Judy Yung, author and professor emeritus, UC-Santa Cruz
Interview by Dmae Roberts
2 Disks, 76:17
DISCUSS EDITING & PROGRAM
DMAE TESTS THE MICROPHONE
JUDY: Do you want just the Chinese?
DMAE: Read the Chinese and then the English…
DMAE: If you would do I’m and the book and what you’re going to be reading?
JUDY: I’m Judy Yung. I’m one of the authors of a book titled “Island: …
DMAE: Start again. Three parts. I can hear the book.
JUDY: I’m Judy Yung. I’m one of the co-authors of a book titled “Island: Poetry of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910 to 1940,” and I’m going to be reading three poems from a collection of 135 Chinese poems that were found carved in the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station.
DMAE: He wants to re-angle the mic. So you can read.
JUDY: I’m Judy Yung. I’m one of the co-authors of a book titled “Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island.” I’m Judy Yung. I’m one of the co-authors of “Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island: 1910 to 1940.” I’m going to be reading three poems from a collection of 135 poems that were found carved in the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station. The first poem is from the section called “The Voyage.”
DMAE: Push the mic away a bit.
JUDY: Is that better? Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Back to the beginning? This is Judy Yung. I’m one of the co-authors of a book titled “Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910 to 1940. I’m going to read three poems from a collection of 135 Chinese poems that were carved in the walls of the Angle Island Immigration Station. The first poem is from the section titled “The Voyage” and in Cantonese this is what it says. The title. CANTONESE. And in English:
“Random Thoughts Deep at Night: In the quiet of night I heard faintly the whistling of wind. The forms and shadows sadden 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.”
DMAE: Another take of both.
JUDY: CANTONESE “Random Thoughts Deep at Night: In the quiet of night I heard faintly the whistling of wind. The forms and shadows sadden 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.”
DMAE: Are you hearing a rumble, Michael? A ventilation thing? A question about that. Is there any clue as to what time period that was?
JUDY: Most of them are written around the same time period because of the classical style. In the 1930s. 20s and 30s.
DMAE: Is that a man or a woman?
JUDY: All the poems in this collection we know were written by men because the poems by the women were in a building that was destroyed in the fire in the 1940s, so we have no records of poems by women.
DMAE: Is that okay Michael? What does that poem say to you?
JUDY: Many of the poems reflect a sense of sadness, depression, loneliness, because these were immigrations being detained for weeks and months at a time and they were feeling very frustrated and depressed and this poem gives you that sense of loneliness and yearning to be freed and returned home.
DMAE: Let’s go on to another one.
JUDY: This one is from a section called ‘The Weak Shall Conquer’ and these are poems that talk more about revenge and about wanting to get back at those who were mistreating the Chinese immigrants as they saw during the exclusion period at Angel Island.
“Leaving behind my riding brush and removing my sword I came to America. Who was to know two streams of tears would flow upon arriving here? If there comes a day where I shall have retained my ambition and become successful, I will certainly behead the barbarians and spare not a single blade of grass.”
DMAE: What does that say to you?
JUDY: I think the people were very aware at Angel Island that they were being discriminated against because they were Chinese, and they were unable to do anything about the situation. And so they also realized that it’s because China was a weak country at this time among the nations in the world, and that was another reason the Chinese were being looked down on and discriminated against in the US, unlike the Japanese for example at this time, who had still the right to immigrate and who were coming through Angel Island as well but were not detained for long periods and excluded by law the same way the Chinese were. So the poems are trying to express a feeling that some day I’m going to get my revenge at being so mistreated.
DMAE: So Japanese immigrants were allowed?
JUDY: Chinese immigrants were allowed until 1924. Well, the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907, 1908 was the first law that tried to stop Japanese laborers from coming, but women could still come as picture brides until 1921. And then it was 1924 that the exclusion law against Japanese in particular, called the Immigration Act of 1924, was passed. But up to 1924 Japanese immigrants were just passing through Angel island and were allowed to just pass into San Francisco almost within a day, where the Chinese were detained for a few weeks if not months at times, while waiting to be freed because they had to go through a special interrogation process to comply with the Chinese Exclusion Act.
DMAE: At the beginning you said ‘Chinese were able to come.’
JUDY: In 1907/08 the Gentleman’s Agreement was passed that stopped further immigration of Japanese laborers but women could still come from Japan as picture brides until 1921 and then in 1924 the Immigration Act of 1924 made it impossible for further immigration from Japan.
DMAE: We know these are all Cantonese?
JUDY: Immigrants coming from China, beginning in 1850 until World War II were coming from Guangdong province and they speak Cantonese. And so the immigrants from China that were detained at Angel Island between 1910 and 1940 when the immigration station was in operation, were all Cantonese-speaking immigrants from Guangdong province so we know that these poems were written by Cantonese-speaking immigrants in Chinese and as I’m reading it now is in the Cantonese dialect they would have used.
