Last May, the LR Blog featured the Angel Island poems in our APIA Heritage Month “Poetry in History” series. In the post, Iris explains:
Often called the “Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island served as the site for processing as many as 175,000 Chinese immigrants from 1910-1940.
Detainees were separated by gender [and ethnicity!] and locked up in crowded barracks while they awaited questioning, for weeks or months — sometimes, for years — at a time. To pass the time, many immigrants wrote or carved poems into the soft wood of the barrack walls.
The poems vary in theme, form, and in level of polish, and serve as a testimony to the experience of detention, chronicling everything from hope to anger to loneliness, to a sense of adventure.
At the time, I had never visited Angel Island or read any of the poems inscribed on the walls of the immigration station, but last week I made the pilgrimage: flew to San Francisco, drove to Tiburon, took the ferry, made the hike, etc. It was an odd experience—I arrived at the dock at the same time as two groups of fifth grade history students, meaning that I toured the immigration station with them and heard all sorts of hilarious comments: “Who fought who during the Civil War? China and America?” as well as some not-so hilarious ones: “Chinese, Japanese, itchy knees, money please…” a sing-song chant I remember hearing about from the mid-twentieth century, around the time the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed. Amazing, really, what little impact four decades of activism have had on prevailing attitudes about who is/n’t included in “America” and why.
In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’ll be running a special Poetry in History series once a week in lieu of our Friday prompts. For each post, we’ll highlight an important period in Asian American history and conclude with a few ideas that we hope will provoke you to respond. This is the final post in the series, and will feature the legacy of the Vietnam War.
A girl runs screaming down the highway, thick clouds of smoke billowing on the horizon. Burned flesh, bare feet, a haze of napalm: though Nick Ut’s (Associated Press, 1972) iconic image of Phan Thi Kim Phuc running from the smoldering remains of her village was shot almost forty years ago, it remains firmly lodged in the American visual and cultural memory.
The Vietnam War — or, as it is known in Vietnam, the “American War” — began in 1955 and “ended” in 1975 with the fall of Saigon, though its legacy has continued to enact violence of numerous forms on the bodies and minds of individuals and communities into the twenty-first century. War veterans marked by post-traumatic stress, victims of unexploded bombs living on the agrarian hillsides of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, urban communities of Southeast Asian refugees settled in the United States post-1975 — the list goes on. We’ve all seen the photos, but how much do we really know about the United States’ involvement in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia? A Cold War conflict which led to the displacement of millions, over the course of its twenty-year duration, millions of Lao and Vietnamese lives were lost, in addition to those of approximately 60,000 US military personnel. Continue reading “Poetry in History: Engaging the Legacy of the Vietnam War”→
In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’ll be running a special Poetry in History series once a week in lieu of our Friday prompts. For each post in the series, we’ll highlight an important period in Asian American history and conclude with an idea that we hope will provoke you to respond. Today’s post is about the fraught history of the International Hotel in San Francisco’s Manilatown.
In 1977, San Francisco’s Manilatown community suffered a huge blow with the final eviction of the mostly Filipino American residents from the International Hotel (or I-Hotel). This followed almost a decade’s worth of protest and community struggle in the hopes that the building, which had housed many Filipino immigrants throughout the years, would not become yet another victim of the city’s gentrification projects. For years after the final residents were removed, the building — and later, the site — stood empty, the hole a yawning reminder of what had been lost. One of the major voices speaking out against the fall of Hotel belonged to the poet, musician, and activist Al Robles. The I-Hotel was a recurring theme that wove throughout his work and took on breath, shape, and life through his poetry. Robles’ nephew wrote the following on the recent anniversary of his death:
“In the I-Hotel he [Robles] traveled up the stairs and the doors opened to those small rooms; the smell of rice and adobo and fish was there; the face of the manong was there—he knew the face—it was the face of his father and mother and ninong and ninang. He sat across from the manongs and in their faces he saw the motherland, in their hearts and minds he journeyed and tasted what he described the “thick adobo tales of their lives”. Those elderly men were alive and in Uncle Al’s poetry they became young again.” (Tony Robles, “Still Hanging onto the Carabao’s Tail”)
The I-Hotel was eventually rebuilt into a community center. The new building, opened in 2005, houses the Manilatown Heritage Foundation and is a hub for political and arts events. Al Robles passed away in 2009, but his legacy continues to be celebrated. Other poets have since followed in Robles’ footsteps, writing about their relationship to the city of San Francisco, and to the “ground zero” that was the I-Hotel site. One such poet is Barbara Jane Reyes, whose poem dedicated to Robles is forthcoming in the first issue of Lantern Review. In her book Poeta en San Francisco, Reyes touches on the shape of this wound, invoking the evicted bodies whose physical rootlessness signifies a history fraught with forced erasures and displacements. In her poem “calle de sección ocho, casas de abuelos y de abuelas,” her speaker invites us to enter the hole in the ground where the hotel once stood
“the unused hole in the ground located at the corner of kearney and
jackson across from celluloid god’s patina café may one day contain
supportive tenant services and artifacts of blue men’s billy clubs in the
meantime just gawk at it and take polaroids don’t hold your breath
few descend into the hole it’s been 30 years”
Manilatown itself becomes a ghost with a cavity in place of the organ that was the I-Hotel, which by the end of the poem is revealed to be a type of inverted sanctuary, inhabited by “ghosts and discarded things,” made remarkable for its absence — its existence etched out in the negativity of its space, the way that it tunnels into the earth rather than rises up from it.
