Angel in America

The Year of the Monkey begins in 11 days. I’ve been thinking about Angel Island, San Francisco Bay. Our kids study U.S. social history, reform and rights struggles, but not yet the Chinese-American story. America detained 500,000 immigrants on Angel Island, about half from China, 1910 to 1940, during the Chinese Exclusion Act . Some were solo children under 10. They were interrogated, inspected, often deported. A woman detainee without her husband saw her baby die, and was refused release to attend the baby’s funeral. A graphic novel tells these stories: Angel Island: The Chinese-American Experience, recently released by Stanford (buy one).

Detainees who’d fled famine and the fury of armies local and foreign (sound familiar?) carved hundreds of poems on Angel Island barrack walls. A park ranger discovered them in 1970.

angel island image

This is a message to those who live here not
to worry excessively.
Instead, you must cast your idle worries to
the flowing stream.
Experiencing a little ordeal is not hardship.
Napoleon was once a prisoner on an island.

*

The sea-scape resembles lichen twisting
and turning for a thousand li.’
There is no shore to land and it is
difficult to walk.
With a gentle breeze I arrived at the city
thinking all would be so.
At ease, how was one to know he was to
live in a wooden building?

*

In the quiet of 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.
The moon shines faintly as the insects chirp.
Grief and bitterness entwined are heaven sent.
The sad person sits alone, leaning by a window.

*

America has power, but not justice.
In prison, we were victimized as if we were guilty.
Given no opportunity to explain, it was really brutal.
I bow my head in reflection but there is
nothing I can do

(Credit: Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, Island Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991)

You can hear the Angel Island poems read (via KQED), and visit the Angel Island Immigration Station.

Happy Year of the Monkey.

monkey-year_character

 

Ferguson, NYPD, and Chinese Exclusion

Black Lives Matter march, Union Sq., NYC Dec. 2015 (photo by Jill)

OCA in Black Lives Matter solidarity march, Union Sq., NYC, Dec. 2015 (photo by Jill)

A new Civil Rights movement has begun. Since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and a Staten Island grand jury’s failure to indict the police officer whose choke hold killed Eric Garner, protests have gone on with hardly pause, in NY and nextdoor to our town, in Newark. Police killing these — and many other — unarmed black men, and the increasing use on US city streets of military equipment, and undue and unjustified force, against people (mostly men) of color sparked the movement. But demonstrators at Black Lives Matter marches (including us Coplans) are out there for other things, too. Fairness. Recognition of anti-black racism and deep systemic discrimination. Equal rights. America’s fundamental, unfulfilled promise.

Yesterday, the latest chapter: thousands of NYPD officers turned their back on Mayor Bill DeBlasio, as he spoke at the funeral of an officer tragically murdered by a deranged killer, claiming he was avenging Garner’s and Brown’s deaths.

Marching in New York a few weeks back, I noticed a large contingent from Organization of Chinese Americans (above). Forty years old, DC-based, OCA “consistently affirms the human rights and dignity of all Asian Pacific Americans as contributors, citizens, and defenders of democracy.”

Seeing them brought to mind Chinese Americans’ struggle for rights — powerfully illustrated in the New York Historical Society’s “Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion” (open through April). The notorious Exclusion Act of 1882, a quota system limiting Chinese immigration, marked the first time a group was barred. The Exclusion Act officially deemed Chinese people aliens, not to be trusted, spurring copy-cat local and state ordinances and laws designed to exclude and harass. Often these led to state-sanctioned violence.

Emotional, physical, economic consequences resulted, for a century. The Act made exceptions for students, merchants, teachers & diplomats. But laborers were feared. From Popular Science Monthly, 1876: “These hardy Mongolians with their peculiar civilization …have begun the contest for ascendancy.” Chinese workers were barred from industry, called ‘unfair competition” (helping lead to the rise of the hand-wash service).

It also tore families apart. One year (1902) 20,000 Chinese Americans, US citizens, were stranded outside the US, separated from family.

Meanwhile, discriminatory laws that “rigidly prohibited” Chinese immigrants from most neighborhoods. That, and racial violence, led to the rise of Chinatowns. Though in New York City, 75% of Chinese Americans did not live in Chinatown.

Anti-Chinese poster

Anti-Chinese poster

Until recently, there had been no official apology for the Exclusion Act, a violation of fundamental civil rights. (See the 1882 Project for more information.) The Senate passed S. Res. 201 on October 6, 2011, and the House passed H. Res. 683 on June 18, 2012 “expressing regret for the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Laws… recogniz[ing] the harm done to the civil rights of individuals, families, and communities.”

The banner we saw in NYC was a reminder of that history, and how for all Americans, protection of fundamental civil rights is essential to life in America.

 

PS: Cool factoid from the exhibition:

Hu Shih 胡适  philosopher, essayist, diplomat, key figure in Chinese liberalism (an intellectual leader of the May Fourth anti-colonial/nationalist movement) and language reform, was mentored by John Dewey at Columbia, and when he returned, was influential in the movement for Mandarin language reform and using written vernacular Chinese (Wikipedia)