Life Style

Channeling the Pain of Chinese Immigrants, in Music and Verse

In “Angel Island,” a staged oratorio about the anguish and isolation of Chinese detainees at Angel Island Immigration Station in California, a choir recites a poem about tyranny and misfortune.

“Like a stray dog forced into confinement, like a pig trapped in a bamboo cage, our spirits are lost in this wintry prison,” they sing in Chinese. “We are worse than horses and cattle. Our tears shed on an icy day.”

The poem is one of more than 200 inscribed on barrack walls at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, where hundreds of thousands of people, mostly from China and Japan, were questioned and held — sometimes for months or even years — as they sought entry to the United States in the first part of the 20th century. Their harrowing accounts form the emotional core of “Angel Island,” by the Chinese-born composer Huang Ruo, which has its New York premiere this month at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in a staging that is part of the opera and theater festival Prototype.

The production, directed by Matthew Ozawa and featuring the Del Sol Quartet and members of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, shines light on life at Angel Island, the port of entry for many Asian immigrants from 1910 to 1940, whose punishing atmosphere stood in contrast to the more welcoming spirit of Ellis Island.

The oratorio also tackles the legacy of injustice and discrimination against people of Asian descent in America, weaving in historical events, including the 1871 massacre of Chinese residents in Los Angeles and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned the immigration of laborers from China.

Huang described “Angel Island” as activist art, saying he wanted to “give people history that they didn’t learn in school.”

“This is not just a Chinese American story,” he said. “This is an American story.”

The oratorio, which premiered on Angel Island in 2021, comes to the stage at a time of heightened concern about the treatment of Asians and Asian Americans in the United States, following the wave of violence against people of Asian descent during the early years of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Angel Island” hints at parallels between past and present — highlighting, for example, racist portrayals of Asians as carriers of disease in the late 1800s, a precursor to the pandemic’s xenophobia and the use of the “Chinese virus” label to describe Covid-19.

In Ozawa’s staging, the dancer Jie-Hung Connie Shiau plays a modern-day woman who uncovers artifacts explaining her great-grandmother’s immigration to the United States. Through film and movement, she immerses herself in the world of her ancestors.

Ozawa, who is Japanese American, said that taking part in “Angel Island,” which features a largely Asian American cast and creative team, was difficult because of the rawness of the history. But the work could also be uplifting.

“It’s painful to be reminded of racism and prejudice and exclusion, but simultaneously it is very cathartic to be open with it and to allow ourselves to feel what our ancestors have felt and know that we’re not alone,” he said. “We are actually part of a much larger story that is filled with hope, redemption and the power to change things.”

Huang and the Del Sol Quartet, which is based in San Francisco, began working on “Angel Island” in 2017, when they received a $150,000 grant from the Hewlett Foundation to create an oratorio about the detainees. The immigrants, who came from China, Japan, India, Russia and elsewhere, faced overcrowded and unsanitary conditions at Angel Island. They were typically held for weeks or months, though some were detained for as long as two years. Ultimately, many were deported.

Charlton Lee, a Chinese American violist in the quartet, had pitched the idea of an Angel Island project to Huang, who had previously collaborated with Del Sol, including on chamber performances of Huang’s music ahead of the American premiere of his first opera, “Dr. Sun Yat-sen,” in 2014. Lee, who had been impressed by Huang’s ability to set Chinese text to music, said he thought the history of Angel Island had been neglected.

“We’re staring at Angel Island all the time — it’s in the middle of the bay — but people don’t know about the detention center,” he said. “They don’t know about the plight of these immigrants who were trying to come here, start a new life and were just stuck.”

In 2018, Huang and the quartet visited the island, now a state park. They examined the poems, written in classical Chinese, in which detainees described feelings of anger, fear and homesickness. They began to improvise inside the barracks, with members of the quartet accompanying Huang as he sang a melody in Chinese.

“Being in that spot — it was haunting,” he said, “but it was also heartwarming to bring something alive back to a place that was so dead.”

Huang selected a few poems to set to music: “The Seascape,” “When We Bade Farewell” and “Buried Beneath Clay and Earth.” He added in historical writings to be read aloud with accompaniment by the quartet. These included a discussion of the Los Angeles massacre in 1871, when a mob shot or hanged at least 18 Chinese residents; a list of questions used by American immigration officials in the late 1800s to assess whether Asian women were prostitutes; and an essay by Henry Josiah West from 1873 warning of a “Chinese invasion.”

“The question” West wrote, “is shall we submit to the growth of this heathen Chinese Republic?”

In 2021, after a yearlong delay caused by the pandemic, Huang and the Del Sol Quartet returned to Angel Island for the premiere.

Lee said it was jarring to hear the music in the barracks, which he had seen as dark and foreboding.

“It felt like the spirits were just coming out of the walls,” he said. “It’s almost like we performed some kind of ritual and all of a sudden these people who had suffered — they were able to smile.”

Since then, “Angel Island” has been performed several more times, including in Berkeley, Calif., Washington and Singapore.

Huang has recently expanded the piece, adding another poem, “The Ocean Encircles a Lone Peak,” and a movement about Fang Lang, a Chinese survivor of the Titanic shipwreck who was barred from entering the United States because of the Exclusion Act.

The New York production is the first full staging of “Angel Island.” Dancers are featured throughout, and film plays an important role, with historical footage and videos of Angel Island, shot by Bill Morrison, projected on screens. Choir members mimic carving Chinese characters and poems.

“This is really the manifestation of a community,” Ozawa said. “You want the audience fully immersed and to experience a sense of hypnotic ritualism.”

And, he added, he would like the story to resonate with a broad audience.

“Angel Island is still living and breathing within the bodies of so many Asian Americans,” he said. “My true hope is that we all recall, connect and learn from our personal heritage, our past, our ancestor’s experience coming to America, but also feel empowered by the material to ignite discourse, empathy and understanding toward those newly coming into the country.”

The detainees’ poems remain at the center of “Angel Island” and give the work its spiritual grounding.

Huang, who came to the United States as a student in the 1990s, stopping first in San Francisco, said he could relate to many of the poems.

“There is that same feeling of what it means to leave your family behind,” he said, “and of coming to a place in hopes of a new life and not knowing what is ahead of you.”

At the end of “Angel Island,” members of the choir leave the stage and encircle the audience, a gesture meant to help them feel part of the community of detainees.

The final poem in the oratorio describes leaving Angel Island and preparing to return home. It speaks of jingwei, a mythological bird that tries to fill the sea with twigs and stones:

Obstacles have been put in my way for half a year,

Melancholy and hate gather on my face.

Now that I must return to my country,

I have toiled like the jingwei bird in vain.

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