An island from the past

Teow Lim Goh’s poetry revisits a dark place in the West’s immigration history.

 

“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 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 that 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.

Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay at sunrise, from the view of the Marin Headlands. The island is now managed by California State Parks and is accessible by ferry.
Bastian Hoppe/Flickr user
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. In January, making good on campaign promises, Trump attempted a temporary travel ban for seven Muslim majority countries. The Trump administration 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 and 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.

Many buildings on the island have been restored, but the Angel Island Immigration Station Hospital has not. Immigrants stuck at the station used communal sleeping and bathroom spaces.
Jonathan Haeber/Flickr user
An integral part to the story of Angel Island were the “paper sons,” which 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 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.”

Note: This story has been updated to correct the visa that Teow Lim Goh received and the timing in which it was granted. It is a H-1B, not an H1-B1 visa, and Goh had received it by 2010. 

Anna V. Smith is an HCN editorial fellow.

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: