The Four Immigrants Manga opens with an episode in which two of the four main characters, Charlie and Frank, are detained on Angel Island at the Immigration Station. Charlie even reads a Chinese poem carved on the wall of their room. As a result of this episode, I put Angel Island on my list of places I wanted to visit for research purposes. I wanted to see the Chinese poems with my own eyes; I wanted to stand in the room depicted in the comics.
I made it to the island last fall, but unfortunately did not have any cash with me when I reached the Immigration Station. It felt like a punchline to one of Kiyama's strips. But last week, I once again took the Tiburon ferry to Angel Island with a wallet full of cash - I was not missing my chance again - and a pen & notebook ready to write down any tidbits of information that might be interesting or applicable to the musical.
I ended up taking no notes. As I made my way through the different rooms open for viewing, my eagerness for "research" gave way to a more overwhelming sense of reverence. I don't want to make it sound magical or even unique - I often get this pull towards reverence when I walk into historical sites. I think I just quietly realized that this portion of my research was going to be more about considering the stark reality of what had occurred, rather than collecting data.
From 1910-1940, hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants were held like prisoners for extended periods of time in order to enforce The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Other Asians and immigrants were detained as well, but most of the discrimination was targeted specifically toward the Chinese. Interestingly, Henry Kiyama probably never spent time detained on Angel Island because the year of his arrival was around 1904 - six years prior to the Station's opening.
It's very simple to read these facts and have a fleeting reaction - even if it is an honest and heartfelt one. I knew these facts prior to visiting the Station, and easily "knew how wrong it was" without thinking too much about it thereafter. But to actually stand there and stare at one of the poems hand-carved into the walls, to feel the lack of privacy in the cramped quarters, to see the beautiful San Francisco Bay through windows barred by a chain link fence - it is difficult to have a mere fleeting reaction when phantoms of the terrible truth are made available to your own senses.
This experience makes me ask an unanswerable question: Why did Kiyama choose to capture this difficult history in the form of a comic strip? Immigration Station isn't the only tough historical topic covered in the book. Kiyama takes things like the horrific events of The Great Quake and Fires of 1906 or targeted violence against Japanese immigrants, and he wraps them up into quippy, sometimes-whimsical-sometimes-flippant 12-panel strips that conclude with a punchline. One could reason that Kiyama was distant enough from these events that he ignorantly depicted them with insensitivity to their gravity.
But this also feels too simple an explanation, partially because Kiyama also depicts himself going through terrible times which are dismissed with a joke. In one episode, the character of Henry (who is based on Kiyama) loses all of his money when a bank fails. Henry is in tears, but his friend Charlie casually glosses over the tragedy with a final joke riddled with wordplay. I can't say whether this financial loss actually happened to Henry, but the fact that he shows himself undergoing misfortune that is treated with levity indicates to me that there is a more complex intention behind Kiyama's choice to combine real life events with comic strip fantasy than merely ignorant humor.
What exactly all this means I haven't quite sussed out, but I'm interested in using the remaining work on my musical to explore these problems. My use of American vaudeville as the primary stylization for the show brings with it similar questions of levity vs. gravity, and that became even more clear to me as I stood in the rooms of Immigration Station. My upbeat opening number during which the boys are held on Angel Island felt simultaneously wrong (for not-at-all accurately reflecting the history) and right (for mimicking Kiyama's own approach to the matters). It's a tense and awkward place to be in - a sort of historically transgressive limbo - but something tells me that herein lies the soul of my show.
If you've never visited Immigration Station, let alone Angel Island, I highly recommend it because even if the history-stuff gets too heavy for you, you can always take a beautiful hike around the Island and catch the best views of San Francisco and the Bay. (Just remember how odd it is that such beauty exists with such a complicated backstory.)