Research notes on small acts of immigrant Chinese people’s history.
A Prompt, and the Challenge of Celebration
Josh MacPhee invited me to develop a poster for his Celebrate People’s History poster series, which “shares the stories of events, groups, and people who have moved forward the collective struggle of humanity to create a more equitable and just world.” He’s printed over 100 different Celebrate People’s History posters over the past 18 years. Learn more at Just Seeds.
Just Seeds is a powerful platform for radical affirmation. I love that they are not at all interested in being reactive. [I still think back to their call for art for their propaganda party in January 2017: “We will be avoiding all art with an explicit focus on Trump and his catchphrases. The more we represent him—no matter in what light—the more we re-inscribe him with power. Instead, focus on graphics that support the social movements that existed before Trump and will be fighting to exist after he is long gone.” Linguist George Lakoff has been saying the same thing: stop parroting Trump, even in outrage, instead ignore, redirect, and reframe the issues.]
In the context of family separations and heightened xenophobia, I wanted to share a profile of Chinese American resistance against exclusion and racism.
Angel Island Immigration Station
I started by researching Angel Island Immigration Station. I visited in 2001, as part of the Chinese Culture Center’s In Search of Roots program, the only program of its kind in the US that helped Chinese Americans research and visit their ancestral villages in the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong. The immigration station (which seems like a euphemism for what we might call it today, a “detention center”) detained tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants from 1910-1940, under harsh conditions and for indeterminate periods.
Historian Him Mark Lai, who co-led the Roots program, described the immigration station as a “major facility of the bureaucratic apparatus established to administer the Chinese exclusion laws.” While European immigrants were detained for an average of one to two days, Chinese immigrants were detained for an average of 16 days, with over 200 Chinese immigrants detained for over a year. Chinese detainees were subjected to unreasonably detailed interrogations. They were subjected to hours of questioning about things like, “How many windows were in your house? Which way did the door face? How many people lived in the house two houses to the East?” Answering incorrectly could result in being sent back to China. Husbands and wives were separated and barred from communicating. Despair led some detainees to suicide.
Angel Island Liberty Association
In my research, I learned about a mutual aid society run by male Chinese detainees. The group was named 自治會 (“self-governing association”), which was anglicized to “Angel Island Liberty Association.” They were active from 1922 to about 1952. Their activities varied, from advocating for better food (a major complaint that led to riots) and basic necessities (such as access to toilet paper and soap, which had been automatically granted to detainees of other races), to pooling resources for books or records and organizing diversions. Alleviating detainee’s boredom and despair is important to the wellbeing, and I don’t want to discount it. But I became enchanted by the Association’s covert activities.
Mutual Aid in an Unjust System
The Association colluded with Chinese American kitchen staff to smuggle coaching notes from detainees’ family or supporters in Chinatown to detainees. The kitchen staff would wrap the notes in waxed paper and tape it to the bottom of plates, which they served to Association leaders. Sometimes code phrases indicated the presence of notes, such as “extra serving” or “the chicken is especially good today.” Association leaders would find and hide the notes to distribute later to intended recipients. Coaching notes were a way to survive and resist a system designed to exclude based on racism and xenophobia.
I love this story—its ingeniousness, the solidarity shown by fellow immigrants, and the centrality of sharing food. The way I was raised (by Chinese parents who may not have always enjoyed food security in their own childhoods), eating is the sun around which everything else revolves—the day, family, life, even death (with Ching Ming). I know food is central to pretty much all cultures, but there’s something about Chinese voracity and emotional connection. (If you call someone, instead of asking, “How are you?” you ask, “Have you eaten yet?”)
This story also ties in to my interests in social practice, and how much social practice is related to food and/or radical hospitality. You could say that many social practices of sharing food are about passing messages of cooperation, mutuality, and dreams of freedom.
Though the Angel Island immigration station may now be a relic, immigration policies based on fear-mongering, xenophobia, and racism are not. When the system is unjust—teargassing children, rejecting asylum seekers—you can see how othering is about dehumanization.
I knew I wanted to depict this moment of solidarity and collusion, of the sharing of sustenance and information as keys to freedom. I also knew to show the giver and receiver both using two hands to handle the plate. This symbolizes respect in Chinese custom.
Once I identified the subject and the media, the rest was relatively straightforward. For the benefit of friends interested in drawing, I’ll de-mystify my process.
I use a lot of drawing aids. Fitting two people and the bottom of a plate in a portrait format requires foreshortening, which complicates any figure drawing. So I shot a few photos using myself as a model and composited them together (which was actually pretty funny).
From there, I printed the composite, sketched on a light box, inked my sketch, scanned, cleaned up digitally, printed, layered the print on colored paper to make the paper cut using an Xacto knife, scanned again, digitally colored, wrote the blurb, and added the text.
I thought about Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, and using a typeface contemporaneous with the content. I searched for 1920s and 1930s typefaces. Many were the same I’d seen in letterpress printing, like Kabel. I like Kabel. It’s is a little too quirky for many contemporary contexts, so I was happy to use it here. I wasn’t able to apply Bringhurst’s principles to the Chinese text, choosing visual consistency with Kabel instead. [I’ve been typesetting Chinese texts or other projects and jobs, and this web designer’s research and findings have been a helpful resource.]
If you’re interested in learning more about the Chinese American experience on Angel Island, or about the Angel Island Liberty Association, I recommend the following:
- “Self-Organized Detainees,” a short article by Him Mark Lai on FoundSF.org.
- “Angel Island: A Historical Perspective” (PDF), a very thorough paper, with a timeline and photos, co-authored by Paul Chow and numerous community organizations.
- “Poetry and the Politics of Chinese Immigration on Angel Island: Q&A with Judy Yung,” lots of very thorough research from a legit expert on the University of Washington Press blog
- Profile of Tet Yee Ming, who was a chairman of the Association and later became a union organizer.
Here’s the text of the poster:
The Angel Island Liberty Association (or “Self-governing Association”) was a mutual aid society run by Chinese detainees at the Angel Island Immigration Station from 1922 to about 1952. With the help of Chinese American kitchen staff, the Association smuggled letters to help detainees pass detailed immigration interrogations. Letters were folded inside wax paper and taped to the bottom of dishes.