DMAE: When we interviewed Charles, the doctor who was on the demo.
JUDY: Charles Choy Wong.
DMAE: He was reading in Mandarin.
JUDY: That’s a different person.
DMAE: He’s doing scholarly research and he’s doing it in Mandarin. Does that make a difference?
JUDY: Yeah, the sounds are different. The writing is the same and probably the meaning is the same but then many of the Chinese were not highly-educated who wrote these poems and they would use colloquial terms that are only used among the Guangdonese or Cantonese immigrants. So someone who doesn’t know Cantonese would not be able to know what some of these words mean. And certainly when you read the poems they sound completely different because even though it’s the same writing the pronunciation is completely different and therefore it throws off the rhyming schemes at times. So to be really true to the way it was written by the people who wrote it is to hear it in Cantonese.
DMAE: I would love to hear you continue reading.
JUDY: The last poem I want to read is from a section called “Deportees and Transients” and these were poems that were written by those that were passing through Angel Island on their way to another country or who were being deported through Angel Island. And this particular poem was written by someone who was leaving Mexico and staying at Angel Island until his boat was ready to take him to China. It’s one of the more deeply carved poems still visible today at Angel Island and it’s in two stanzas. The Chinese sounds like this. CANTONESE “Detained in this wooden house for several tens of days. It is all because of the Mexican Exclusion Law which implicates me. It’s a pity heroes have no way of exercising their prowess. I can only await the word so that I can snap Zu’s whip. From now on I am departing far from this building. All of my fellow villagers are rejoicing with me. Don’t say that everything within is western-styled. Even if it is built of jade, it has turned into a cage.”
DMAE: Read it one more time and slower? Push the mic a little bit
JUDY: CANTONESE “Detained in this wooden house for several tens of days. It is all because of the Mexican Exclusion Law which implicates me. It’s a pity heroes have no way of exercising their prowess. I can only await the word so that I can snap Zu’s whip. From now on I am departing far from this building. All of my fellow villagers are rejoicing with me. Don’t say that everything within is western-styled. Even if it is built of jade, it has turned into a cage.”
DMAE: Two things stand out. The Mexican Exclusion Law and Zu?
JUDY: Zu’s whip. It’s a general. General Zu. Many of the poems have historical references and illusions. So when we did the book we made sure that we had the footnotes so people would know what these references meant. Do you want to know what Zu’s whip is?
DMAE: Yeah, just turn to it. And I want to hear about the Mexican Exclusion Law too.
JUDY: When we did this book, Mark Him Lai, the historian and he had the best Chinese. He was the one that helped us with all the footnotes. Well, the Mexican Exclusion Law refers to, in Mexico, after the revolution, they actually had their version of the Chinese Exclusion law that kept Chinese out of Mexico. So this particular poet was being deported from Mexico because of the exclusion law. Zu’s whip is a reference to this famous general who was during the Jin dynasty during 265 AD. His story was that when the northern invaders took over China, invaded China, he was humiliated, as was China. And he swore that some day he would help recover the country and that he would try to beat this other general who was always ready with his whip to move ahead. He wanted to be the first, to show his patriotism and help to recover the country from foreign domination.
DMAE: So tat was Egan. Charles Egan. The whip of Zu Di, was what he called it. I thought you were saying Jewish…
JUDY: Sorry, Zu’s whip, Z-U. Because it has apostrophe, s. He read it as Zu’s whip.
DMAE: That’s different in Mandarin and Cantonese.
JUDY: Yeah, because in Mandarin it would be General Zu Dih and he would say Zu Di.
DMAE: That’s what he did.
JUDY: That’s the same poem.
DMAE: Okay. Is she positioned okay for an interview?
JUDY: Is that okay Michael?
DMAE: can I move it?
DMAE: What gets me about resistance in the last poem you read?
JUDY: Right. Zu’s whip is an allusion to how you want to get ready to get back at the enemy and reclaim and so Zu’s whip is an indication that you want to be ever-ready and you want to be the first to accomplish that task.
DMAE: What does that symbolize?
JUDY: I think that symbolizes the sense that like the general, which the country knows as being heroic and being anxious to right the wrong, that immigrants at Angel Island felt the same way. That there will come a day, even as this person’s being deported, that they will be able to correct the wrong that’s been committed against them.
DMAE: The whole show is called Exclusion and Resistance. It’s important that there was resistance. How does Angel Island fit in that theme?
