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What does a writer do when locked up awaiting deportation at the Ellis Island Immigration Station? If you are Hsi Tseng Tsiang, you write every day and then you write some more even if all you have available is toilet paper.
H.T. Tsiang was forty years old when the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS) locked him up from November 1940 to July 1941 at the Ellis Island Immigration Station. Tsiang had let his student visa lapse when he got sick in 1938 and dropped out of Columbia University. When he recovered in early 1940, he enrolled at the New School for Social Research in the theater department. Despite his status as a student, immigration authorities said he had violated the law and must be deported to China.
Tsiang was recognized in leftist cultural circles as a promising young talent. He had written a volume of poetry, Poems of the Chinese Revolution (1929), three novels beginning with China Red (1931), The Hanging on Union Square (1935) and China Has Hands (1937). In 1938, Tsiang completed a three-act play entitled China Marches On. He had also appeared on Broadway portraying a boatman in Sergey Tretyakov’s play Roar China, which ran for 72 performances at the Martin Beck Theatre in 1930. Two of his poems, Sacco,Vanzetti and Chinaman, Laundryman had been adapted as songs and performed by avant-garde composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, the step-mother of folk musician Pete Seeger.
Thus, it is no wonder that he wrote several poems about his experiences on Ellis Island along with scores of letters to left-wing writers and artists to appeal for a stay of the deportation order. Tsiang argued that he would face certain death either at the hands of the Japanese army, which had occupied parts of northern China by 1940 or at the hands of the Kuomintang Party (KMT) and its leader Chiang Kai-shek, who had violently purged leftists from the KMT in 1927.
How did H.T. Tsiang end up among the bohemians and leftists of Greenwich Village in New York? The early years of his life were quite difficult. In a letter to his publisher that was reprinted on the book jacket of And China Has Hands, Tsiang tells us the following: “I was born in a small hut at Chi-An Village, Nantung [now romanized Nantong] District in the Province of Kiangsu [now Jiangsu] in which Shanghai, the main Chinese seaport, and Nanking [now Nanjing], the national capital, are situated. My father died when I was nine, and my mother passed on when I was thirteen. By passing competitive examinations which secured me various scholarships, I was enabled to graduate from grammar school, middle school and the university.”
Tsiang earned his B.A. from Nanking University where he picked up some English proficiency. He was also a veteran political activist having worked as an assistant to Wang Chin-wei, chief secretary for Dr. Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Chinese Republic. Infighting between the left and right-wing factions in the KMT caused Tsiang to leave China.
On July 3, 1926, Tsiang disembarked in San Francisco from the Korea Maru. He had been accepted at Stanford University where he would pursue graduate studies in economics, history and literature. He quickly became involved with Chinese leftists and became an editor of Young China, the newspaper of the KMT right-wing. Tsiang began to criticize Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the KMT, and thus he was purged from the newspaper staff. He became the Chinese editor of the bilingual periodical The Chinese Guide to America, which advocated left-wing politics. However, other communists in San Francisco Chinatown like Benjamin Fee were critical of Tsiang and called him “personally erratic, financially irresponsible and politically dubious.” Tsiang was expelled from Stanford for his political activities in 1927 and moved to New York to continue his studies at Columbia University and to pursue his writing.
Tsiang lived modestly on a restaurant worker’s wages and wrote in a small room above a Chinese chop suey joint in Montclair, New Jersey. Having been rejected by most publishers, who found his bitterly funny and unusual story structures unmarketable, Tsiang published his novels on his own and hawked his books at left-wing events and plays. In 1935, Rion Bercovici of The New Yorker found H.T. Tsiang outside the Longacre Theatre where Clifford Odet’s play Waiting for Lefty was being performed. Tsiang was buttonholing people to buy his latest book The Hanging on Union Square. In his “Talk of the Town” column, Bercovici told of Tsiang’s journey from China to Manhattan. He also gave a thumbnail review of Tsiang’s novel. “We read the book, and sort of enjoyed it. It’s about people named Miss Digger, Mr. Wiseguy, Miss Stubborn, and Mr. Nut, and the moral is Communistic. It sells for two dollars if you’re not a Party member; fifty cents if you are. Tsiang’s next novel, “Shanghai-New York-Moscow” will be about a coolie. Somewhat like “The Good Earth”, he says but much better.”
