Hidden Poetry of Chinese Immigrants Revived With New Translation

Angel Island Poetry

Amid the current debate over our country’s treatment of immigrants and refugees, one question looms: what is humane? It’s an issue that begs examination as we’re confronted with the separation of families crossing the border, as well as President Trump’s travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries, which the Supreme Court ruled to uphold in June. Yet, public perception often fails to recognize the people behind the statistics as human. “We’re in a time where immigrants are being stereotyped, made into cardboard figures for purposes of people to use them and abuse them for their own selfish reasons,” said poet and translator Jeffrey Thomas Leong.

Jeffrey Thomas Leong

At an event in early summer hosted by City Lore and Kundiman to launch his new book Wild Geese Sorrow: The Chinese Wall Inscriptions at Angel Island, Leong gestured to the portraits of first-generation New Yorkers that lined the walls of the gallery space in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Just as the photographs of culturally diverse artists (part of City Lore’s exhibition What We Bring: New Immigrant Gifts) help to humanize the people they’re about, “These poems do the same,” the San Francisco-based writer said. He referred to the anonymous poetry found at the Angel Island Immigration Station, where would-be immigrants from China arriving in California were detained between 1910-1940. Carved into the barrack walls, the Chinese characters remained undiscovered until 1970, when the buildings were intended to be torn down. Leong breathes new life into these words from the past with his translation of 70 poems, selected from over 200 poems and poem fragments identified at the detention center.

During the first half of the 20th century, both the men and women who ended up at the facility faced intensive interrogations and required witness corroborations in order to prove their blood relation to American citizens. Because the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed public birth documents, many succeeded in making it through as Paper Sons and Daughters. It was the only way they could enter the country under the terms of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first US law to bar foreign nationals in immigration based upon race. Its legacy echoes today, not just in Trump’s travel ban but also the blatant anti-immigrant sentiment stirred up by the current administration.

In Wild Geese Sorrow, Leong divides the poems written by Angel Island detainees into thematic sections, with archival images or photographs of the barrack walls accompanying each section. The authors, male laborers mostly in their teens and twenties from Guangdong province, might have been held at Angel Island for as long as two years. (The women’s barracks burned down, so no artifacts of their poetry survived.) On the one hand, writing offered a diversion during their period of confinement. “I compose poetry to unknot worry and grief,” says one detainee who signed his work as “Mountain Monk” in Poem #37. In the last line, he states, “This place is like a cage where one pigeon lives.” Complaints of boredom and loneliness are common refrains. But more than that, their creative endeavors serve as forms of documentation and protest, even if the poems were never meant to be shared publicly.

Detention Barracks at Angel Island Immigration Station, circa 1910 - 1930. Courtesy of California State Parks. Image 090-469.
Modern day recreation of the barracks at Angel Island, now a state park

Leong compared the secrecy of the wall carvings—which almost certainly would have resulted in the punishment of detainees had any of the guards seen—to “a chat group or blog, where it was a closed group of people.” Functioning like a private message board, the poems allowed the men to be completely honest, to express feelings they might not otherwise be able to utter aloud. A display of raw frustration is evident in Poem #52, in which the speaker learns he’s being deported. Lamenting China’s political weakness while directing his anger toward America, he threatens, “The day my country becomes strong, I swear to / cut off the barbarians’ heads.” Leong opted not soften any of the language in his translation, explaining, “I really wanted to highlight the emotional tone.”

In some instances, the poets react to their mistreatment with feelings of embarrassment and shame. A speaker describing himself as “a seven-foot gentleman” writes in Poem #14: “Corralled and concealed, curled in the center (like a worm), / I bow and scrape to others. / One hundred ways to suffer humiliation, I cry defeat in vain.” Others used the opportunity to give advice and encouragement to their fellow detainees. “Never forget this day when you go ashore, / Push hard on your journey, don’t be lazy or idle,” reads Poem #70, which bears the title “Shew of Heungshan Exhorts the Sojourner.”

The wall poems also provided a space for the detainees to share their collective grief. Two companion entries likely reference the death of the same inmate. “This humblest of our group feels sorrow,” begins Poem #43. It ends by addressing the deceased directly: “It’s pitiful that the medicine was given mistakenly; / For safety, your corpse burned to ash.” Parallel sentiments reappear in Poem #44, in which the speaker starts out by saying, “Shocking news, I was truly sad, / To respectfully mourn, when will they wrap / your corpse for return?” He concludes with similar imagery as in the previous poem, writing, “Your high hopes unrewarded, buried in the wrong earth, / Yet know, great ambition may die but will never turn to ash.”

Certainly, mimicry and proximity to one another account for consistency among the poets’ work. Most of the writers adhered to traditional Tang-style poetry in form—something they would have studied in grade school, not unlike the sonnet for English-speaking students. To capture their cultural voice, Leong relied on the speech of his own family. He said he drew inspiration from “my mother and my father, my relatives, my grandparents, who told stories about the village.” At the same time, Leong noted that the process of translation revealed to him the range of emotions and perspectives. Even though common experiences and motifs emerge across the poems, they’re also clearly the work of distinct individuals. “In that sense, it truly is a legacy of Asian American literature, but [also] of American literature because this was a group of people, not of a single person, who wrote this poetry,” Leong said. Their identities now lost to history, these poets were human, after all.