JUDY: There was very little recourse in terms of what the Chinese could do about the treatment at Angel Island because they were coming as immigrants, they had no legal rights, political rights. China was too weak to defend them or make sure they weren’t mistreated as citizens of China, so one of the few ways they had to respond or resist to the mistreatment that they sensed was to write these poems. I think in the early 1900s this form of classical poetry was a common form not of expression only, but a form of resistance. So they were able to vent their frustrations they were able to express the sense of wrongdoing they felt had been committed against them that they carved into the walls. And if you read some of the poems it says this is a record of what happened to us. It’s also a way for us to tell those who will be following what to expect and to console them and to encourage and support them. We know what they’re going to have to go through too. I wonder if it also isn’t a record for future generations – especially if they bothered to carve them into the walls and not just penned or penciled them in, they must have thought about how these would be read by others, not only who followed as immigrants, but future generations.
DMAE: How did they carve them?
JUDY: They would brush the characters onto the wall and then they would use probably a penknife of sorts and carve around the brush strokes and the wood was quite soft on the walls so that they could use a penknife and be able to carve into and it probably took some time to do that. But the poems are all in classical poetic form and in what appears to be in brush calligraphy. And the outside of the brush strokes is what you see even today if you go to the immigration station because they carved it that deeply and even as coats of paint have been painted over you can still see traces of the poems. There’s a few that are quite visible. And in the upstairs you can see characters, rows and rows of characters along the wall wherever the hand could reach.
DMAE: I thumped. Did you hear that? My foot. Do you remember where it was?
JUDY: The way they did it was they would use a Chinese brush and brush the characters of the poems onto the wall. And then they probably used a small penknife of sorts and carved around the outline of the brushstrokes deeply into the wood, which was quite soft, so that even today you can see the impressions of characters where they were carved into the wall.
DMAE: You teach young people. You have taught this history to young people. What response do you get from them?
JUDY: I teach college, so there not quite that young. But the college-aged students I teach, they’re usually quite surprised that Chinese would write poetry. And when we look at this period in history it’s usually Chinese laborers coming into this country. And the assumption is that they’re not highly educated and maybe probably not even literate. So they’re surprised one that they would write classical poetry. I think two they’re surprised at the strong sentiments, the feelings that come through the poems. T he feelings of anger and revenge that come through the poems. So I think it’s both they’re surprised at the literary quality of the poems and that they chose to express themselves through poetry, and then the sentiments and the strong feelings of revenge and anger that’s expressed through the poems too. So they’re kind of in awe that this could have been written by Chinese laborers and that these poems have been recorded and have been translated and kept for posterity. And I think even more so when I take my students to Angel Island and they see the poems on the walls. They’re flabbergasted, I think is the word for it and kind of in awe and inspired that these immigrants could have written these poems.
DMAE: Are there any contemporary comparisons to these writings?
JUDY: In America by Chinese?
DMAE: What situations would it be in comparison too?
JUDY: In terms of comparative American history? I can’t think of anything off my head.
DMAE: It’s not like graffiti. Any prisoners by people incarcerated?
JUDY: A few years ago there was an exhibit at the New York Chinatown Museum of the Americas and it was cultural and artistic expressions of detention and confinement by Chinese from the province of Fujian who had come into the US, been smuggled into this country and were caught and this is the Golden Venture ship that capsized in New York harbor and I believe it was 1999. so the Fujinese immigrants, or Fujinese undocumented aliens who were detained for over a year, they wrote poems and did artwork while they were waiting to be released and their poems were similar in terms of expressions but also in terms of the same sentiments about being detained and confined. And those poems were on exhibit and they haven’t been published but I think collections have been put together and translated in a similar way as we did the Angel Island poems. So there have been other immigrants who have come from China in recent years who have used that same form of poetry. Probably not the same style that was prevalent in the 1920s and 30s during the angel island period and probably more free-verse kind of Chinese poetry I believe than then. And recently there was the angel island immigration station foundation had an annual fundraising event and they invited young Asian American rap poets to create as well as to recite their poems about what angel island meant to them. So they were trying to contemporize and have younger people express themselves and how they relate to this history. So I guess there’s been other spin-offs using poetry as a form of expression.
DMAE: You don’t know if they recorded that?
JUDY: I think they did. Felicia Low would know that, of the Angel Island Immigration Station. And Genny Lim has done her own interpretations of the Angel Island experience using poetry.
DMAE: Why are these writings an act of resistance?
JUDY: I think because of what’s expressed in the poems. They vent their frustrations, vent their anger, express how they think they’ve been wronged and they hope to seek revenge, to right the wrong. I think that is one of the few ways they could respond and show that they didn’t think this was right, the treatment they were getting, the way they were being treated. This was one of the few ways they could express this even if they couldn’t act on it. It’s one of the few evidences we have that early Chinese immigrants and what they thought about the Chinese exclusion act and the way they were incarcerated at the angel island immigration station. So that sense I see it as resistance. I think writing can be a form of resistance where you can’t act upon it politically and physically in any other way.
DMAE: Give an example of how long people were there and the living conditions.
