Songs from Gold Mountain

Men in the remote frontier, all terrified:

In autumn, north winds begin to blow.

Sojourners of faraway places share the same thought:

0, how can a little bit of clothing make do in the deep frost and heavy snow?

Once winter comes ?

All the more a fur coat is a must in the freezing cold.

Although I can buy one at a clothing store,

No way is it better than the one dear wife or mother has sewn.

Songs of Gold Mountain II. 15a

 

Right after we were wed, husband, you set out for a journey.

How was I to tell you how I feel?

Wandering around a foreign country, when will you ever come home?

You are wasting many joyous years of our precious youth.

My spring heart becomes ashes.

Poverty allows me not the luxury of a choice.

But let it be known to all my sisters:

Don't ever marry a young man going overseas!

Songs of Gold Mountain I. 23b

 

The poems of Angel Island and the folksongs by the early Chinese American immigrants belong to an important legacy of early Chinese American folk literature and culture. As a body of folk literature, these short poems and sonnets will remain largely anonymous, with no specific authors passed on as a community document These early writings collectively reflect and express an emerging Chinese American national consciousness.

The early Chinese immigrants were mostly laborers. A great majority of the writing is assumed to have been done by intellectuals. But an intellectual could mean anybody with any amount of schooling to have been able to minimally read and write Chinese. In any case, their lot was akin to that of the menial laborer. These poems and sonnets express a shared outcry much different from the highly stylized, self?glorifying writings of the Lin Yutangs and others of high scholar and merchant backgrounds.

One of the few written and published accounts of the early Chinese American folksongs is contained in two collections of 1,640 folksongs published in San Francisco Chinatown in 1911 and 1915 entitled Songs From Gold Mountain (Gamsaan go jaap). As noted by Marlon Hom, who has translated these two collections, the folksongs utilized the vernacular language and the popular form of the 46?syllable Cantonese folk rhymes.

The journey to and subsequent life in America was tortuous and terrible for the young Chinese male worker. Life and labor in America was filled with bitter hardships, grueling exploitation and oppression, and constant threats of racist persecution and death. The following selected folksongs express the particular difficulties and pains of marital and family relationships shared by the Chinese immigrant men and their lovers, wives and families. A number of the folksongs were written by women about their suffering, loneliness and anger.

The translations were graciously provided by Professor Marlon Hom of the University of California, Los Angeles, Asian American Studies Department.

Fred Wei?han Houn is a musician, writer and activist from New York City.