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Songs of Gold Mountain translated by Marlon K. Hom

February 07, 1988

In search of a pin-head gain, I was idle in an impoverished village. I've risked a perilous journey to come to the Flowery Flag Nation. Immigration officers interrogated me: And, just for a slight lapse of memory, I am deported, and imprisoned in this barren mountain. A brave man cannot use his might here, And he can't take one step beyond the confines. A son, or money--which is more precious? On top, of course, is money. Without money, liberty and rights are beyond your means. Parents take care of a son, but money takes care of your skin. Money is everything. What's more convenient than having money on a spending spree? A son wastes his father's money; nothing unusual about that indeed. But a father can only drool in vain over his son's money! We are all charming and refined; We don't submit ourselves to oppression. Sisters, let's have a good time together; Who'll dare criticize us for wearing different and colorful clothes? What's there to fear? Let's hang around here and there, everywhere. We'll ignore the street gossip and slanderous remarks; We are all as pure as white jade, without a blemish whatsoever. From "Songs of Gold Mountain: Cantonese Rhymes From San Francisco Chinatown" (University of California Press: $TK; 322 pp.). The Chinese who came to California as part of the Gold Rush called America gold mountain. Integrated at first, they were later forced by exclusionary laws and outright attacks into San Francisco's Chinatown. Folk songs about their triumphs and trials survived in the Canton they left behind. Most recently, two collections of these anonymous songs, published in San Francisco, in Chinese, in 1911 and 1915, have been discovered. This translation and edition is the work of an associate professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, who begins with an illuminating capsule history of the Chinese in California, then divides the songs by topic: "Immigration Blues, Lamentations of Stranded Sojourners, Lamentations of Estranged Wives, Nostalgic Blues, Rhapsodies on Gold, Songs of Western Influence and the American-borns, Nuptial Rhapsodies, Ballads of the Libertines, Songs of the Young at Heart, Songs of Prodigals and Addicts, and Songs of the Hundred Men's Wife" (prostitute). Flowery Flag Nation was another Chinese name for America, after the immigrants' impression of the Stars and Stripes.

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