Anonymity and Self-Laceration in Early Twentieth Century Chinese Immigrant Writing

By Wong, Cynthia F. | MELUS, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview
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Anonymity and Self-Laceration in Early Twentieth Century Chinese Immigrant Writing


Wong, Cynthia F., MELUS


   "I am ashamed to be curled up like a worm on Island. I grieve for my native
   land but what else can I say?"(1)

Marion K. Hom's award-winning Songs of Gold Mountain (1987) and the revised edition of Lai, Lim and Yung's Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island (1991) offer important perspectives by Asians who, suppressed on America's west coast in the first half of the twentieth century, had much to say about their experiences. Written mostly during the time of active anti-Chinese laws, the anonymous works presented in both texts give voice to the sense of Asian persecution and imposed self-effacement that also incorrectly confirmed the white American view of their authors as members of an "inscrutable" and silent minority.(2) The authors probably never intended their writing to showcase literary merit; rather, their concerns included expressing directly the pain of immigration and unlikely acceptance in the new country and, in this way, their writing documented personal knowledge of what happened to them. The lament in much of the-writing depicts the hopelessness to which so many succumbed during this period; their shame and despair sometimes culminated in suicide or other acts of self-destruction. The physical conditions described in the writing correspond to a growing emotional anguish of the authors' exilic state, and their revelations offer a glimpse into the formidable self-laceration which characterized their experiences. Importantly, the act of writing compelled the authors to note their helplessness and, at the same time, urged them towards self-reliance and dignity. Ironically, then, Chinese immigrants of this period embraced attributes, such as fierce independence and tenacity of spirit, also valued by the same white community which espoused the exclusion of "the yellows."

The recovery of both sets of writings is worth noting, since the translation and publication of the anonymous pieces reveal interesting tensions which the authors probably had not intended. In other words, not wishing to disclose their pain to a public audience out of shame or pride, the authors nevertheless produced important historical knowledge of their lives as immigrants. Not intending to identify themselves in the writing, they managed to speak their private anguish to an immediate audience, as well as a future one they never anticipated. The Angel Island poems were, literally, writings made on the walls by immigrants who recorded "the impressions of their voyage to America, their longing for families back home, and their outrage and humiliation at the treatment America accorded them" (8). Held in the wooden barracks at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, the newly arrived immigrants were detained for unspecified periods of time ranging from a few weeks to months until their immigration papers and medical examinations yielded either a favorable outcome or their deportation.(3) In this period of waiting, detainees marked the walls with their thoughts, yearnings, and anguish. Interspersed with interviews of survivors conducted and presented by the editors under the condition of anonymity, Island also provides explanatory footnotes for colloquial expression and culturally specific references; such additional information affirms the connection with homeland that the immigrants expressed in their writing, as well as the suspended uncertainty each must have felt about his particular case in the new land.

The poetry from Angel Island and the Cantonese rhymes from Chinatown represent varying emotional states, given the differences in the authors' actual experiences. While the writings express hopefulness at times and, in the case of the Cantonese rhymes a playful spirit, their descriptions of real living conditions in America more often revealed frustration and despair instead. There are other important distinctions--such as writing style and medium between the two groups of writing--which reveal the experiences faced by both Chinese who arrived and those who eventually remained in America.

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