Like Alcatraz, Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay is often shrouded in fog. From 1910 to 1940, the island housed the immigration station and detention center for the West Coast. Under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, people of Chinese descent were barred from entering the United States, unless they were government officials, merchants, students, teachers, visitors, or American citizens. For everyone else, only those who already had immediate family in America were allowed to immigrate. When boats arrived in San Francisco, most of the Chinese were ferried to Angel Island. There they lived in barracks as they waited for their petitions to be adjudicated.
The 1906 San Francisco earthquake had destroyed many records, and in the absence of these documents, the officers resorted to questioning the immigrants and their alleged families on the details of their relationships. They asked about family trees, descriptions of home villages, and even the material of the living room floor. Discrepancies in the versions meant deportation or a long wait on the island for an appeal hearing. Most Chinese stayed on the island for two or three weeks, but some waited months and even years for their appeals.
In this limbo, some detainees wrote poems on the barrack walls. Many scribbled on the wood in ink, but some outlined the fluid strokes of the Chinese characters on the surface and then carved the words into the wood. Most of the poems were unsigned, but some inscribed surnames or hometowns. Most of the poems expressed the melancholy of imprisonment on the island. They spoke of homesickness, stalled dreams, anxious futures, and fears of disappointing the family. In many of them, the cold and fog of the bay heighten the isolation of the island. Some poems called for revenge, some affirmed a determination to succeed. Some compared the plight of the detainees to Napoleon’s exile.
Most of the poems were written in the style of classical Chinese poetry. The majority have seven characters to a line, each poem either four or eight lines. A few poems follow strict rhythmic and tonal conventions, some were written in couplets, and many incorporated the Cantonese vernacular. (Most of the immigrants came from the Canton province in southern China.) In such a compressed form, the language is lyrical and spare. These poems filled the barrack walls.
The Chinese language was the bane of my school years. In Singapore, where I grew up, each student is required to learn their mother tongue as a second language. This policy is meant to inculcate us in our cultures and traditions, which is noble in spirit and a departure from actual practice. In the classroom, instead of discussing literature or engaging in spirited debates, we learned the language as a collection of phrases to be memorized. We treated the language as a static body of knowledge, like the compounds of organic chemistry, rather than as a form of speech and a means of conveying ideas, meanings, and emotions. Though I spoke some Chinese at home, the language has always felt abstract to me, an isolated subject rather than a part of my identity.
As a child, I also heard in the words tradition and heritage a plot to keep me in my place, dutiful and compliant. Unlike the selfish and hedonistic West, we who are steeped in our Chinese traditions were supposedly decent people who respected authority. In particular, we were to keep our bodies under control, straitjacketed into the trappings of propriety. The body, I now know, is the source of speech, and speech is the foundations of language. “Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time,” Hélène Cixous wrote, and in these words I saw the condition of my childhood: unable to speak. I inhabited instead the stories that others wrote for me. Fairly or not, I associated the Chinese culture with this silence, and when I came to America at nineteen, I was glad to be freed of the language.
When I came to Angel Island I had been in America for seven years, the first three as a student in the Midwest and the last four working in Denver. In Denver I had begun to write. I write largely about the landscapes of the American West and the ways these places shape our beliefs, and in the Angel Island poems I saw answers to the questions I had been asking about landscape, language, and borders. At that time I was also on a work visa I had obtained through a lottery process. The year I applied, there were three times more applications than available visas and in the absence of a political will to change the quota, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services held a lottery to determine which petitions they would review. I won the lottery, but I also knew that my future was determined on such arbitrary grounds.
On Angel Island, I visited a room in the men’s barracks that had been converted into a museum. After decades of exposure and neglect, most of these poems had already faded into the wood, though the crevices occasionally yielded the shape of a Chinese character. Most of the words looked familiar to me but I could not pronounce them. As I walked along the yellowing walls I noticed two poems still legible in their entirety. I looked at the inscriptions with a mix of terror and familiarity: I had an inkling of what they said, even though I could barely read the words. I also recognized the way I dissociated around the Chinese language. And most strangely I felt the rhythms, intonations, and lyricism of the poems, reverberations that began deep in my body.
My friend Lin Lin who came with me grew up in Beijing and had then just received her American citizenship. She read a poem aloud to me in Mandarin, the dialect of the capital and the official language we learned in school. As she enunciated each word, I began to recognize the images and meanings, the wind and night and fog, in the poem. I felt the loneliness of the landscape and the anxiety of detention, but I could not process these emotions. I pressed a button on the signboard below the poem, and a disembodied voice recited it in Cantonese. Cantonese I know not at all, and in the dialect, the words sounded strange to my ears and the images became abstract again.
The signboard also had an English translation of the poem. The two languages have different sentence structures and modes of making meaning. In translation, much of the form, rhythm, and the intense compression are lost, but in this version I could finally read the poem, which begins:
In the quiet of the 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.
Angel Island, like its neighboring Alcatraz, was a prison by landscape. The San Francisco Bay fortified the walls and the fog intensified the isolation. In this prison, the detainees wrote these poems in the boredom, dread, and uncertainty of their confinement, not knowing if their families would remember the number of steps to the front door or the location of the rice bin in the house. In Island, a collection of poems, translations, and oral histories by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, all children of Angel Island detainees, the authors write that they found it hard to get the former detainees to talk about their experiences. Some had a lingering fear of retribution, but many did not want to relive the shame and humiliation of their imprisonment. They would rather have kept silent.
In this light, the anonymity of the barrack walls gave the detainees a space to voice a history that would otherwise not be told. As I looked at the poems on the walls, I wished I knew the language better. Despite this linguistic border, I saw in the verses an indomitable spirit in the face of adversity. In writing poetry the detainees spoke in the face of silence, drawing out a language rooted in bodies that cannot cross the San Francisco Bay.