While imprisoned on immigration charges at Ellis Island in 1941 – 15 years after he had moved to the States – Chinese actor, novelist, poet and playwright Hsi Tseng Tsiang wrote a letter to famed progressive artist Rockwell Kent on a roll of toilet paper, explaining conditions in the prison.
“Everything is fine and gay but the locked door, guard and uniform.” – from the toilet paper letter.
Tsiang was awaiting immigration status review under the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which mandated annual immigration quotas to 2% of the number of people from that country in the United States in 1890. A bad review would have meant expulsion back to China, which was undergoing considerable turmoil under a Communist revolution. As a former aide to Sun Yat-Sen’s secretary, Tsiang possibly considered a move back to Mao’s China as bad for his health.
His wit: “the cover of a book is more of a book than the book is a book.”
“I wish your taste would be like mine… we could just be sixty-nine.” – from The Hanging on Union Square.
Normally, the review process would have motivated individuals to display their respectability and social utility; that would behoove those who wanted to stay. But Tsiang was the dilettante all over: his scatological outcry against prison conditions and his long career in written and performance art that were insubordinate, sexually radical and provocatively obscene were purposeful. To his defense came the American Civil Liberties Union. Tsiang stayed.
Hsi Tseng Tsiang.
“Statue, turn your ass! Let us pass!” – Tsiang poem, quoted by other Ellis Island inmates.
Ellis Island wasn’t his first time defending his status. His initial entry into the United States was only allowed under an exception to the racist National Origins Act of 1924 that let students stay; otherwise, he would have been banned from immigration, like most other Chinese that attempted. For the next two decades, his policial activism and affiliations meant constant harassment by the federal government.
“With our paper bullets, we shall change the direction of the wind.” – from China Red.
Tsiang was unrepentantly leftist and a lifelong member of the Communist party, with much of his poetry appearing in the Daily Worker, the American Communist newspaper. The US officially backed Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomintang in China, but Tsiang constantly spoke out against them – such that the Los Angeles Times labeled him the “leader of the radicals” in 1928. That year, he also wrote a poem that denounced Japanese imperalism and urged Chinese workers to unite in a mass revolt.
“When the sky with blood is red, we all will have our bread!” – from Shantung.
Tsiang was one of the first Asian American authors and had a prolific output. As a novelist, he wrote three works including one that he self-published and proclaimed as an American Epic. They were all motivated by his desire to change the world; indeed, the Everyman hero of his last novel drops his quest to save himself in favor of bettering the human condition.
“No existing literary approaches suited Tsiang’s spectacularly expansive vision of how the world should be, and this might explain why he ranged so freely from sentimental, epistolary novels to militantly leftist poetry, plays, and music to bitterly ironic, experimental novels.” – Tsiang biographer, Hua Hsu.
From 1943 to his death in 1971, he had another career as a film actor, playing bit stereotypically Asian roles in over 38 movies. One of his first roles was in 1946 classic Tokyo Rose; his last, in the TV show Gunsmoke. Some of the money from his film acting gigs was used to pay for his own stage adaptation of Hamlet, which he performed on Friday nights for a dozen years in a dance studio over a bus depot in Hollywood.
His headstone, from Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles.
“John Barrymore is the only Hamlet who projected emotion. The rest, not right. Laurence Olivier? He plays himself, not Hamlet.” – from an interview in the Milwaukee Journal, March 23, 1954.
Starting in the Fifties, his hour-long version of the Bard’s classic replaced Yorick’s skull with a tin-can, used bells to mark scenes (like in classic Chinese drama) and was sparse with scenery; he performed solo in front of a black curtain, with only a chair and a spotlight as company. His performance was informed by his study of Shakespeare with Ashley Thorndike while atending Columbia University. He wasn’t just projecting the Bard: he often inserted anti-capitalist rants into Hamlet’s soliloquies.
“Shakespeare meant for this to happen: for his play to change with the challenge of time.” – from an interview in the Los Angeles Mirror, August 23, 1955.
His work also affected other artists who had aspirations to a social conscience. Composer Ruth Crawford Seeger set “Chinaman, Laundryman” (about the the experience of Chinese-American laundry workers) and “Sacco, Vanzetti” (about the trial of two Italian American suspected anarchists) to music, premiering the latter at Carnegie Hall on March 6, 1933, and the former at the Mellon Gallery (which had opened just the year before) in Philadelphia on March 27, 1933. These works were done in a dissonant style, heavily influenced by Alexander Scriabin and her composer husband, Charles Seeger. Her famous stepson, Pete Seeger, set his poem “Lenin! Who’s That Guy?” to music, publishing it in the 1934 collection “Workers Song Books.”
Ruth Crawford-Seeger and Charles Seeger.
On a side note: the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 relied on numbers from the 1890 census and was in use until immigration law reform in 1965. However, the original data from the 1890 census that would have been used to calculate the quotas was destroyed by government order in 1934, the same year that a permanent National Archives was set up – which would have been mandated to save such records.