Tsiang’s jaunty braggadocio would serve him well on Ellis Island during the cold, windy winter of 1940. The American Committee for Protection of Foreign Born and the American Civil Liberties Union rose to Tsiang’s defense and hired attorney Ira Gollebin to file an appeal to the U.S. Justice Department. When INS officials squashed his appeals, Tsiang turned to his friends in the leftist intellectual circles to rally public pressure for a stay of the deportation order. He wrote numerous letters to Rockwell Kent, a well-known painter, illustrator, writer and political activist. Kent wrote letters to his friends in the U.S. Justice Department and asked for consideration of the plight facing Tsiang should he be returned to China. It is through the Rockwell Kent papers at the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution that we learn about Tsiang’s persistent letter writing campaign to win support. Sprinkled in the correspondence with Kent as well as letters to Waldo Frank, a novelist and literary critic, that we find H.T. Tsiang’s poems about immigration and life on Ellis Island.
On January 18, 1941, Tsiang described his writing “desk” in his lettre de toilet papier. “My dear Mr. Kent: It would be a surprise to you to receive a letter from me to be written on this tissue paper. I’m writing this now in the bed room (of) a Negro and myself. He is sleeping now. I use the light in the toilet. It is very, very clean, and I made it very comfortable, because I put lots of blankets together, made a chair, and put also blankets on the stool as a reading table, now I’m writing on it. So there’s no other paper available. And I’m afraid, if I wait till tomorrow, the very thing I want to write will run away. So excuse me!
Tsiang also had access to a typewriter. He poured his feelings into observations about his predicament and more broadly on the bitterness of imprisonment. In a rambling, multi-part poem called The Pear, Tsiang portrayed some of the daily humiliations prisoners endure.
Must go, must go – busy or not and so
I pack my papers, take my typewriter and I go.
“A hundred new fellows” I hear it said,
I must hurry up to keep the old bed.
Forget something! Forget something!
I tell the guard, guard tells his guard-king
Yes, yes. Core of my pear. More! More!
Guards call me “Nut”, and I see them sneer.
(From The Pear – part 11)
Tsiang also described the how immigration inspectors sought to trip up immigrants and make false statements during interrogations. Many Angel Island poets attested to the rigors of the interrogations but only H.T. Tsiang would subvert the questions in this sly manner to ridicule the authorities.
What is your name?
What is your father’s?
How old are you?
Is your father an American citizen?
Where were you born?
-Chin-Hi district, Mei-Keu village.
How old were you when your father was last home?
-Let me see.
No see, but tell.
-I was about six.
Did your father sleep in the same room with your mother?
-In the same room.
Did your father sleep in the same bed with your mother?
On which side did your father sleep?
-I don’t remember.
You must remember.
He remember, officer me like, —says the interpreter.
-Sometimes left side, sometimes right side.
Is that all?
You are not his son. And you should be deported.
What is wrong, officer? — asks the interpreter.
His father testified that he sometimes slept on his mother’s
Tsiang’s most powerful poem is He is Not Worried written on December 23, 1940 on Ellis Island.
He walks through the big hall and reaches the railing.
The guard looks at the photo on the paper.
And then looks at the man.
The guard says a few words to the man.
The man listens.
He then walks back.
In the very corner where he used to sit,
The man puts his belongings together.
Then he looks around.
He walks a few steps away from the corner.
Again he looks around.
The man dashes and plunges his body with the force
Of a locomotive.
His head knocks against the stone wall.
The crack makes a solid and determine yet not very noisy sound.
His forehead is broken like a watermelon.
The shell is not a watermelon.
The pieces are stuck together.
The sight of blood is not very unusual.
At first red, when it touches the air, it turns dark.
But some thick, liquid things have soiled the snow white stone wall.
And the sight of it – it is rather ugly.
The color is like spoiled milk,
Or the liquid white part of a broken rotten egg.
Broken rotten egg. Spoiled milk.
The color is not white. It is not black.
It is gray.
However, there is no bad smell.
For this thick, liquid thing is fresh.
It is as fresh as it can be
And you can see:
There are warm (not very hot) moist things mildly and slowly
Against this icy snow white stone wall,
Where this thick liquid substance
Of the man’s shell
Of course, by this time
The man is no longer standing straight.
He is crowded under the wall – on the ground.
With a little breath, legs kicking, eyes half-closed and half-opened.
And he is not worried about where he will go.
He is a German.
He is a Jew.
News about the persecution of Jewish people by the Nazis was widely known by the time Tsiang wrote this poem. On November 9, 1938, Nazi party members, police, and soldiers burned 250 Jewish synagogues and arrested over 30,000 Jews in the infamous Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. Announcements about detention camps had been published in the Munich press. Thus, Tsiang understood the anxiety a deportation order must have been for this individual. This German Jew’s suicidal act is a chilling reminder of the desperation many immigrants feel today as they face deportation to war-torn regions.
Tsiang’s spirits were lifted when Waldo Frank, a novelist and former teacher of Tsiang, published a letter in The New Republic in April 1941 urging people to send letters to the Department of Justice to “bring about the release of this courageous and gifted young man.”
