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09 Mar 2017

Western Lit: Teow Lim Goh's Poetry Revisits a Dark Place in the West's Immigration History

Written by  Anna V. Smith

“The grass is dry and golden,

waves scour the headlands,

and the sea churns around me …”

When Teow Lim Goh first walked through the old immigration barracks on Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, she was waiting to learn her U.S. immigration status.

It was 2010, and Goh, a poet, had received a coveted H-1B visa, which allowed her to stay and work in the U.S. She had emigrated from Singapore, attended college in Michigan, and had been put into a lottery system for the visa. While her circumstances were much different than those of the Chinese immigrants who passed through Angel Island from 1910 to 1940, as she walked the island’s paths and looked out over the same ocean vista, she felt that she shared their feelings of hope and uncertainty.

From that visit came Goh’s first book, Islanders, a collection of fictional poems.

Called the “Ellis Island of the West,” the Angel Island Immigration Center processed Russians, Germans, Koreans, Indians, Japanese and Mexicans for entry into the U.S., but it was the Chinese who had the longest detention periods there and bore the brunt of institutionalized racism. It was during long periods of captivity on the island that they painted or carved poems in Chinese into the walls.

“It was a way to pass time and process their experiences,” Goh said in an interview.

The immigration center closed shortly after a fire burned down the women’s barracks in 1940. While the men’s barracks is marked with at least 135 poems, any poetry that the women might have scrawled there was turned to ash.

In Islanders, Goh attempts to fill that hole in history with words of her own. Written from the perspective of early Chinese immigrants and others, Goh’s poems are based on historical accounts. These would-be Americans faced a future full of uncertainty and the bureaucratic tangles of an emerging immigration system.

Goh eschews the rhyming structure of traditional Chinese poetry, and instead writes in free verse. Her sparse lines take on various perspectives: an immigrant, an immigration official or an American citizen.

“How much injustice do we have to abide by in order to survive?” Goh said. “Those are the questions I attempted to ask with those poems.”

Those questions have come to the fore since Donald Trump’s election. Trump attempted a temporary travel ban for seven Muslim majority countries (which was recently tweaked to six countries after legal troubles). The Trump administration has also rolled out a plan for enhanced immigration enforcement, including a border wall.

“Trump tapped into a sentiment that was already there,” Goh told me recently. “It did not start with him, but he articulated it. He was willing to breach standards of decorum to say aloud what a lot of people had been thinking.”

Islanders is a testament to the early roots of such sentiment. The Angel Island Immigration Center was the result of anti-immigrant laws passed in the late 1800s, particularly the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first of its kind in the U.S. It put limits on immigration based on race and class, keeping out any Chinese who were not merchants, teachers, clergy or diplomats. Unaccompanied women were assumed to be prostitutes and turned back, as was any immigrant without enough money, deemed “likely to become a public charge.” Judy Yung, an Angel Island historian, calls the law “the end of free immigration and the beginning of restrictive immigration.” The Chinese Exclusion Act set the tone for a number of other acts focused on banning specific races from immigrating.

Goh explores the outlooks of diverse individuals in her poems, separated into five sections. She delivers the voices of American workers at the immigration center, who became part of a system that separated families for months or longer and drove some immigrants to suicide. She delves into San Francisco’s 1877 Chinatown riots, where anti-Chinese anger, fueled by a downturn in jobs, led to violence against Chinese immigrants, who often worked for the railroads or mining companies.

An integral part to the story of Angel Island were the “paper sons,” who Goh also writes about. After San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake demolished immigration records, many Chinese men claimed legal residency, a claim that was hard to refute. This brought an increase in boys and young men who claimed to be the sons of Chinese residents of the U.S. Related only on paper, they came to be called “paper sons.” To uncover them, U.S. officials would interrogate newcomers for weeks, asking the layouts of their villages, the number of steps at their front doors, and other questions about their “families.” The wives of paper sons faced a double test, as they had to attest to who they were, as well as to the fictional past of their husbands. Any son, paper or real, who couldn’t pass the tests was sent back. If an immigrant appealed, he or she faced the prospect of life in cramped wooden barracks from six months to a year, as their case was resolved.

Goh’s book is an ode to people caught in an unfair system. Her poems are a mournful byproduct of imprisonment, though she says the lessons the islanders’ stories hold have gone largely unnoticed.

“The one thing I learned while researching this book is we don’t learn from history,” said Goh, who is now a U.S. citizen living in Colorado. “The history is there. We’ve been through this, but we’re still going through the same questions.”

Anna V. Smith is an editorial fellow at High Country News, where this review first appeared.

Islanders

By Teow Lim Goh

Conundrum

90 pages, $14.99

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