By Louis H. Chu
AIISF is proud to reprint Louis H. Chu’s short story, Bewildered, which was published in EASTWIND: Politics and Culture of Asians in the U.S, Spring/Summer 1982. It is a rare account of the detention and interrogation process at the Sansome Street facility, where Chinese and other immigrants were processed after the Angel Island Immigration Station closed in August 1940.
Chinese American novelist Louis Chu (1915-1970) left behind a rich legacy for future generations of Asian American writers. In his novel Eat a Bowl of Tea, published in 1961, Chu portrayed the conflict between a father and son in New York Chinatown with great insight and feeling. Recreating in English the rich textures of his native Sze Yup dialect, Chu captured the vitality of Chinese people and made his characters come to life as real, three dimensional human beings.
Chu’s sensitive handling of characters and situations can be seen in this earlier work, “Bewildered,” which is being published for the first time. “Bewildered” conveys an experience common to many Chinese immigrants – the anxiety that builds while waiting for reunification with one’s family.
We would like to express our gratitude to Mrs. Kang Louie and May Joan Louie for allowing AIISF to share “Bewildered” with you.
The fat, round man at the reception desk looked up as we stepped off the elevator. His desk was diagonally opposite the elevator we just used, and directly opposite another that was not being used. His hugeness and the big desk made the hallway look more crammed than it actually was.
“You people are out of luck,” he bellowed. His tone was without emotion. “Have you eaten yet?”
“No,” my husband answered. “All we had all day was a couple spoonfuls of corn flakes on the plane.”
He looked at the slip of paper handed him by our custodian, who had met us at the airport and brought us here in a big, red limousine with a U.S. government tag for a license plate. Beside his desk was a bench, and presently the rotund man directed us to sit down. At our feet lay our baggage – a duffel bag, two suitcases, and a zipper bag, with the Honolulu custom inspector’s yellow seal still on them. He picked up his phone. Before someone answered at the other end he turned to us, “The cooks are off now.” He checked his watch again. “It’s after five.”
“Bill, I have three who just came in. Can you fix them something to eat?”
The huge man pushed a button on the edge of his desk and a man, presumably a guard though un-uniformed and in shirt sleeves, appeared in no time.
“Take them upstairs for chow. Stay with them until they’re through and then come down with them.”
We followed the man to the bottom of the stairs, where he unlocked the door. Upstairs on the thirteenth floor was the mess hall.
When we returned from chow the fat man gave each of us a tag of identification – our name and a number – and directed us to our respective quarters. A matron appeared and took my 7-year-old daughter and me to the thirteenth floor, where female detainees were quartered. My husband went with the guard.
One week. Two weeks. Two months, maybe – we would have to be detained here, I told myself. The quiet and spaciousness of the corridor through which we now passed seemed to convey a loneliness found only in a darkened and deserted tunnel. In China we had heard stories about the “Wooden House,” where newcomers to the shores of America are detained. Could this be the “Wooden House?” We have friends who had preceded us to the United States who had remained one or two months as detainees of the immigration authorities here. Detention of any length of time is an unpleasant thing. And because it is unpleasant and undesirable – yet so unnecessarily necessary – we were drawn to it in frequent conversations with our relatives and friends in China. When people asked me how long I expected to be detained I usually replied, “I don’t know,” or “One month,” or “Maybe two months.” Related questions on the same subject included: What will your husband do in the meantime? Will he wait for you in San Francisco or will he proceed to New York?
Now I was here in person – a detainee. It is a funny sort of feeling to have – like, perhaps, the bride who had dreaded her wedding day, now found herself sobbing softly in her bridal sedan chair, on her way to the bridegroom’s. Or like the student who had worried about his mid-terms, suddenly found himself face to face with a stiff exam. This was no idle talk. I was going through it. The California weather, the gaiety of San Francisco, the fascination of Chinatown, held no reality for me. My tired and confused mind refused to let in the sunshine. Only shadows creeped in. Stories of those who hanged themselves because they were refused admittance now sent a chill up my spine. The vivid newspaper account of the Chinese woman detainee who threatened to jump from the ledge of this building not so long ago tugged at me, making my steps unsteady. Its ugliness seemed to dim the lights of this very hall, this very building. We followed the matron dejectedly, with misgivings, with no self-assurance whatever. Only one thing was certain: detention. My little girl kept on asking, “Where is Daddy? Let’s go and find him.”
