Saturday, May 28, 2011

Poetry from Chinese Immigrants

This is jumping ahead a bit, but what the heck. I ran across poems written by Chinese immigrants detained on Angel Island, and I thought I'd share.

The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and then another for all of Asia in 1917 meant that it was extremely difficult for Chinese citizens to emigrate to the US. They came anyway, lured by the hope of a better life. In 1910, the US Immigration Station on Angel Island opened and served as a detention center for Asians, most of whom would be sent back to their homelands. The station was crowded, and inmates sometimes scratched poems on the walls. Now those poems are being recovered, but it's a long project; many of the walls were filled in and painted, and the building was abandoned after World War II.

The poems are mostly written in classical Chinese style and express sadness, hope, and anger. They probably date from before 1930.

A collection has been published in Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910-1940. More information and poetry is available at KQED's Asian Education site and the Ancestors in the Americas project.

There are tens of thousands of poems on these walls
They are all cries of suffering and sadness
The day I am rid of this prison and become successful
I must remember that this chapter once existed
I must be frugal in my daily needs
Needless extravagance usually leads to ruin
All my compatriots should remember China
Once you have made some small gains,
you should return home early.

Written by one from Heungshan

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.

Instead of remaining a citizen of China, I willingly became an ox.
I intended to come to America to earn a living.
The Western styled buildings are lofty; but I have not the luck to live in them.
How was anyone to know that my dwelling place would be a prison?

Poem by One Named Xu From Xiangshan 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 1,000 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.

Sadly, I listen to insects and angry surf.
The laws pile layer upon layer; how can I dissipate my hatred? Drifting in as a traveler, I met with this calamity. It's more miserable than owning only a flute in the marketplace of Wu.

This is a message to those who live here not
to worry excessively.
Instead, you must cast your idle worries to
the flowing stream.
Experiencing a little ordeal is not hardship.
Napoleon was once a prisoner on an island.

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