Tsiang actively pursued a private bill for immigration relief from East Harlem Congressman Vito Marcantonio, who was labor lawyer long allied with socialist and communist causes. Tsiang was so elated by the possibility of Marcantonio’s support that he wrote this rhapsodic poem and sent it off to Rockwell Kent and Waldo Frank.
O! O! 0!
What a world
Without those “O”
What a poem
Without those “O!”
What a Congress
Marcantonio was extremely busy and could not accommodate Tsiang’s plea, but Tsiang received a reprieve from another progressive congressperson. Rep. Jeannette Rankin of Montana, who was a pacifist and advocate for women’s right to vote, introduced H.R. 4962, a private bill for immigration relief, on June 5, 1941. As long as Congress considered this bill, Tsiang could stay in the U.S. As hostilities heated up in the summer of 1941 with Japanese war ships teeming in the Pacific, shipping to Asia had been vastly curtailed. It is unlikely that Tsiang would have ever been sent back to China.
Before he was released from Ellis Island in July 1941, Tsiang invited Ed Scott, a newspaper reporter, to visit him. Scott described Tsiang as “a nervous man of 40 with bushy hair streaked with grey.” He added that Tsiang’s “faith in democracy is so great that he is sure everything will turn out all right.”
Tsiang offered this whimsical poem as his farewell to Ellis Island.
Three meals a day and a bed at night,
Shower free, stroll for your delight.
Fruit for your body, books for your mind,
Gods of all sorts, for your soul, so kind.
No work to do, no bills to pay.
Everything is fine and dainty.
But the locked door, guard and matron,
Yes, my boy you are in prison.
Look! That’s the City of New York,
It is not very far away.
Look! That’s the Statue of Liberty.
“Lovely lady!” they all say.
How long are you already here?
How long are you going to stay?
Some tell you this, some tell you that.
Wait, wait, and your hair turns to gray.
Soft sissies have plenty of tears,
They moan, they sigh and they do cry.
“Husky he-man” that’s how they are.
They inquire, they worry and they defy.
But I sit calmly in a soft chair.
The room is big, the ceiling is high.
I smoke, I read and I write.
My first vacation in ten years, a delight.
Tsiang returned to Manhattan and resumed his studies at the New School for Social Research with Erwin Piscator, the famed German director whose creative incorporation of images, film footage and large-scale immersive sets became known as Epic Theater. Tsiang presented excerpts of his play China Marches On, which featured the first-known depiction of the Mulan character (here cast as a woman disguised as a man to fight the Japanese occupation of Shanghai) on the American stage, His novel The Hanging on Union Square was rewritten as a play, which starred H.T. Tsiang as Mr. Nut. Excerpts from both plays were presented at the New School on March 10, 1942.
H.T. Tsiang relocated to Los Angeles in 1943 and began a new career as an actor in Hollywood movies. The war years provided many roles for Asian actors as Hollywood churned out anti-Japanese films aimed at boosting morale at home. His string of credits included films such as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), Betrayal from the East (1945), China Sky (1945), China’s Little Devils (1945), and Tokyo Rose (1946). His roles ranged from a magistrate in China Sky to a Japanese spy in Betrayal from the East.
Tsiang continued to appear in films into the 1950s and 1960s usually playing the role of Chinese cook (Panic in the Streets) or houseboy (Ocean’s 11). Tsiang also made numerous guest appearances on television shows such as Gunsmoke, I Spy, Dr. Kildare, Hawaiian Eye, and My Three Sons. Clips from some of his television appearances can be seen at this link. Despite the narrow range of roles that he was offered, Tsiang always brought a lively presence to the screen. He seemed to have a twinkle in his eyes and he delivered his lines with a sly sincerity. Perhaps that is why his career, while not stellar, lasted several decades.
Tsiang lived in Los Angeles Chinatown but he spent a great deal of time in Hollywood. Playing stereotypical roles paid the rent, which was probably quite low as Tsiang lived in the older section of Chinatown on Ord Street. Theater was still his passion and Tsiang poured his savings into mounting productions of The Hanging on Union Square, which had been adapted into a one-act play in verse, along with another one-act play entitled Canton Rickshaw Girl, which was also written in verse. This show ran for two weeks and was presented annually at the Rainbow Etienne Studio on Vine Street in Hollywood from 1943 to 1948. Tsiang sent his benefactor Rockwell Kent a laudatory Daily People’s World review of the premiere of the show’s fifth season and in the margins of the note, he added that major actors and directors such as Gregory Peck, Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Alfred Hitchcock, Vincent Price, Lewis Milestone, and Joseph Mankiewicz had attended the show. Tsiang also took Hanging on Union Square and China Marches On to San Francisco for performances at the California Labor School. Headlining the shows were Ruth Krenkel and H.T. Tsiang with a supporting cast listed as “three chairs and one candle.”
