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Remember: Angel Island’s Sobering Symmetries

By Jon Lin Chua 

Angel Island — despite its “celestial” name, this island in the San Francisco Bay no doubt represents hell on earth for most of its former inhabitants. The opera-theatre work of the same name – co-created by Chinese-American composer Huang Ruo and Singaporean multimedia artist Brian Gothong Tan – explores the journeys of Chinese immigrants making their way to the United States in search of better lives in the 20th century, only for many to spend their days being detained in crowded wooden houses, subject to stringent checks and interrogations throughout the whole immigration process, with some eventually taking their own lives.

In this eight-scene work, the odd-numbered scenes provide the historical backdrop. The stories and emotional inner worlds of these immigrants are revealed in the even-numbered scenes, through musical settings of poems inscribed on the wooden walls of Angel Island’s detention houses. The parallel lines of this structure work together to form an integrated narrative.

Both lines unfold in chronological order. The odd-numbered scenes present a string of historical events, including the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, as well as historical media documenting various xenophobic, racist, and sexist sentiments against Chinese immigrants. Such sentiments were rife during those times. Mirroring these scenes, the poems featured in the even-numbered scenes express the personal impact of the broad sweep of history.

As words like “Chinese germs” imprinted on historical media are flashed onstage, one cannot help but view this entire piece of history as a mirror to contemporary events, particularly with regards to the Covid-19 pandemic during which Huang composed this work. The xenophobia and racism shown on screen are familiar, despite the different times and different individuals involved.

Besides the parallel structure in the narrative, the entire work provides plenty of other parallels which weave together to form the world of Angel Island. For instance, there is also a great deal of symmetry in the harmonic language of the music. The pitch sets often used within the work typically feature intervallic relationships which are symmetrical. These relationships are often used in a way that is reminiscent of various modal idioms frequently found in Chinese folk music, especially in the even-numbered movements featuring the poetry by Angel Island detainees.

Mirroring also appears in the performance’s visuals, beginning with the slow entry of the choir performers in a line, as the names of real Chinese immigrants are read aloud. In Scene III, live footage of dancer Ma Yanling in closeup is juxtaposed against historical portraits of female immigrants. The interplay between Ma’s photo-positive screen image and the historical portraits in photo-negative further reinforces the sense of a parallel relationship between the woman on stage and the women who existed in history.

There also seems to be two parallel senses of time that mirror each other to form a cohesive whole. The forward motion throughout Angel Island is driven by the narratives and the often-pulsed music in the odd-numbered scenes. But the music in the even-numbered movements often presents a sense of time that is suspended, through the abundant use of recurring musical figures and gestures, as well as overlapping harmonies and lines that seem to mostly diminish any sense of pulse and motion. In these movements, the listener is thrust into the same world as the detainee, and that sense of being suspended within a vast boundlessness of time and space is further compounded by grey images of open sea. Yet, despite the boundlessness of the sea, its waves also provide a sense of pulse through their motion.

In this way, the work communicates how the forward motion of historical events shapes the destinies of the Angel Island inhabitants, even as they paradoxically engulf them in timeless isolation. Hence, both experiences of time – that is, as a forward-moving pulse and as a suspension within a vast boundlessness – do not actually stand in opposition to each other, but instead bear a causal relationship. In the final scene of the work, both experiences of time are united: this time, the overlapping melodic lines and harmonies are punctuated by firm pulses in the musical writing, which are supported by the gong in particular (this instrument only appears in this scene). The diminishing pulses of the gong lead the entire work to an austere and ceremonious conclusion.

A particularly striking moment towards the end of the work, for me, is the visual of a white semicircle on screen that is mirrored by the water on stage, forming a full circle. The emotional journey of the audience offstage and the immigrants depicted onstage are merged, as the choir members slowly move into the audience’s space and integrate themselves into the audience, metaphorically creating a full circle formed by the different experiences of the work from both sides of the stage.

In the post-show talk, Huang talked about the depiction of an immigrant’s journey from arrival to departure on Angel Island “[forming] a full circle, a journey”. The audience is also taken on an emotional and thought-provoking journey, as one wonders how such blatant dehumanisation of large communities of people may occur in the name of defending national interests. Again, the metaphor of a circle brings to mind the cyclical nature of the themes of xenophobia and racism that are presented in the work and how they recur throughout history across different settings.

Angel Island holds up a mirror to human society, be it in the United States, or in Singapore, or anywhere else in the world, in the past, present, or the future, where various forms of discrimination may occur. One can only hope that the lingering resonance of the gong pulses closing the work onstage will inspire the continuation of the audience’s journey of further reflection offstage.


2023Traditional MusicContemporary Dance
2 & 3 Jun, Fri & Sat, 8pm
2023New Media
3 & 4 Jun, Sat & Sun, 2pm & 5pm
2023Visual Arts
23 – 28 May, Tue – Sun
(a door opens each day)
12pm – 8pm daily

29 May – 4 Jun, Mon – Sun
(all rooms open)
12pm – 8pm daily

28 May, Sun
Artist Talk
12.30pm & 4pm
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