In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’ll be running a special Poetry in History series once a week in lieu of our Friday prompts. For each post in the series, we’ll highlight an important period in Asian American history and conclude with an idea that we hope will provoke you to respond. Today’s post centers around the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
We’ve all seen the photographs: bleak desert landscapes, makeshift barracks, endless stretches of barbed wire fence. We’ve heard the euphemisms: “relocation,” “evacuation,” and “evacuees,” put into circulation by President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 and the infamous public notices that appeared shortly afterward, stapled to telephone poles and pasted in store front windows addressed “TO ALL PERSONS OF JAPANESE ANCESTRY.” For the Japanese American, Asian American — any American, really, regardless of “ANCESTRY” — what are we to make of this moment in our nation’s history, when approximately 110,000 men, women, and children were robbed of their rights, property, and due process of the law in the name of “national security”?
In an era of liberal personhood, when most — but certainly not all, recent legislation in Arizona being a case in point — citizens of the United States enjoy relative protection under the law, how are we to respond to the egregious moment in 1942 when crowds of Japanese immigrants and their American-born children were herded onto fairgrounds, relegated to horse stalls and racetracks, and “relocated” to barbed-wire compounds and hastily constructed prison barracks throughout the nation? And all this, in response to sentiment like that expressed by columnist Henry McLemore: “I am for the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior. I don’t mean a nice part of the interior either. Herd ’em up, pack ’em off and give ’em the inside room in the badlands… Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them.”
In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’ll be running a special Poetry in History series once a week in lieu of our Friday prompts. For each post in the series, we’ll highlight poetry written during and/or about an important period in Asian American history and will conclude with some ideas that we hope will provoke you to responding to these poems in your own work. Today’s post centers around the wall poems written by Chinese immigrants who were detained in the Angel Island Immigration Station.
This Saturday (May 8th) marks the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Angel Island Immigration Station. Often called the “Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island served as the site for processing as many as 175,000 Chinese immigrants from 1910-1940. During the era of Chinese Exclusion, immigration interviews were more like interrogations. American officials often asked impossibly detailed questions that were supposedly designed to root out anyone who was attempting to enter the country illegally, but in reality, the questions served mainly to intimidate immigrants and pit family members’ accounts against one another. Conditions in the barracks were very much like prison, too. Detainees were separated by gender and locked up in crowded barracks while they awaited questioning, for weeks or months — sometimes, for years — at a time.
To pass the time, many immigrants wrote or carved poems into the soft wood of the barrack walls. Discovered in 1970 by a park ranger, 135 poems from the men’s barracks survive and have been preserved (the women’s barracks, unfortunately, were destroyed in a fire long before the 70’s). The poems vary in theme, form, and in level of polish, and serve as a testimony to the experience of detention, chronicling everything from hope to anger to loneliness, to a sense of adventure. In 1999, Genny Lim, Him Mark Lai, and Judy Yang compiled and translated a selection of the poems and included them in their book Island, which juxtaposes the poems with historical accounts and documents that tell the immigration station’s story.
Here are a two examples of the translated wall poems (courtesy the Ancestors of the Americas’ online excerpt of 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?
* * *
Because my house had bare walls, I began
rushing all about.
The waves are happy, laughing “Ha-ha!”
When I arrived on Island, I heard I was
forbidden to land.
I could do nothing but frown and feel angry at heaven.
These poems are powerful to me because of the way that one sees violent tension struggling to the surface beneath the almost lyrical quality of the poets’ surroundings. In a way, they encapsulate the experience of being trapped into a cell in the middle of an island so lush that it’s now a designated a nature preserve. The beauty of the world available outside the window belies, even betrays, the ugliness of the speakers’ experiences inside the detention center. They are cut off, denied passage, hemmed in by human constructions (both physical and psychological). That the poems are also so different in tone also indicates the complex diversity of attitudes amongst the detainees: while the speaker of the first poem causes us to reenact the shock of his experience by dropping us smack into the cell after describing the “gentle breeze” of his hopes upon arrival, the speaker of the second poem draws us into a world in which everything — even the waves — are in collusion with the authorities. The tone of the second poem explodes with angry energy, while the first is ironic and almost dryly detached at its end.