JUDY: When Chinese immigrants arrived in San Francisco they were transferred to a boat and taken to Angel Island if their papers were not in order to prove that they had a legal right to enter the country. And during the exclusion period only those who were of merchant class and those who were US citizens or those who could prove they were students, diplomats or students, everyone else had to go over to angel island and were kept at the immigration station, locked up actually in barracks where women and men were separated. The average stay at Angel Island would be two to three weeks. That would be the average stay. You were waiting for your turn to be called in for interrogation, to see if you could prove you are who you say you are and you are one of the exempt classes of immigrants who were allowed in because of the exclusion act. So the stays were about two to three weeks and basically it’s like being in jail because you’re locked in and you’re only allowed to go out of the room to the dining hall for your meals when they call you. And besides that there was an exercise yard attached to the men’s barracks. And during the daytime that door would be open. You could go out and get some exercise, play ball, but other than that you are pretty much imprisoned. And people who did not pass interrogation and could not prove to the immigration inspectors that they were of the exempt class, the exempt classes to come, would then have to hire an attorney to help them appeal their cases. And if that happened they would also be imprisoned at angel island and often those cases would go on, depending on how many appeals you would need to go through and what the waiting periods were, those people would have to stay at least a few months. And the longest period we know of of a person being kept at Angel Island waiting for their appeals to be cleared was twenty months. One woman we interviewed said she had stayed at Angel Island for twenty months. So that would be a long period. Most of the poets who wrote these poems, we suspect, were the ones that were waiting for appeals to go through, and they were the most frustrated and had the most time and they had the most frustrations and things to express through poetry. And they wrote the poems. So I think that once they go through the appeal process, only about five percent were deported in the end, because in most cases the higher courts believed the process had been unfair and that the person should be allowed to be landed. But it’s jus the ordeal of going through this whole process. So when we talk about long detentions an the fearful interrogations that people had to go through, most people went through two to there weeks and of the people going through longer appeals, I would say most of them would go through appeal and wait there for months and then only five percent of them were actually deported in the end.
DMAE: There were suicides too.
JUDY: There were talks of suicides. People remember people committing suicide, but we could not find any documented cases of suicide. But there were stories that were passed on that women were afraid to go into the bathrooms because they had heard people had hung themselves in the bathroom because they didn’t want to be deported, didn’t want to go back to china because they felt humiliated because they didn’t make it through, but there were no recorded cases of suicide and one immigration inspector, one interpreter was called into a case where a woman had taken a chopstick, supposedly, and had rammed it through her ear and killed herself that way. But most people talked about hearing cases of people hanging themselves in those bathrooms.
DMAE: You talked about the interrogation sessions. Give an example.
JUDY: the Chinese ex….
DMAE: Push the mic. Don’t hit it.
JUDY: Because of the Chinese exclusion act, only certain classes of immigrants could come to the US from China between 1882 and 1943. Immigration inspectors had no way of knowing who was coming in as a merchant or as a son or a wife of a US citizen without putting them through some kind of interrogation or questioning. So the point, from the immigration department’s point of view if you really were who you said you were and weren’t a paper son, someone who had bought papers, coming in to pose as a son or as a wife of a exempt class, then you should be able to answer these questions that pertain to your family history, going back maybe three generations, or questions pertaining to the village, where you grew up, where you lived, or questions about your household, your knowledge of your father or your husband. So they would come up with these questions that they would ask the prospective immigrant. And these questions were like who are your grandparents? How did they die? Where are they buried? How many houses are in your village? Who lives next door to you? How many windows are in your house? Which room did you sleep in, which room did your father sleep in? Describe your wedding night if you’re really married to who you said you are you should know those details. So those questions were asked of the immigrant and then they would ask the same questions of the sponsor, whether it was their father their husband, whoever was going to be the witness, and the answers had to jive, they had to agree. And you should know the answers to those questions if you really are who you are and the person you’re related to who’s bringing you to this country should have the same answers.
DMAE: They would grill both the…it’s like a Law & Order episode.
JUDY: Right. It’s a cross-examination, basically, and if you have disagreements on your answers, for example someone said we had a dog and the father said we didn’t have a dog, that’s considered a major discrepancy. Or if you got dates wrong, way off, or if you answered wrong about the village layout, which is something they thought everyone should know. That means in that one or two wrong answers would mean that you were deportable. So it was really important that people prepare for these examinations and try to make sure their answers would be in agreement. And even people who were true sons and true wives would fail the examination because if the other person remembered differently or if you understood the question differently, there were a number of reasons why you might answer differently, then you could be deported. So people were really fearful of that interrogation and they know it was going to come and they would have these coaching notes that they would memorize prior to even coming to this country to prepare for these examinations. And the interrogation usually took one day, half a day or a day for the immigrant and then they would spend as much time with the witness, and then if there were discrepancies and they were not sure, they would call the immigrant back in for another interrogation and call the witness back, so this can go back and forth for three or four times, three or four days, before they make a decision on whether you’ve passed interrogation and you have proven that you are this person, you are related to this person, and that they’ll then let you go on to San Francisco. That’s why the stays were at least two weeks if not three weeks, and sometimes even longer. And interrogations could go on for between one day and three or four days.
