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Please follow the class reading schedule to complete the reading assignment on Chinatown folksongs.
 For this week’s critical writing assignment: select three thematic categories of rhymes (note: NOT THREE RHYMES) from the reading assignments for a critical analysis of these rhymes on the Chinese American experiences in the 1910s
 attachment provides an example on how to critique and analyze poetry, and an introductory background information on the Gold Mountain Rhymes. It should help you to examine the many thematic topics in the Gold Mountain anthology.

4 AAS 322 – #4 Feb 17 – M K Hom

On Reading Chinese American Poetry

I.

“Threads” (author identity omitted for discussion purpose)

There is no way to show it
No way to even break it or
Burn it or throw it away.
It is with me, and yet
There is nothing I can say
and nothing I can do that
Will make it work.

It is with me.
A fish swimming in silence
A fruit ripening on a tree
A bulging in the back of my mind
Like a fat insect caught on threads.

BASIC APPROACHES TO UNDERSTAND AND ANALYZE A POEM

Intrinsic approach: analysis of internal evidence in the aesthetic manipulations of
language (word use) and images in the narrative and the use of symbol and metaphor
to bring forth to solidify an abstract idea(s) that was hidden beneath the surface,
disguised by the use of words and images.

Qualitative analysis: analysis of the images as presented in words as symbols and
metaphors to convey the idea

Quantitative analysis: analysis of the words, such as frequency of use, to convey the
message

Extrinsic approach: Application and analysis of external information, such as
biographical profile of the author, the time period, environmental setting and socio-
political conditions when the piece of writing was made, etc., so as to add enable a
potential interpretation and further understanding on that piece of writing beyond the
intrinsic constraint of language use.

Analysis of “Threads” – Intrinsic approach:

Qualitative analysis: identify the uses of certain words and their meaning:

First stanza—words used to identify an abstract emotional constraint:
“no way to show, … break … burn … say … nothing I can do to make it work.” – what are
the images imbedded in these verbs?

Second stanza – words used to represent a concrete images:
“fish swimming in silence”, “fruits ripening on a tree” Do the images make any sense?

(what else can a fish do besides swimming? Can fish make noise while
swimming ? This image conveys the notion that it is a “natural” phenomenon.)
“fruit ripening on a tree” as a concrete only reinforces the idea of naturalness.
“fat insect caught on threads” – a concrete images to describe an emotional constraint–
the loss of self and control beyond one’s control over something natural in one’s life.

Quantitative analysis: identify the frequency of use of certain words.

Since “Threads” is a short poem with only two stanzas, the recurrent use of a word is an
indicator of a feature thematic concern.

Multiple use of words in this poem to convey a matter of grave concern in one life:
“it”: 6
“nothing”: 2
“no way”: 2
“It is with me”: 2

By combining both the qualitative and quantitative data, a reader can confidently
provide a critical assessment that the voice in this poem is venting an emotional and
desperate frustration in an integral of one’s life–something innate and natural, yet
unpleasant and impossible to get away.

Beyond this intrinsic analysis, one can also apply an extrinsic approach to further
understand the significance of the writing. There are many possibilities in this area. For
example:

1. What if you as the critique have the information that this poem is written in the
late 1960s? At San Francisco State? And the person participated in the Third
World Student Strike on campus?

2. What if you have the information that the poet was madly in love but lacked
recourse to express this romantic emotion to the loved one?

3. What if you have the information that the poet was Asian? A Chinese American
or a specific ethnic Asian as the Civil Right Movement becomes institutionalized
under the Civil Rights Acts?

4. What if you have the information that the poet was a closet gay/lesbian person?

By combining both the intrinsic and extrinsic elements, you may come up with a very
meaningful convincing analysis of a rather short poem such as this one, “Threads”.

II.

THE GOLD MOUNTAIN RHYMES 金山歌 ANTHOLOGIES (1911-1917)

These writings were products of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco Chinatown. Its
presence dispelled the misperception and myth of early Chinese immigrant in America
as a population of illiterate laborers. Yes, they were poor and deficient with their
English ability and many with little if any formal education, but they were expressive
and prolific in their native language, and conversant in the folkloric tradition. These

rhymes demonstrate that Cantonese folklore tradition; they came to America brought
along their folklore narratives to America. In 1911, 1915 and 1917 three anthologies of
Cantonese folk rhymes were published in San Francisco Chinatown, totaling about
2,000 rhymes written by the Chinese immigrants in North America. Because of
language barrier, early Chinese American Studies specialists were not familiar with this
Chinese immigrant creative endeavor in America and, like the Angel Island poems,
these three anthologies were overlooked.

In the late 1970s, Marlon Hom found these anthologies in his research project on trans-
Pacific Chinese American family maintenance during the exclusion period. From these
anthologies, he selected 220 rhymes and translated them into English; and the bilingual
anthology Songs of Gold Mountain was published by the University of California Press in
1987. A paperback edition followed, for textbook use.