We came to a halt in front of room 1378.
As soon as the door swung open, greetings were in order, “Look. Another crazy one!”
A middle-aged Chinese woman, dressed in a two-piece Chinese blue, detached herself from a gathering around the table and came forward. “Why are you crazy enough to come here like the rest of us?” she demanded.
Another, “Why did you come?”
“Yes. Why? Why?” chorused several. The gang around the table had dispersed. Everyone was in a jovial mood. They seemed glad to have us.
“Look, No. 1 aunt, we have been here for two months.”
“Look at me. I have been here for three months.”
“I came only yesterday,” laughed another.
“Don’t you believe her. She’s been here for a year.”
All was confusion. I did not know what to believe. I noticed that double-decked bunks were lined everywhere in the room, a dismal reminder that this was not a social gathering in spite of its superficial gaiety. Some empty bunks here and there. With some help from the old-timers we soon found two lower berths together and put our beddings down. When I turned I found that the matron who brought us here had already left, leaving us to this strange hospitality.
What is your father name? How old is your daughter? Where are you from? When did you leave Hong Kong? What plane did you take? Did anyone come with you? Is your husband a veteran? Where is your husband? What city are you going to?
Aside from these personal questions they clustered around us for news of China. How much is pork per catty? How much is chicken? What is the present black market exchange rate for Gold Yuan? How much is rice per picul? How much is oil? How is the November rice harvest?
They all wanted to know. Even the two babies, slung on their mothers’ backs, seemed to wake up and take notice. They wailed and they waved their tiny hands. Children were just as eager for news of China. Off-handedly, I should say there were about thirty of us, including children, in the room. After the first excitement, as if of things new, the questions gradually dwindled down and we finally managed to take a shower.
Night came and I tossed all night in bed. I knew my husband was in the same building but aside from that, I had no idea where he was. When I mentioned that my husband had come in with us, the old detainees all asked me why. He had his passport, hadn’t he? Yes. Then why? The old-timers painted a dark and dreary picture for me. Something was wrong with the passport, they conjectured. Something was wrong with the records. Something was wrong with the whole thing. They knew so and so with a passport and he and his family were admitted immediately upon arrival. They knew another veteran and his family were admitted without having been detained. I tried not to think of these ugly things but they kept tearing at me. It got so that I even asked myself why my husband was detained. In fact, I did ask him. He had said he didn’t know. The custodian who had brought us here said he didn’t know either. Mindful of my anxiety, my husband had told me not to worry, that everything would be all right. “They’ll have to admit you under Public Law 271,” he would say when he saw worry creeping all over my face. “However, if Uncle Sam wants to house you and feed you for a year before he’d release you, that’s all right with me.”
The room was warm. It was quiet after lights out. I got the impression that everybody was asleep except myself. Each time the matron came to make the bed-check, I was awake. Every time someone entered or left the washroom, I knew. I watched the shaft of light that shone on the several bunks, permitted by the half-open door of the washroom. The night became an endless journey. I thought of home, of my mother and my husband’s mother. They had said, “The moment you land, wire us.” Thinking this over, I was now self-reproachful for not having done just that – to let them know that we had arrived. To our mothers in china the airplane was something new, something fine and mysterious, something for someone else but not for us. They were very much concerned about the possibility of our air-sickness. They were particularly worried about May Jean. They asked many questions about the plane. They had much admiration for it but obviously, not much confidence in it. The morning we left the village for Canton, they made us promise them that we would sit in the middle of the plane. I thought of the many times our mothers had gone to the temples and prayed for us. They had painstakingly explained to the gods that due to the prevailing shipping strike, we were going to take a plane. They had asked for guidance, for protection, for safe arrival. One thing they had forgotten: To ask that we not be detained upon arrival.
My tossing continued. I guessed at the time. I stole a glance at May Jean on the next bed. She was sound asleep. I watched her for a while. There’s nothing so peaceful as a child asleep, I told myself. She was breathing normally, naturally. A sleeping child is a beautiful sight! Involuntarily a fond, proud smile came to me. Enviously I wished I were a child once more.
I looked toward the window and vainly wished for a gleam of dawn. The window. This reminded me of the long line of cars parked on the street below. The relative quiet of the streets was almost incredible. Canton, Hong Kong, Shanghai were not like that. Where are the people? San Francisco is supposed to be a big city. After five or five-thirty there were no more cars parked on the streets. I couldn’t understand this. So this is America. There are more cars on the streets than people!