Tsiang also appeared at the La Jolla Playhouse in It Remains to be Seen, a comedy with Gig Young in 1952. His one-hour, one-man performance of Hamlet, which was performed for 12 years every Friday night at the Rainbow Theater in Hollywood, was also duly noted in Variety.
As can be expected, Tsiang’s socialist sympathies attracted the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Hua Hsu, an associate professor of English at Vassar College, wrote extensively about H.T. Tsiang in A Floating Chinaman Fantasy and Failure Across the Pacific (Harvard University Press, 2016). He examined the FBI surveillance reports on Tsiang’s activities. The FBI interviewed numerous people from New York publishers to store owners in Los Angeles Chinatown about Tsiang. Some unidentified observers found Tsiang to be a mild-mannered individual who was relatively harmless albeit very progressive in his politics. These FBI interviews were conducted in the early 1950s as the anti-red hysteria ramped up leading to the McCarthy hearings in the U.S. Senate in 1954. However, even before these inquisitions took place, Tsiang sought protection from the immigration authorities.
Once more H.T. Tsiang relied on well-connected friends in the arts community to advocate for him. Lewis Milestone, who had directed H.T. Tsiang in The Purple Heart, wrote to Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas to urge her to sponsor a private bill for immigration relief for Tsiang. Rep. Douglas, who had been an actress and who was married to well-known actor Melvyn Douglas, was sympathetic to Tsiang’s plight. Milestone cited his relationship to Tsiang:
I am the first director who ventured to use Orientals in playing major Oriental parts in a picture. There are very few Chinese actors in the country. Mr. Tsiang is one of the very few who had made the grade…During the war period, the alien (Tsiang) took part in the production of films which were of great service as morale builders, both on the field and on the home front.
Rep. Douglas sponsored a private bill, H.R. 6310, which was introduced in Congress on May 3, 1946. H.T. Tsiang had indeed dodged another bullet.
Helen Gahagan Douglas, however, was red-baited by Richard Nixon in her U.S. Senate race in 1950. She lost to Nixon but left him with the tag “Tricky Dicky,” which was amply borne out in 1974 when Nixon had to resign as President of the United States for authorizing the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office complex.
Ever grateful for Milestone’s support, Tsiang published a birthday greeting to Milestone in the Sept. 30, 1960 edition of The Hollywood Reporter. Milestone had cast Tsiang in Ocean’s 11 (1958). Displaying his cheeky manner and offbeat humor, Tsiang greeted Milestone with “Happy Birthday and happiest time of your life. Counting your medals, you also count your dollar bills. Regards to SINATRA (I’m still chewing on his last paycheck.) From H.T. Tsiang, the crazy house boy in ‘Ocean’s 11.’”
H.T. Tsiang’s film career ended with an uncredited role in The Swinger, a comedy featuring Ann Margaret and Anthony Franciosa, in 1966.
Tsiang died in Los Angeles on July 16, 1971. He is buried at Evergreen Cemetery.
H.T. Tsiang’s written legacies – poems, novels, plays – display a unique voice in American literature. He was able to combine a deep commitment to socialist revolution with a broad and humorous look at human foibles and aspirations. His dream of fundamental social change was not realized but his dogged determination to forge his own path with values intact casts him in a heroic role.
More About H.T. Tsiang
A resurgence of interest in the irreverent, biting social criticism and ribald humor of H.T. Tsiang is taking place today with the republication of The Hanging on Union Square (Kaya Press 2013) with a wonderful introduction by Floyd Cheung and the republication of And China Has Hands (forthcoming from Kaya Press) edited by and with an afterword by Floyd Cheung.
“The Remarkable Forgotten Life of H.T. Tsiang,” an article by Hua Hsu, which was adapted from his book A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure across the Pacific (Harvard University Press 2016), appears in The New Yorker, July 14, 2016.
“H.T. Tsiang: Literary Innovator and Activist,” a monograph by Floyd Cheung (Asian American Literature: Discourse and Pedagogies 2 (2011) 57-76) provides a thorough and insightful analysis of Tsiang’s literary and theatrical works.
H.T. Tsiang’s Poems of the Chinese Revolution can be obtained at this digital library collection.
I wish to thank Elizabeth Botten, reference specialist at the Archives of American Art Smithsonian Institution; author Floyd Cheung; Kelly McAnnaney, archivist at the National Archives at New York City; and Faye Thompson, Photograph Archive Coordinator at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick Library for their assistance and encouragement. A special word of appreciation goes out to Ken Yamada, who provided me with rare editions of H.T. Tsiang’s works.
Eddie Wong is the former executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and of NAATA/Center for Asian American Media. In his retirement, he has resumed his pursuit of historical research, writing, and photography. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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