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
  • COMMUNICATIONS & DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Position Type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman, MT Compensation: $42,000 - $47,000 Benefits: Major Medical Insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k, PTO, flexible...
  • PARTNERSHIP & COLLABORATION DIRECTOR
    WEST REGION WILDFIRE COUNCIL- RIDGWAY, CO The partnership & collaboration director will provide leadership and/or assistance with all initiatives that create and enhance connections between...
  • 2 FIELD PROJECT SPECIALISTS (POSITION FORMERLY TITLED TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISOR)
    Are you passionate about environmental conservation and connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with outdoor leadership...
  • WATER STEWARD
    The Blackfoot Challenge is seeking a full-time Water Steward to coordinate and deliver a variety of partnerships and projects aimed at conserving and enhancing water...
  • SMALL FARM AT BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA, CALIF.
    Fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm in the mountain town of Mount Shasta. Small home, 2 barns (one with apartment), and more. Famously pure air and water.
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • POLICY & PLANNING SPECIALIST
    Position Type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman, MT highly preferred, remote negotiable Compensation: $50,000-54,000 Benefits: Major Medical Insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Illinois Valley SWCD is offering an incredible career opportunity in beautiful SW Oregon. .8+ FTE, plus benefits. Visit our website for full details.
  • DEVELOPMENT MANAGER
    Formed in 1980, Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action brings people together to build grassroots power through community organizing and leadership development. The Alliance works...
  • LITIGATION ASSISTANT, NORTHERN ROCKIES OFFICE - FULL-TIME BOZEMAN | REMOTE OPTION
    Visit our website to apply: earthjustice.org/about/jobs
  • BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE SEEKING AN ASSESSMENT CONSULTANT
    ASSESSMENT OF THE SCOPE OF CONSERVATION PLANNING AND ACTIVITIES IN NATIVE NATIONS IN THE NORTHERN GREAT PLAINS Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Rural Community Assistance Corporation seeks experienced CFO.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks, the official philanthropic non-profit partner with the National Park Service Southeast Utah Group, is seeking an Executive Director....
  • GRAND CANYON MANAGER
    Application deadline: May 9, 2022 Anticipated start date: June 15, 2022 About the position Are you passionate about building authentic relationships, supporting tribally led initiatives,...
  • LAND CONSERVATION PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Eastern Sierra Land Trust (ESLT) is seeking a Land Conservation Program Director to join our nationally accredited land trust. This is a full-time position based...
  • OUTREACH AND COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    Reports to: Communications and Outreach Director Location: Ashton, Idaho (partial remote schedule possible) Status: Full-time, 40 hours per week Timing and Duration: Position open until...
  • CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER
    The Western Landowners Alliance (WLA) was founded in 2012 by landowners and managers to increase the wellbeing of working lands in the American West and...
  • WILDERNESS STEWARDSHIP CREW MEMBER
    The San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) wilderness crew members work in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to monitor wilderness characteristics, conduct trail work, and...
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR (TEMPORARY, FULL-TIME POSITION)
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill a temporary, full time, Assistant Director position in the Outdoor Program. The Outdoor Program provides professional outdoor recreational and...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    We find groundwater, reduce excavation costs and determine your IBC site class for a fraction of drilling costs.