The rhymes collected in the three anthologies of Gold Mountain Rhymes have a formal

structure, a folksong format popular in the Szeyup 四邑 (“four counties”) regions of the

Pearl River Delta, particularly in the Taishan 台山 and Kaiping 開平 counties. Nearly 99%
of the early Chinese immigrant population in America came from the Pearl River Delta
area, with those of the Szeyup origins constituted to about 75% of the Chinese
population in America.

This particular rhyme format is still extant today; local writers still use it for their
creative writings in addition to its oral narrative tradition. The rhyme has a rigid format,
composed of 46 syllables/words in eight lines of irregular length, each line ends with a
rhyme scheme based on the Cantonese phonetics. Commonly known as the “46-syllabic

song 四十六字歌”, it was written and sang at mostly weddings to celebrate the
newlyweds before the 1950s. Hence it was also known as the “Rhymes from next room

夾房歌”, that is, friends and relatives would improvise and sing the rhymes in the next
room to tease the newlywed couple in their wedding night.

However, this “wedding-teasing rhymes” have evolved to an entirely new poetic genre

now commonly called the “Gold Mountain Songs 金山歌” written in North America by
Cantonese Chinese immigrants in the early 1900s. There were also a variety of thematic
contents focusing mainly of the Chinese immigrants experiences, both personal and
collective, upon arrival in America.

Back in the Pearl River Delta in southern China, this 46-syllabic Cantonese folk rhyme
also changed after the 1949 communist revolution. The cultural apparatus of the new
local government have adopted it to create folk rhymes to praise and glorify the new
Chinese government and the communist revolution.

And in 2007, it was again used by the local government to celebrate and promote
Kaiping county in the Szeyup emigrant region being designated as United Nation
World Cultural Heritage site for the unique architectural features established by
returnees from their overseas sojourn, especially from the Americas (from Canada to
Central America).

In 2018, local government again used Hom’s book, a bilingual translation of the folk
rhymes published in America in 1911-17, as reference and selected some rhyme from
the book to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Kaiping’s UN World Heritage
designation, and a few rhymes/songs from Hom’s Songs of Gold Mountain anthology
was put into local folksong musical scores, and performed in the commemorative event,
along with a CD available for sale. In a curious sense, it is interesting that this 46-
syllable folksong was brought over to America by the early Chinese immigrants and it
became a creative literary endeavor in the early Chinese American community, with a
publication of three anthologies in the 1910s in San Francisco. It develops into a genre

commonly known as the “Gold Mountain Rhymes”金山歌 with new narrative contents.
And finally, it returned to Szeyup, its origin in the Pearl River Delta, with recognition as
a Chinese American literary creation.

A selection of rhymes on immigration during the period of Chinese Exclusion (1882-
1943) is included in the Class reader as the assigned reading.

A CD of Songs of GM, by Kaiping office of Culture

1. If you are interested in a critique of the Gold Mountain Rhymes as collected in

Hom’s book, see: Sau Ling Wong’s essay collected in the book Entry Denied
edited by Sucheng Chan.

2. If you have any questions regarding the Class Reader reading, please email me for
clarification and explanation. Again, please do not send class-related email in the evening
or at night or during the weekend. Teachers are not paid to work 24-7 on demand.
Respect the teacher’s personal time and space.

   

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EBSCO Publishing : eBook Collection (EBSCOhost) – printed on 2/23/2021 12:43 AM via SAN FRANCISCO
STATE UNIV
AN: 34572 ; Marlon K. Hom.; Songs of Gold Mountain : Cantonese Rhymes From San Francisco Chinatown
Account: sfsu

   

Page iii

Songs of Gold Mountain

Cantonese Rhymes From San Francisco Chinatown

Marlon K. Hom

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Page iv

University of California Press 

Berkeley and Los Angeles, California 

University of California Press, Ltd. 

Oxford, England 

© 1987 by The Regents of the University of California 

First Paperback Printing 1992 

Printed in the United States of America 

An abridged version of the second half of the introductory essay appeared  

in Western Folklore (1983); song 16 appeared in Amerasia Journal (1982);

 songs 2–9, 11, 12, 14, and 16 appeared in Greenfield Review (1983) 

 Renditions of these rhymes are slightly different in the present volume.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Library of Congress Cataloging­in­Publication Data

Chin­shan ko chi. English.

Songs of Gold Mountain.

Translation of: Chin­shan ko chi.

1. Chinese poetry—California—San Francisco—Translations into  

English. 2. English poetry—Translations from Chinese. 3. Chinese  

poetry—California—San Francisco. 4. Chinese poetry—20th century.   

5. China—Emigration and immigration—Poetry. 6. California—  

Emigration and immigration—Poetry. 7. Chinatown (San Francisco, Calif.)—Poetry. I. Hom, Marlon K. II. Title.

PL3164.5.E5C54 1987 895.1’1 86­11234

ISBN 0­520­08104­8

The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed 

Library Materials, ANSI 39.48­1984. 