DMAE: It sounds similar to couples now.
JUDY: I think immigration, if they suspect that you’re coming in fraudulently as a wife, let’s say, today, you’re marrying for a green card and they don’t believe that you’re going to stay together, that you’re really married, they would do the same thing. They say well, if you’re really married you should know these intimate details about each other, about the wedding night and so on, and they would ask questions of one person and then another person and see if their answers were similar enough to prove they were married.
DMAE: I wonder if since 9/11 these tactics are more used.
JUDY: I like to think of it this way, since 9/11, immigration has been moved into Homeland Security and there have been raids into communities suspected of harboring terrorists or people who look like the enemy, or terrorists, Middle Easterners or Muslims in particular, and then they would be detained for long periods. They won’t even have the right to any legal council and they would be deportable without any process, actually. So actually it’s gotten worse in some of these cases, and some of these people have been residing in this country, they’re not new immigrants coming through, as in the case of the Chinese. These are people who have been living, paying taxes, and because they look the way they do, or because they’re suspected of participating in possible terrorism, they could be arrested and detained, interrogated, no legal rights, no legal representation, and then deported.
DMAE: Were the Chinese the only ones who were interrogated?
JUDY: The Chinese were the only ones who were targeted for this kind of interrogation and for long detentions, because of the Chinese Exclusion Act and because of the immigration process that had been setup to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Chinese were named for this treatment because of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
DMAE: How much was the paper sons a factor in this?
JUDY: Immigration knew that there couldn’t be that many real sons born to as many Chinese women that were in the Untied States and that Chinese immigrants couldn’t have possibly gone back to sire that many children. They knew that statistically it was impossible for that many to claim citizenship rights or relationships to Chinese merchants in order to come into this country. And so this whole process was set up to trap Chinese, to catch them coming in fraudulently as paper sons. The Chinese knew this, the immigration department knew this, and it was a game of wits. But this was the process that immigration process devised and they felt this was the only way that they could be able to determine whether the person who was coming in was a legitimate immigrant.
DMAE: Let’s discuss how paper sons came to be.
JUDY: After the Chinese exclusion act was passed and the Chinese realized that only exempt classes could come into this country, they devised a way of buying and selling identities and immigration papers. So that those who were of the merchant class who had the right to bring their wives and children to this country would claim that they had more children than they did and then they would sell these slots or identities to other fellow villagers so that they could come pose as sons and daughters of the merchant class. And then in 1906 the earthquake destroyed all the birth certificates, birth records at city hall in San Francisco and anyone who stepped forward and claimed that they were US citizens, either born, naturalized, or through derivative means, would be believed and they could then also report that not only were they a US citizen but they had four sons in China, which then created four slots, by which they could sell these slots to others in China for four more people to come as immigrants as sons of US citizens and be able to come into the country during the exclusion period.
DMAE: There must have been a lot of fear to go back to China.
JUDY: Not too much because immigration set up a process. You report that you are going back to China, you have a special certificate of identity, saying who you are, with your picture on it, then when you come back they make sure you’re the same person, the picture matches and you’re the same person. But in 1888 the Scott Act was passed, and that said even those who had these certificates could not come back into the country. And there were about 20,000 Chinese who had left the country and could not come back because of the Scott Act. So I think that experience made the Chinese more nervous about going back to China for a visit because they weren’t sure what might happen in the interval so that they might have difficulties coming back.
DMAE: Why the Chinese?
JUDY: I think 1882 when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, the Chinese were the first large group of Asian American immigrants to this country. They were coming in large numbers. They were seen as a political as well as a cultural threat and liability. Their, when the depression hit in the 1870s, Chinese laborers were seen as unfair competition, unwanted labor. So the labor unions and white workers organized to find a way to keep the Chinese out. Not only out of the labor market but out of the country. So they pushed through the Chinese Exclusion Act with the help of opportunistic politicians who all ran on political platforms that the Chinese must go. And they were able to push through the Exclusion Act against the Chinese in particular because they were seen at this time as being the threat, as being the unwanted laborer, in California as well as in the Western states. and it’s the only time, the first and only time, that a group was targeted for exclusion. Not just restriction but exclusion from coming to this country, on the basis of national origin, on a basis of race and ethnicity. And the Chinese have that dubious honor of being the group that was targeted. And so it’s a combination of historical political forces at the time that the Chinese were the group that was targeted for exclusion. And since then, if you look at exclusionist restrictive policies, they all build on the exclusion act but they never again name a group by race or national origin. It’s the gentleman’s agreement, or it’s the immigration act of 1924, or it’s the Bar Zone act, which was really to keep Indians out of this country. Or the Tydings-McDuffy Act, which was to keep the Filipinos out. But the beginnings of exclusionary immigration policies in the whole United States and the whole US history started by pushing the Chinese and making sure they wouldn’t continue coming to this country.
