"A Bowlful of Tears" Revisited: The Full Story of Lee Puey You's Immigration Experience at Angel Island

By Yung, Judy | Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, January 2004 | Go to article overview

"A Bowlful of Tears" Revisited: The Full Story of Lee Puey You's Immigration Experience at Angel Island


Yung, Judy, Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies


In 1975, a few years after the discovery of Chinese poems on the walls of the immigration barracks at Angel Island, I embarked on an oral history project with historian Him Mark Lai and poet Genny Lim to document the story of Chinese detention at Angel Island during the exclusion period. After conducting forty-five interviews with ex-detainees and staff and translating one hundred thirty-five of the Chinese poems, we published Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940. Although none of the poems was written by women, we conducted eight interviews with women, offering us a rare opportunity to hear their versions of the story as well. (1)

One of the women we interviewed was Lee Puey You, who had immigrated to the United States in 1939. She was denied entry by immigration authorities and detained at Angel Island for twenty months before she was deported. She gave us a detailed and moving account of her long stay at Angel Island. It was her refrain, "I must have cried a bowlful of tears," that I used in the title of my first article on the experiences of Chinese immigrant women at Angel Island in Frontiers. Little did I know then how much more complicated and sad her full story was and how our lack of experience as oral historians had made us overlook the gendered effects of exclusion on women's lives. In hindsight, we should have asked more open-ended as well as follow-up questions; covered more of her entire life history; considered race, class, gender and memory dynamics in our line of questioning and analysis; and compared her testimony to the transcripts in her immigration file at the National Archives. (2)

The following rewrite and analysis of the interview that we conducted with Lee Puey You in 1975 as part of the Island book project is intended to provide a fuller picture of a Chinese woman's experience at Angel Island, told in her own words, as well as a better understanding of how we can best reclaim our past through oral history. The 1975 interview is compared with a second interview with Lee that was conducted ten years later for a film production, Carved in Silence, to show what was overlooked in the first interview and the different results that come from working in the medium of film. Excerpts from a third interview conducted by an immigration officer in 1955, when Lee was threatened with deportation for fraudulent entry, are included at the end to reveal the full tragic story of her immigration and life in America that she withheld from us. I did not come across this last interview until after Lee's death in 1996. (3) While I can respect Lee Puey You's sense of privacy and desire to protect her family and us from the painful circumstances of her immigration, I include the full story here with the permission of her daughters as a testimony to the strength of character that Lee displayed in confronting institutional racism and sexual exploitation. Against such odds, she must have cried more than a bowlful of tears in her lifetime.

"A BOWLFUL OF TEARS": FIRST INTERVIEW FOR THE BOOK ISLAND

In 1975, we were lucky to find Lee Puey You through a mutual friend of her daughter Daisy Gin. We had heard she was detained on Angel Island for close to two years, probably the longest stay of any Chinese detainee in the history of the Angel Island Immigration Station. And she was willing to be interviewed. So one Saturday afternoon, Him Mark Lai and I, fully equipped with tape recorders and a list of questions, paid Lee Puey You a visit in her North Beach flat in San Francisco. I remember she welcomed our questions and thoughtfully answered them one by one until we ran out of questions after an hour or so.

In many ways hers was both a common and a unique story about detention life at Angel Island. Lee Puey You was born in Chung Tow village in Chungshan (Zhongshan) District, Guangdong Province, in 1916. She was twenty-three years old when she immigrated to the United States in 1939, posing as the daughter of a U. …

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