Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Lost Poetry of the Angel Island Detention Center


Angel Island win San Francisco Bay was once the home of many Chinese migrants seeking to enter the United States in the era of the infamous Chinese exclusion laws.  In "The Lost Poetry of the Angel Island Detention Center" in The New Yorker, Beenish Ahmed writes of the poetry written by the Chinese detainees on the walls of their barracks-like prison:  "What would-be immigrants couldn’t tell their interrogators they inscribed on the walls in the form of classical Chinese poetry—complete with parallel couplets, alternating rhymes, and tonal variations. "

Ahmed describes "[o]ne of the most enthralling poems [--] “Islanders” . . . set at a meeting of striking white workers in July, 1877. That gathering exploded into a bloody rampage across San Francisco’s Chinatown; over the course of a week, several rioters were shot and killed by police, and one Chinese person died in a washhouse that was set alight by the marauders.

They think of those people
who take away their jobs,
who speak a language

they cannot understand,
who live in tenements
and send their money home,
who eat dogs and rats
and spend their nights alone
in a haze of sweet smoke,

and they think of his words,
And no matter what happens,
the Chinese must go!


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