DMAE: You talked about the depression of the 1870s in China.
JUDY: No by 1870 depressions I meant it was the depression in the United States and that’s what led to the anti-Chinese movement. It was after the railroad, after the civil war was over, and the economic depression that first plagued the industrial east of the United States finally hit the west. And so in 1870s this beginning of anti-Chinese, not only anti-Chinese sentiment but also anti-Chinese violence and then anti-Chinese laws culminating in the exclusion act of 1882 against the Chinese.
DMAE: What were the conditions in China at this time? Let’s talk about the time of Angel Island.
JUDY: During the exclusion period. And the Chinese still wanted to come even after the Chinese exclusion act was passed in 1882 because conditions in China were not getting any better. There had been political upheavals with not only foreign intrusion in terms of the western powers trying to colonize China, but there were also local rebellions by peasants and political groups in China. The opium war against Britain where China lost meant there were a series of indemnities that China was fined with and that they had to give extra territorial rights to Britain and later to Germany, Russia, US, Japan, other countries that also demanded not only fair trade or set up treaties where they could trade with more than just the few ports that were open for trade in the mid-1800s. so what I’m saying is that the presence of foreign powers, the Opium War, and then the Taiping Rebellion and the Red Turban rebellion by peasants leading onto the boxer rebellion warfare, there was local conflicts, and then the indemnities that meant there was a drainage of silver that was used to pay for indemnities and the coming in of manufactured goods that competed with local cottage industries, and China trying to industrialize at the same time created all kinds of economic dislocations where the farmers and the peasant class ended up being displaced, losing their lands, becoming unemployed, so there was political unrest. There was economic instability, and on top of that the natural disasters that were always there. All these combinations I think led to poverty conditions and the Cantonese Guangdong area being so close to the coast and also being an area where they’ve been in contact with traders and foreigners who have come into the area and that’s also the part of china were people have gone out to sea and gone elsewhere. To seek a better livelihood, to try to support their families, finding work elsewhere. So the conditions in China, these conditions, continued into the 1900s. even after the Chinese republic was established in 1911 with the 1911 Revolution, it still did not help matters because then you had internal civil war, you had warlords, you had political factions fighting for control of China. It wasn’t until 1949 when the civil wars were finally ended and the People’s Republic of China, communist China was established, but prior to this we’re talking about before 1949 when people in Guangdong province really felt that the conditions were so bad they had to find a way to go elsewhere to find a better living. And that’s why at that time, there was still recruiters, even in the early 1900s there were jobs still available, even during the exclusion period, and at the same time, once you have people immigrating from one country and settling in another country, this idea of chain migration where they would try to find ways to bring their family and their relatives and people from their villages who wanted to leave, it would help them find a way to come to America, get established, find work, and so on. So it’s both push and pull factors during this period that would help us understand why people would want to leave China and come to America where they were unwelcomed because of the Exclusion Act, and how they were able to come because there were people here who were going to help them come and find work.
DMAE: I’m curious about he definition of the word in Chinese of ‘Ku Li.’
JUDY: Ku Li, the two characters, mean ‘bitter strength’ and we think of Coolies of course from the coolie trade. And the coolie trade also included Asian Indians as well as Chinese. And kuli is also an Indian term. It’s really a Tamil term, an Indian term, and for Chinese they took that Indian term and made it into a compound term, ‘bitter strength’. And everyone knows in China, and it’s the same connotation everywhere else in the world, and certainly in the United States, that coolie meant cheap labor. It meant you’re a beast of burden. And many used to do hard labor. But coolie trade was never allowed in the United States but in China, the coolie trade period where Chinese men were either recruited or coerced into becoming contract labor or coolie labor and then sent to Peru, mainly, and to Cuba and to the West Indies to work on the plantations under very harsh conditions. I think with the contract were for eight years of hard labor before you were freed from your contract. And by then many of them, because of the abuse they suffered, committed suicide or they didn’t live long enough to be freed. But that never happened in China. Most Chinese coming, particularly during the exclusion period, came under the credit ticket system where they borrowed money and had to pay it back with credit once they had were able to come, get a job, and get wages. It was not slave labor. They certainly were not treated in the United States as the coolies were treated in Cuba, where they had no rights and where there was no way of making sure that they were not being mistreated.
