History and Memory: National Angel Island Day with The Last Hoisan Poets and Del Sol Quartet
by Eddie Wong. Posted January 26, 2023
I’ve been meaning to go hear The Last Hoisan Poets for the longest time, but I haven’t ventured out much during the pandemic years due to a combination of caution and sheer inertia. But this performance with the Del Sol Quartet for National Angel Island Day was circled in red. My enthusiasm was fueled by the opportunity to hear Hoisan-wah, the dialect I grew up speaking, albeit poorly. Hearing Hoisan-wah brings back memories of family gatherings where friends boasted about their children, whispered gossip about friends, and traded jokes. When I hear those slippery syllables, guttural stops and the lilt that sounded like laughter, it just makes me smile.
The program, entitled “Echoes from Angel Island,” was sponsored by the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, the De Young Museum, and the UC Berkeley Future Histories Lab and held to commemorate the Jan. 21, 1910 opening of the Angel Island Immigration Station. Genny Lim, Flo Oy Wong, and Nellie Wong, the trio of poets who comprise The Last Hoisan Poets, are descendants of Angel Island immigrants. So am I.
As I listened to the poems, many of which were enveloped by the gorgeous music of the Del Sol Quartet, I thought back to my father’s hard life. Being detained at the Immigration Station twice, once for deportation, certainly marked my father’s lifelong fear of the authorities. Being poor in rural Toisan, China meant a lifetime of hardship and forced him and his brothers to find work in the US and send money home. There was little choice for him but to work at long hours for low pay as deliveryman, laundryman, and short-order cook. He did the best he could and with mother’s help raised two sons and two daughters. Angel Island reminds us of all that limited us and all that we could have become.
Angel Island Immigration Station processed immigrants from Asia from 1910 to 1940.
The poem “Haw Meong Suey/ Good Life’s Water” provided a stunning conclusion to the program. Kudos to the poets and Del Sol Quartet for giving us a moving performance that travels through time and memory bound together with love.
Haw Meong Suey/ Good Life’s Water by The Last Hoisan Poets – Genny Lim, Flo Oy Wong, Nellie Wong
Haw Meong Suey, Ah Nui
Haw Meong Suey
U.S. born, aw Uk Lun
Hong Ngin Fow
Haw Meong Suey
Ah Ma, Ah Ba
Ei fahn ngoi heck,
Fed me rice
Ei uk ngoi gee, ei som ngoi jeck
Gave me shelter, clothes to wear
Haw Meng Suey
Nei gow ngoit kwai nui, kwai nui
You taught me bad girl, bad girl
Nei gow ngoi haw nui, haw nui
You taught me good girl, good girl
Ngoi koi see bock thali how faht
Now I am full of white hair
Ngoi koi see bong jaw sai gai han
I fight for working people
in this world
Thank you, Mom, Pop
Haw meong suey, haw meong suey.
Haw Meong Suey. It’s Really TRUE
Mama, gill see ngnoy slai goy nin see,
Mama, long ago when I was young,
Nay wah ngnoy haw meong suey,
You said that I carry good life’s water.
Coy see ngnoy bot sip thlom thleuy,
Now that I am eighty three years old,
Ngnoy op nay, jin guh hai wah.
I answer you, it’s really TRUE.
Haw Meong Suey, jin guh hai wah.
Good life’s water, it’s really TRUE.
Haw Meong Suey, Haw Meong Suey,
Good life’s water, good life’s water
Jing uh hai wah, jin guh hai wa.
It’s really TRUE, it’s really TRUE.
I said, “Mom, Why don’t you learn English?
All the other kids’ parents take ESL classes.”
Ma said, “Hmph! If you want to talk to me,
you can talk to me in my language!”
Thlee-yip wah! Nay mawt do m’gay’ok thlai!
Thlee-yip wah, Hoisan-paw
The accent’s gotta swing like
the tail of the ox pulling its cart
along the Pearl River Delta
Like Ishi, frozen in time
they say you never left China
Language is the boat that delivers me from the homeland
I’ve never set foot on the country I call home
Mei-guo, the beautiful country that never was
Your first language is the language of your dreams
But like the sun that will slowly lose its heat and light
and get smaller and smaller to the size of a star one day
Thlee-yip shall remain my mother tongue, my star
as long as I remain.