Lunch came and our names had not yet been called. They call two or three names a day, someone told me. Today was Friday. If our names were not called today, we would have to wait until Monday. I wonder if my husband had been let out in the morning. I wondered about the questions that the inspector was going to ask me. There had been stories that they even ask you how many brinks there are in the wall of your house. My husband had advise me: Tell them what you know. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. Last evening, in preparation for our hearing, I had refreshed my daughter on her birthday, so that when the inspector asked her, she would be able to answer him.
I kept looking at my watch. I was now ten minutes past two. Almost another day was gone. Tomorrow, Saturday. Then, Sunday. This waiting, this anxiety was unbearable. But in the midst of this objectionable atmosphere laughter prevailed and served to break this endless monotony. Every time the matron came in to call someone to the office, invariably someone would yell “Kai-fo!,” meaning “Go to the city.” The old-timers whose names were not called would complain loudly to the matron, “What’s the matter with me? Why don’t you call me?
The matron, who speaks some Cantonese after a fashion, would smile and answer, “We like you too much here to let you go out. You stay with us.” And the room would echo with laugher. Then came the next name and the same, boisterous conversation would take place all over again.
I did not participate actively in the fun. The general uproar cheered m up a bit but not enough to make me forget my own plight. The funsters went even further with their sinister humor: “If you want to “Kai-fo,” go get a rope and start hanging yourself.”
“That’s the only way to get out,” put in another.
No one paid any particular attention to these self-offered panaceas. Certainly no one took these advice seriously. Otherwise there wouldn’t be so many unwilling guest at 630 Sansome Street.
May Jean and I remained in our bunks most of the time, resting. I was thinking incoherent thoughts. May Jean was forever asking childish questions, a trait so becoming of children.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, above the pandemonium of the detainees, a voice called out: Wong Gim Kang – Wong – I jumped out of bed. The room seemed to have been lit a hundred times its normal voltage. I thought it might have been a dream. Unmistakably, the matron’s voice came again: Wong Gim Kang.
I did not know how to answer her. I opened my mouth but no words came out. Someone else answered for me, “Here she is.” Timidly I moved forward toward the matron. “Louie May Jean?” she asked.
I pointed to my daughter beside me.
We followed the matron to the elevator. She brought us to the eleventh floor, to room 1157.
The unexpected sight of my husband in the room gave me some sort of relief and some degree of confidence returned to me. I thought that he must have fixed up everything with the inspector. Then after some hasty reflection I chided myself for having such a thought. He’s going to be questioned like I am, I told myself.
May Jean nestled closer to me as I sat down on a chair along side the long table. My husband was sitting opposite me. The inspector remarked to my husband that he thought the little girl was scared. The secretary, in a small green dress, thought May Jean was scared too.
“Say, how old did you say she is?” asked the inspector, curiously, unbelievingly.
“She could be seven and she could be eight,” my husband answered. “She was born on July….”
The inspector, still smiling curiously, as if accepting a friendly challenge, got up from his chair and walked around the long table to May Jean. He extended his hand to the girl but she recoiled from him. My husband and I coached her not to be afraid.
“Hello, May Jean,” the inspector began slowly. He held her hands and seemed to examined them to determined whether or not she was really seven years old. I wondered if he could really tell by looking at a child’s hands. A thought flashed to my mind: Maybe they will get a doctor to examine her teeth. I envisioned days of delay, of red tape, of nonsense. My daughter is a little too big for her age, I admitted to myself – but….
As the inspector bent and continued to examined my daughter’s hands, I noticed his thinning brown hair, with most of it around his head and very little over it. He had a hight, intelligent forehead. His gray suit – carelessly hung about him, his white shirt, and his blue tie added, I thought, a touch of homespun quality to his already disarming, friendly smile. A welcome ally to any stranger.
The inspector finally let go of May Jean and, cocking his head, said to my husband, “Say, is she really yours?”
“My wife says she is,” snapped my husband.
And we all laughed. Well, except May Jean and me.
The inspector led my husband out of the room. For the time being the secretary, May Jean, and I were the only ones in the room. The secretary got up from her desk, which formed the lower part of an L-shaped desk and table arrangement and opened the right half of a large window. She looked at May Jean and smiled. “Hello, May Jean. I like that name. May Jean is a very nice name.”
All this time May Jean cuddled closer to me. She wanted to sit on my lap but I wouldn’t let her. So she turned and buried her head in my bosom.
