; my sad mood, even so, is not dispelled. Nights are long and the pillow cold; who can pity my loneliness? After experiencing such loneliness and sorrow, Why not just return home and learn to plow the fields?
Click to hear readings of Chinese poems in Cantonese and English