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 Couched in classical allegories and historical references, these poems poured forth the aspirations of the immigrants with their anger and sadness at the injustice of their initial reception by America.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.
Poem 3, p. 187
Sitting alone in the customs office,
– Lee from Toishan District, September 4, 1911
* A pejorative to refer to those of African descent—here,
Poem 4, p. 189
My Wife’s Admonishment
We are poor, so you’re leaving home to seek wealth;
Lee from Toishan District, Arrived July 12, 1911
* To engage in romantic/sexual affairs while away from home.
Poem 7, p. 51
Originally, I had intended to come to America last year.
* Better known as the Festival of the Seventh Day of the Seventh
Poem 10, p. 55
Poem by One Named Huie from Heungshan Encouraging the Traveler
Just talk about going to the land of the Flowery Flag and my
Waves big as mountains often astonished this traveler.
* From “Tangong,” a chapter in the Book of Rites: Confucius was
Poem 24, p. 67
Random Thoughts Deep at Night
In the quiet of night, I heard, faintly, the whistling of wind.
Written by Yee of Toishan
Poem 41, p. 81
After leaping into prison, I cannot come out.
By Lee Gengbo of Toishan
* According to a folktale, the daughter of the legendary Yandi
** Another name for Su Wu (140–60 BCE), who, during the Western
*** Ruan Ji (210–263), a scholar during the period of the Three
Poem 43, p. 83
Imprisoned in the wooden building day after day,
Click to hear readings of Chinese poems in Cantonese and English
http://www.kqed.org/w/pacificlink/history/angelisland/poetry/one.html (Mandarin and Cantonese)
<Previous: Life on Angel Island
Described by others as quaint and exotic, or as depraved and threatening, and, more recently, as successful and exemplary, the Chinese in America have rarely been asked to describe themselves in their own words. This superb anthology, a diverse and illuminating collection of primary documents and stories by Chinese Americans, provides an intimate and textured history of the Chinese in America from their arrival during the California Gold Rush to the present. Among the documents are letters, speeches, testimonies, oral histories, personal memoirs, poems, essays, and folksongs; many have never been published before or have been translated into English for the first time. They bring to life the diverse voices of immigrants and American-born; laborers, merchants, and professionals; ministers and students; housewives and prostitutes; and community leaders and activists. Together, they provide insight into immigration, work, family and social life, and the longstanding fight for equality and inclusion. Featuring photographs and extensive introductions to the documents written by three leading Chinese American scholars, this compelling volume offers a panoramic perspective on the Chinese American experience and opens new vistas on American social, cultural, and political history.
list of illustrations
part i: early chinese immigrants, 1852–1904
Songs of Gold Mountain Wives
Norman Asing, To His Excellency Governor Bigler (1852)
The Founding of Golden Hills News (1854)
Sing Kum, Letter by a Chinese Girl (1876)
Documents of the Chinese Six Companies Pertaining to Immigration
A Memorial from Representative Chinamen in America (1876)
A Memorial to the State of California to Bar Prostitutes (1868)
A Letter Writing Campaign to Discourage Immigration (1876)
The Second Exhumation and Return of the Remains of Our Departed Friends to the Homeland (1876)
Wen Bing Chung, Reminiscences of a Pioneer Student (1923)
Wong Hau-hon, Reminiscences of an Old Chinese Railroad Worker (1926)
Huang Zunxian, Memorandum No. 29 to Envoy Zheng (1882)
Memorial of Chinese Laborers at Rock Springs, Wyoming (1885)
Saum Song Bo, A Chinese View of the Statue of Liberty (1885)
Huie Kin, Reminiscences of an Early Chinese Minister (1932)
Bow On Guk (Protective Bureau) (1887)
Wong Chin Foo, Why Am I a Heathen? (1887)
Yan Phou Lee, Why I Am Not a Heathen: A Rejoinder to Wong Chin Foo (1887)
Jee Gam, The Geary Act: From the Standpoint of a Christian Chinese (1892)
Elizabeth Wong, Leaves from the Life History of a Chinese Immigrant (1936)
Kam Wah Chung Letters (1898–1903)
part ii: life under exclusion, 1904–1943
Ng Poon Chew, The Treatment of the Exempt Classes of Chinese in the U.S. (1908)
Detention in the Wooden Building (1910)
Chin Gee Hee, Letter Asking for Support to Build the Sunning Railroad (1911)
Chinese-American Citizens’ Alliance, Admission of Wives of American Citizens of Oriental Ancestry (1926)
Gong Yuen Tim, “Just plain old luck and good timing:” Reminiscences of a Gold Mountain Man (1988)
Helen Hong Wong, “I was the only Chinese woman in town:” Reminiscences of a Gold Mountain Woman (1982)
Pardee Lowe, Second-Generation Dilemmas (1930s)
Anna May Wong, I Am Growing More Chinese—Each Passing Year! (1934)
Declaration of the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance (1933)
Chinese Women’s Association Condensed Report for the Years 1932–1936
Happy Lim, Song of Chinese Workers (1938)