The inspector returned with an interpreter. The latter wore a brown suit with a discharge lapel in his button hole. I thought he was pretty big for a Chinese. He was about twenty-six or twenty-seven.
“Who was that man who was here before?” asked the inspector and the interpreter repeated it in Chinese.
Then some more questions. My name. My husband’s name. Date and place of our marriage. Date and place of birth of May Jean. My husband’s present nationality.
Next then inspector brought out some pictures – pictures we had sent to my husband when he was in New York some years ago. I was surprised at them and I assumed that the inspector had gotten them from my husband. Several pictures were taken recently in Canton, China. The inspector shoved an old picture in front of May Jean and asked her to identify the individuals therein.
I coaxed her to answer, “Be a good girl and tell the man who it is.”
Still no answer came from her. We waited. The inspector asked again. The interpreter repeated the questions.
“Tell the man who this is or we won’t get out of here,” I chided her. I was finding it hard to resist the irritation that her stubbornness was rapidly stirring within me. I could appreciate a little more now what my husband meant when he used to say, “Chinese mothers don’t know how to bring up children.”
At last reluctantly, poutingly, she mumbled, “My grandmother.”
“And who is this?”
The inspector pointed to the baby in the picture.
That wasn’t hard, was it? But that’s our May Jean. Fortunately the inspector was through with her now. He turned to me once more.
“How many times have you been married?”
I couldn’t understand this question and I asked the interpreter to repeat it. I heard the words but I couldn’t understand the meaning of such a question.
“You have been married once, is that right?”
Some more questions. How long I lived with my husband before he returned to the U.S. on his former visit to China. What is the name of our village? What district? My age. My father’s name.
When it came to my father’s name I balked a little. Father had died when I was a baby and my husband did not know his full name. I was afraid the inspector would ask my husband what my father’s name was and he wouldn’t be able to give it. I tried to circumvent the question.
“My father died a long time ago, when I was little.”
“Still, he had a name,” insisted the inspector, smiling. He looked like a young professor of sociology arguing on a question of economics with his student.
“But,” – I groped for words. I found myself repeating that he had died a long time ago. But this was not satisfactory to the inspector.
“My husband does not know his name,” I finally admitted.
“But I am asking you, not your husband.”
Reluctantly I told him my father’s name. Next came questions on the allotment money, whether or not I had received any while in China. Whether or not we plan to apply for the accrued payments now that we are in the United States. I told him what I knew.
“Who is this?” The inspector pushed in front of me a picture which we had taken in Canton, China.
“This is my husband. This is me. This is Mr. Eng Chong.”
The inspector made a fuss over Mr. Eng’s name. He kept on asking about his name. What is it in Toishanese dialect? What is it in Cantonese? Has Mr. Eng any other name?
I could not think of any other name except his own Chinese name. So I insisted that he was Mr. Eng Chong. And he was. If the inspector thought he was somebody else, that’s his business. It was only a snapshot. At the time we took it, little did we think that some day it would be the subject of conjecture between several people in a room on the eleventh floor in a building on Sansome Street, San Francisco.
My daughter and I were led back upstairs to the thirteenth floor, and we reentered room 1378. I wondered what had happened to my husband. Is he still being detained? Was he let out? Had he been questioned by the inspector already?
Our roommates bombarded us with many questions. Our return to the room was likened to the return of a long-lost relative, if the amount of attention given us could be used as a yardstick. Are you getting out? What did the inspector ask you? What happened to your husband? Did you have a lawyer? Which interpreter did you have? What room were you in?
They gathered around us. They offered advice. They made predictions. They seemed ready for farewells as well as for consolations, whichever the case may be.
The clock ticked slowly, too slowly. Then it was ticking too fast. The interval between our return to the room and the time our name was called again was half an hour. But it seemed like a lost hope, as if the sand in the hourglass had passed and there was no hope of it returning. It was a long, drawn-out Friday afternoon. It seemed to have slipped under us and Saturday was rapidly descending upon us before we knew it. Time is that way sometime, like an optical illusion. If you want it to move fast, it will go slow; if you want it to move slow, it will go fast. After we returned to our room after the hearing I wanted the watch to stop altogether, so that hope would remain a little longer, so that dusk would be delayed.
“Wong Gim Kang…. Wong…. Louie May Jean… Louie….”
It was four-fifty-five.
“Kai-fo,” said the matron.