DMAE: Let’s get the definition clear between coolie labor and coolie trade.
JUDY: Coolie labor meaning that you’re being hired as a menial laborer usually and you’re going to do hard labor, but you’re still being paid with wages. Coolie trade would be from the 1850s to about 1870s when Asian Indians and Chinese in particular were coerced or recruited into signing contracts where they had to work under contract conditions for a certain period of time. For very little wages and similar to a slave. They would be guaranteed food, housing, and some clothing, and then they would have to work off the contract. Their passage would be paid and they would have to work off the contract for a certain number of years. So there was coolie trade involved where these ships, with the express purpose of finding cheap labor, came on ships and coercing them into signing these contracts, where they would work under slave-like conditions, on plantations mainly, for a certain period of time. And that sense of coolie trade was outlawed internationally in the 1870s and that’s why it’s only the period between the 1850s and the 1870s that was rampant.
DMAE: But that was the railroads, wasn’t it?
JUDY: No, because the railroads was contract laborers but it was not coolie trade. They’re different. Because the US did not allow. The US, except for ships, the government did not participate in the coolie trade. It would not allow any laborers to be coerced into signing contracts and to be treated as slaves or semi-slaves. Under those kinds of working conditions in the United States. so there’s a difference between the coolie trade in terms of what happened to the Chinese and Indians in South America and contract laborers who would be those who agree to…
DMAE: It’s almost a technicality.
JUDY: There’s credit ticket, and there’s coolie trade and there’s contract laborers. And actually contract laborers were outlawed in the United States somewhere in the late 1800s. so you couldn’t say that you were coming in terms of being a laborer by contract and you have to work off your contract in so many years. That was not possible in the United States, so that’s why I think it’s easier for us to think about Chinese coming as credit ticket, credit ticket borrowing money and coming in and paying it back with interest from their wages.
DMAE: It took a long time to pay that off, didn’t it?
JUDY: Years. I would say . my father actually came as a credit-ticket person and it took him about ten years to pay back all that he owed for passage. And for the papers that he had to buy as a paper son.
DMAE: Can you talk about your father’s experience?
JUDY: My father immigrated to America in 1921. and he was 15 years old at the time. The way he came was that his uncle in the United States was able to buy papers that said he was the son of a merchant in Stockton by the name of Yung Ung. So my father, whose name was Tom Yip Jing, his surname is Tom, came to the United States, claiming to be Yung Hing’s son, the second son of this merchant in Stockton. He had a coaching book. The papers that were bought for him by his uncle cost 1500 dollars. One hundred dollars for one year of age. So his papers saying he was a fifteen year old son cost his uncle fifteen hundred dollars, which my father knew he would have to pay back. Then there was the passage, paying for I think it was $85 to pay for the ship ticket, but then there were other costs involved in paying for the trip and so on. And so he had this debt already when he arrived at Angel Island. He was detained at Angel Island for two months. Part of the reason was there was a backlog and he had to wait for his turn to be interrogated. And then he went through the interrogation, he was asked about a hundred questions. And then his paper brother and his paper father were asked the same questions. He was only interrogated once and they compared his answers and evidently things matched, and then he was allowed to leave Angel Island and go on to San Francisco. His papers said then that he was Yung Hing’s son, the son of a Chinese merchant, and that’s how he was allowed into this country. He kept the identity of being Yung Hing’s son until the day he died and so I am the daughter. My Chinese name is Tom Hic Fong, we use our real Chinese surname, but my birth certificate, and everything else, says that my name is Judy Yung. So I’ve kept that duplicity and if you see my father’s gravestone at the cemetery in San Bruno, California, it says here lies Tom Yip Jing, his real name, Yung Hing’s son, his paper name. So he kept that. He never confessed during the 60s in order to adjust his status and reclaim his name. He was afraid of being deported, he had no relatives to send for from China, so he decided to keep his paper name. And I think until the day he died he was always worried he was going to be deported. So he told us never to tell anyone what our real surnames were and to never tell anyone who my father really is and where he is from. So we kept that in the family and I’ve kept that secret in my name and I think many other descendents in similar situations have always felt a sense of secrecy, a sense of duplicity, a sense of being haunted, and a sense that we are deportable. We are illegals in this country even though we were born in this country and through the years my father’s paid taxes and we’ve gotten our education and so on. But I think that’s one of the psychological scars and part of the stress of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the whole process that Angel Island experience have left on not only the people that went through that experience but also their children and their families and the communities that they’re part of.
DMAE: You are a professor emeritus and you think you could be deported.
JUDY: I know I’m born in this country and I’m a US citizen. I have rights and I know they can’t deport me, but it’s just that my father always drummed this into our heads. He made us afraid of immigration and white authorities because we were illegals, and we knew this. So I think it’s just this feeling of insecurity and illegitimacy and duplicity that stays with us, even though we know better.
