Angel Island, where a century ago a half million immigrants from 80 countries were detained, interrogated and processed, is the subject of an oratorio by Ruo Huang.
The Chinese American composer’s work will be performed by San Francisco’s Del Sol Quartet and the vocal ensemble Volti in the Presidio Theatre on Oct. 22 and on Angel Island the next day.
Songs in the work, set to chorus and string quartet, have Mandarin text taken from inscriptions scratched on the walls of the detention center, where immigrants from Asia suffered discrimination and abuse, exceeding what their European counterparts faced at New York’s Ellis Island.
Huang says he was stunned by the power of the poems carved into the walls of and “the feel of those painful strokes ingrained in the wood. The experience of visiting the island brought the tragic history of the Chinese Exclusion Act to life and into the context of immigration issues we are still dealing with now.”
The same thought is voiced by Del Sol cellist Kathryn Bates: “The Oratorio sets the poetry against its own ugly historical backdrop — and yet there is a direct continuity to our current moment in history where Asian Americans are still told to ‘go back to your country’ and ‘you don’t belong here,’ and elders are getting beaten and killed in the streets. The same fear about the ‘Chinese Invasion’ is echoed in the model minority myth and anti-Asian discriminatory practices that we are just barely starting to acknowledge as a larger society.”
Fashion designer Jenny Lai, who created wardrobes for the performances, says she was “particularly moved reading about the histories from Angel Island and how people were purposely kept very far from the San Francisco shore. I was struck by the poetry of ‘I ate wind and tasted waves…’ and drawn to this feeling of being kept in, while looking outwards at the sea with longing and the desire to connect, communicate and be free.”
“Over the course of the oratorio, the text takes us on a journey,” the composer says, “arriving at the Immigration Station where Chinese were detained, the anguish of being stuck in limbo (sometimes for months or even years) while waiting for the opaque processing system to determine if the detainee would be cleared or sent back to China, and finally the death of one of the detainees.”
“In my discussion with the composer,” says Volti Artistic Director Robert Geary, “it became clear that he has a full grasp of the circumstances of Chinese immigration to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The music he has created is a memorial and testimony to the humanity of the immigrants.”
Circumventing the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act became a first order concern for most immigrants from China, as it allowed only merchants, clergy, diplomats, teachers, students as “exempt” classes to come to the U.S. Many Chinese immigrants resorted to buying false identities at great cost, which allowed them to immigrate as either children of exempt classes or children of natives.
In 1906, the San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed municipal records, which created an opportunity for The City’s Chinese residents to claim that they were born here and therefore were American citizens. As citizens, Chinese could bring their children to this country, and on return visits to their ancestral villages, claim new children had been born to them. Some of these were “paper sons” or less frequently “paper daughters” — children on paper only without a direct family connection.
Volti Executive Director Barbara Heroux speaks of “what it looks like when a chamber chorus rehearses during COVID — masked and distanced. It’s no fun. Singing in Mandarin while masked, and being coached in a language that is unfamiliar to most of our singers by somebody wearing a mask, is challenging. But it’s worth it — the piece is beautiful and very moving, and being able to sing in the same room together after 18 months of separation is wonderful, even with the difficulties.”
Del Sol violinist Samuel Weiser says of the work: “Huang Ruo’s music for this project is sublime. The weaving of folk melodies and string quartet doubling of the vocals with heart-wrenching, layered harmonic language gives such a unique voice to the poems. There is despair and isolation in the words, but so much hope. I think the music highlights tha perfectly.”
IF YOU GO
“Angel Island Oratorio”
Del Sol Quartet + Volti
Friday, Oct.22, 8 PM
Presidio Theatre, San Francisco
Saturday, Oct. 23, 11:30 AM and 2:00 PM
Angel Island Immigration Station