Haw Meong Suey. Haw Meong Suey. Haw Meong Suey.
About The Last Hoisan Poets:
Genny Lim is the recipient of two lifetime achievement literary awards from PEN Oakland and the city of Berkeley. She has also served as San Francisco Jazz Poet Laureate and San Francisco Arts Commissioner. Lim’s award-winning play, Paper Angels, the first Asian American play to air on PBS’s American Playhouse in 1985, has been performed throughout the US, Canada, and China. She is the author of five poetry collections, Winter Place, Child of War, Paper Gods and Rebels, KRA!, La Morte Del Tempo, and co-author, with the late Him Mark Lai and Judy Yung, of Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, winner of the American Book Award in 1980.
Flo Oy Wong, co-founder of the San Francisco-based Asian American Women Artists Association, is an artist, poet, and educator. She is a recipient of three National Endowment for the Arts awards, and has been a visiting artist at various colleges and universities. She has also been featured in articles in multiple publications. Growing up in Oakland Chinatown, she spoke her family’s ancestral dialect, Hoisan-wa. In 2018, Flo published her art and poetry book, Dreaming of Glistening Pomelos, inspired by her childhood.
Nellie Wong has published four books: Dreams in Harrison Railroad Park, The Death of Long Steam Lady, Stolen Moments, and Breakfast Lunch Dinner. Her poems and essays appear in numerous journals and anthologies, including This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color, and excerpts from two poems have been permanently installed at public sites at the San Francisco Municipal Railway. A building at Oakland High School is named after her, she is co-featured in the documentary film, Mitsuye and Nellie Asian American Poets, and a poem of hers was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She traveled to China in the First American Women Writers Tour with Alice Walker, Tillie Olsen, and Paule Marshall, among others. She taught poetry writing at Mills College and women’s studies at the University of Minnesota.
About the Del Sol Quartet:
Fascinated by the feedback loop between social change, technology, and artistic innovation, the San Francisco-based Del Sol Quartet is a leading force in 21st-century chamber music. They believe that live music can, and should, happen anywhere – whether introducing Ben Johnston’s microtonal Americana at the Library of Congress or in a canyon cave, taking Aeryn Santillan’s gun-violence memorial to the streets of the Mission District, or collaborating with Huang Ruo and the anonymous Chinese poets who carved their words into the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station.
Since 1992, Del Sol has commissioned or premiered thousands of works by composers including Terry Riley, Gabriela Lena Frank, Tania León, Frederic Rzewski, Vijay Iyer, Mason Bates, Michael Harrison, Huang Ruo, Pamela Z, Chinary Ung, Chen Yi, Erberk Eryilmaz, Theresa Wong, Reza Vali, and Kui Dong. The quartet regularly works with composers through workshops, universities, as well as Del Sol commissioning and incubator programs. They especially value their ongoing relationship with the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music in Boonville, CA.
Del Sol’s eleventh album “A Dust in Time” debuted at #3 on Billboard in October 2021. Called “excavations of beauty from the elemental” (NY Times), this hour-long meditation was released in the form of a coloring book. Their previous album “Kooch-e Khamân” (February 2021) features 7 new works by young Iranian composers and charted #5 on Billboard. In the 2021-2022 season, Del Sol continues its Joy Project, performing outdoor pop-ups around the Bay Area of music written to inspire joy. They also are producing two large projects: “The Angel Island Project,” an immigration-themed oratorio by Chinese American composer Huang Ruo, and “Between Worlds of Sound,” a collaboration with North Indian musicians Alam Khan & Arjun Verma. In 2021, the quartet were featured artists at the Venice Bienalle’s Arts Letter and Numbers Pavilion. They are current artists on the ImmerSphere roster, a groundbreaking platform that produces performances in augmented reality.
Benjamin Kreith & Samuel Weiser, violins
Charlton Lee, viola
Kathryn Bates, cello
Author’s Bio: Eddie Wong is the editor/publisher of East Wind ezine. He has been a longtime activist in Asian American cultural and political work.
There is an opportunity to attend another poetry reading of the Last Hoisan Poets on February 21, 5 pm to 7 pm, Tilden Room, MLK Student Union, UC Berkeley.