DMAE: It’s that perpetual foreigner thing.
JUDY: It’s that idea. And you know, people still come up to me and say where are you from? And they never accept the answer that you could be from San Francisco or anywhere in the United States, and they say where are you really from? Or why do you speak English so well? And one time I was in Washington DC and I was talking to someone and she turned around and said well, I hope you enjoy our country, like I’m a foreigner. I think we all experience that because of the way we look. It doesn’t matter how Americanized we appear or how we speak, it’s that who’s an American? How do we prove that we belong here?
DMAE: A lot of stations when I say I’m producing this, they say our listenership is we don’t have any Asians. My response is duh, because of exclusionary laws they’re only 4% of the population.
JUDY: It’s so frustrating, I get that question so often. Yeah, I just want to remind people of that. A fourth of the world’s population are Chinese or Indians, and why is it that the United States, being a land of immigrants, have only four percent are, looking at Chinese, why is it that? Only four percent of a quarter of the world’s population would be reflected in the American population? And a lot has to do of course as we’ve been talking about the Chinese exclusion act and the horrendous types of laws that were passed to keep the Chinese out for 62 years.
JUDY: The reason why there’s such a small percentage of Chinese in the American population, considering that a fourth of the worlds’ population is Chinese, is that American laws have been passed and for 62 years the exclusion act kept the Chinese out of this country. And it wasn’t until 1965 Act was passed that Chinese immigration was put on an equal footing as any other country and 20,000 a year were allowed into this country. And that those who were family members of Chinese in America were able to come as non-quotas that you see an increase in immigration so that today, in the last 30 years, more than half of the population of immigrants coming to America are from either Latin American countries or from Asian countries, including China. So we see this explosion of Chinese immigrants now entering the United States in larger numbers. We have to remember that the percentage of Chinese are small in the United States in the total population because of the exclusion acts that succeeded in keeping the Chinese out of the country for 62 years.
DMAE: Very successful.
JUDY: I would say so. I was looking at the statistics. The exclusion act was passed in 1882. in 1888 they allowed 10 immigrants from China into this country. So really, until the Chinese figured a way to bypass the exclusion act with the paper son process that they set up, until then the exclusion act was very successful in keeping out all Chinese.
DMAE: And again the paper sons is an act…
JUDY: The paper son system: coming in fraudulently posed as exempt classes of Chinese, according to the exclusion act was an act of resistance. It was an act of circumvention. Resistance can also be seen as an act of finding a way to circumvent what are seen as discriminatory laws against the Chinese immigrants.
DMAE: You have an interrogation scene in one of your books.
JUDY: In Unbound Voices, yes. It’s my mother’s interrogation file and transcript.
DMAE: will you introduce that?
JUDY: one of the things about the Chinese exclusion act was that it created files and files of documents pertaining to the background and interrogations, the transcripts of interrogations with Chinese immigrants at Angel Island. And the reason why they kept all these files was that they had to recall files when immigrants from the same family came through so they would ask the same questions and see if there’s a consistent pattern in terms of the responses about people’s background and identities. So all of these files pertaining to the Chinese exclusion act cases and angel island immigration cases, are at the national archives. The San Bruno, California national archives branch has all of the angel island transcripts. So I was able to go there and find my mother and my father’s immigration files and transcripts of the interrogation. So I know what questions were asked of them and when my mother came in 1940 my father was the witness, he being the husband sponsoring her to come, and so she was asked about a hundred questions. He was asked the same hundred questions, and these interrogations were translated into English. Because they would ask questions in Chinese, of course through an interpreter, since immigrants didn’t speak English, and then they would have to type the English answer, the answers in English, into transcripts. So there are many, in some cases I’ve looked at, my parents were considered an easy case because they only asked about a hundred questions, but there were other case files I’ve seen where transcripts go on for hundreds of pages and they’re asked hundreds of questions, accordingly, to prove their right to enter. So Unbound Voices, another book that I wrote, in the first chapter I talk about the immigration process for my mother and how she, what preparation and cost were involved for doing the paperwork for her to come and join my father in 1940. and there I have the actual coaching book questions and answers that she studied in preparation for the investigation. Then I have the actual transcripts of what she was asked and what she said and what my father was asked and what he responded. And then I have an interview that I did with my mother afterwards to ask her about certain discrepancies I found in her story and in her interrogation papers. It just shows us how complicated and how expensive and how arduous this whole process was for everybody concerned. And I think what those immigration documents tell us is how people had to lie in order to circumvent that exclusionary law to make it into this country.
DMAE: May we use a small section of that interrogation scene?
JUDY: Dramatize it.
DMAE: To show the innocuousness of the questions.
JUDY: Sure, go ahead.
DMAE: Would you like to take a short break?