Lim P. Lee, Chinatown Goes Picketing (1938)
Liu Liangmo, Paul Robeson: The People’s Singer (1950)
Jew Baak Ming, The Founding of McGehee Chinese School (1944)
Eddie Fung, “There but for the grace of God go I:” The Story of a POW Survivor in World War II (2202)
Gilbert Woo, One Hundred and Seven Chinese (1943)
part iii: becoming an integral part of america, 1943–2003 000
Chinese News Service, San Francisco Chinese Papers Blame Immigration Practices in Suicide of Chinese Woman (1948)
Eddie Gong, I Want to Marry an American Girl (1955)
Hsue-shen Tsien, My Bitter Experience in the United States (1956)
Maurice Chuck, Father and Son (1995)
Ah Quon McElrath, “We gave workers a sense of dignity:” The Story of a Union Social Worker (1982)
Sheila Chin Morris, “All the daddies were Chinese and all the mommies were white:” Growing Up Biracial in Minnesota (2002)
Bonnie C. Lew, “I always felt out of place there:” Growing Up Chinese in Mississippi (1998)
Johnny Wong, “It was not a winnable war:” Remembering Vietnam (1998)
Jeffery Paul Chow, “I am a Chinaman:” An Interview with Frank Chin (1970)
L. Ling-chi Wang, Major Education Problems Facing the Chinese Community (1972)
On the Normalization of Relations Between China and the U.S.
Proclamation by the Chinese Six Companies of San Francisco (1971)
Gilbert Woo, A Turning Point in Chinatown (1979)
Sadie Lum, Asian American Women and Revolution: A Personal View (1983)
Shui Mak Ka, “In unity there is strength:” Garment Worker Speaks Out at Union Rally (1982)
Kitty Tsui, The Words of a Woman Who Breathes Fire (1983)
Helen Zia, The New Violence (1984)
Lily Wang, A Journey of Bitterness (1999)
Fu Lee, Immigrant Women Speak Out on Garment Industry Abuse (1993)
Jubilee Lau, Chinese and Proud of It (1996)
Marilee Chang Lin, Learning to See the Man Himself (1997)
Ellen D. Wu, The Best Tofu in the World Comes from . . . Indiana? (1998)
Binh Ha Hong, Reflections on Becoming American (1999)
Chang-Lin Tien, Affirming Affirmative Action (1995)
Alethea Yip, Countering Complacency: An Interview with OCA Director Daphne Kwok (1996)
“One mile, one hundred years:” Governor Gary Locke’s Inaugural Address (1997)
Kristie Wang, A Second-Generation Call to Action (1999)
Cheuk-Yin Wong, The Los Alamos Incident and Its Effects on Chinese American Scientists (2000)
David Ho, “We are Americans:” The Story behind Time Magazine’s Man of the Year (2003)
chronology of chinese american history
Judy Yung, Professor Emerita of American Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is author of the award-winning Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco (California, 1995) among other books. Gordon H. Chang, Professor of History at Stanford University, is editor of Asian Americans and Politics: Perspectives, Experiences, Prospects (2001)and author of other books. Him Mark Lai, Adjunct Professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, is author of Becoming Chinese American: A History of Communities and Institutions (2004), and other books.
“This volume sets a new milestone in the field of Chinese American studies.”—Western Folklore
“The rich and varied contribution of the Chinese to American culture and society is dramatized in this collection of essays, documents, letters, interviews and articles by and about the Chinese-American experience in the United States from the mid-1800s to date.”—History Wire"Skillfully selected, translated, and annotated, this compelling compendium of voices bear witness to the diversity and depth of the Chinese American experience and, significantly, its indispensable centrality to American life and history."—Gary Y. Okihiro, author of Common Ground: Reimagining American History
"Here at last is a wide-ranging record of Chinese American experiences from the viewpoints of the players. Chinese American Voices is an impressive feat of scholarship, an indispensable reference, and a compelling read."—Ruthanne Lum McCunn, author of Thousand Pieces of Gold and The Moon Pearl
"This anthology offers a virtual "Gam Saan" (Gold Mountain) of original sources. The stories burst with telling and re-affirm a vision of men and women as actors in history, who made themselves as Chinese Americans as they helped to make America itself."—Ronald Takaki, author of Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans
"This volume of sixty-two annotated documents, many translated from Chinese for the first time, is a boon to faculty and students interested in Chinese American history, Asian American history, U.S. immigration history, and race and ethnic relations. The life stories, in particular, are appealing for students, the reading public, and scholars alike as they hear the voices of individuals long misunderstood, denigrated, and silenced. All of us owe a debt of gratitude to the three editors for their dedicated labor of love."—Sucheng Chan, author of Chinese American Transnationalism: The Flow of People, Resources, and Ideas between China and America during the Exclusion Era
"This is a superb collection."—Roger Daniels, author of Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882