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Page v

Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Translator’s Note x

An Introduction to Cantonese Vernacular Rhymes from San Francisco 

Chinatown

3

The Songs of Gold Mountain

1. Immigration Blues 71

2. Lamentations of Stranded Sojourners 91

3. Lamentations of Estranged Wives 111

4. Nostalgic Blues 148

5. Rhapsodies on Gold 176

6. Songs of Western Influence and the American­borns 203

7. Nuptial Rhapsodies 231

8. Ballads of the Libertines 252

9. Songs of the Young at Heart 269

10. Songs of Prodigals and Addicts 288

11. Songs of the Hundred Men’s Wife 308

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Page vii

Acknowledgments

In the course of doing research on Chinese American literature, I came across a “Wooden Barracks” poem at the Angel Island Immigration Station, written by a 

Cantonese immigrant sometime between 1910 and 1930. I have translated it as follows:

Poems, thousands and thousands, written all  

     over the walls: 

All words of grievances and sorrow. 

Should we one day be freed from this prison,  

     and prosper with success, 

Treasure the memory: marks of all those years.

Times have changed considerably in the last fifty years. Still, the literature of the Chinese in America prior to the 1950s remains largely unknown even to many Chinese 

Americans today. Books by recent Chinese American writers promoted by American publishers have gained their deserved recognition and ac­

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Page viii

ceptance, but the literature of the early Chinese Americans is still buried in the past. It was not until very recently that the poems of the Chinese immigrants on Angel 

Island became known and were translated into English, allowing us to understand and appreciate in depth a chapter of our literary heritage.

I hope that the present work, a selection of Cantonese vernacular rhymes from San Francisco Chinatown, written in the early 1910s, will be still another window into 

early Chinese American literary life, and that it will provide us with authentic knowledge of the experiences of Chinese in America at the turn of this century.

For this volume, I am especially grateful to Mr. Him Mark Lai of the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. Mark Lai, as he is usually called, is the 

dean of Chinese American history and has been most generous in sharing his vast knowledge and huge collection of Chinese American materials. My casual inquiry to 

him about early Chinatown literature resulted in his providing me, from his own library, with photocopies of the rare Jinshan ge ji (Songs of Gold Mountain) 

anthologies of 1911 and 1915. Among teachers and friends who have read my manuscript, in part or in its entirety, and have offered me valuable criticism and 

suggestions for revision, I am especially thankful to Professors Wuchi Liu and Jeffery P. Chan, Frank Chin, Russell Leong, Ruthanne McCunn, and Sam Solberg. Mr. 

Tan Bi­yon also gave me additional insights for the revision of my manuscript during our two meetings in San Francisco in April 1984. Lorraine has been working with 

me on the Chinese American literature project untiringly all these years; her support has been unrelenting. Dr. Barbara Metcalf, Ms. Phyllis Killen, and Ms. Susan 

Stone,

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Page ix

editors at the University of California Press, and Ms. Sally Serafim have given me tremendous assistance and expert advice in preparing this volume for publication. Of 

course, I alone am responsible for all the imperfection in this book.

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Page x

Translator’s Note

All Cantonese expressions are transcribed in a modified Yale Cantonese romanization system. A Mandarin equivalent in pinyin transcription is given in parentheses. 

E.g.: Gamsaan (Jinshan) for Gold Mountain.

There are two sets of footnotes to the rhymes. The notes to the Chinese originals consist of a collation of misused homophonous words; wrong words are cited and 

correct ones appended. Regional Cantonese expressions are annotated in standard Chinese. The notes to the translations provide annotation to Chinese literary 

expressions that are not self­explanatory in English.

Abbreviations: JSGJ I: Jinshan ge ji (1911)

                       JSGJ II: Jinshan ge erji (1915)

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Page 3

An Introduction to Cantonese Vernacular Rhymes from San Francisco Chinatown

Early Chinatown:  

A Historical Overview

Establishing the Oldest American Chinatown

The French sinologist M. de Guignes wrote in 1761 that the Chinese had first come to the American continent one thousand years before the European explorers, 

when Hui Shen, a Buddhist monk, came to a land called Fusang, which de Guignes identified as the west coast of North America. Upon returning to China, Hui Shen 

reported in detail on the livelihood of the Fusang natives. His account appears in the sixth­century A.D. historical text Liang shu.1 However, no other conclusive

1. French Sinologist M. de Guignes’s study was based on the account in volume 54 of the Liang shu (History of the Liang dynasty), a historical work written between 502 and 556. 

Some later scholars rejected this study, or tried to identify “Fusang” as another place. A brief summary regarding this issue and further references are given in Thomas Chin et al., 

A History of Chinese in California (San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America, 1969), pp. 1–2.

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documents are available on this so­called early discovery of America by the Chinese. Recent Chinese anthropological studies have, however, drawn comparisons 

between the Chinese and the natives of America, showing some similarities in language and culture between the two peoples now separated by the Pacific Ocean.2

The verifiable Chinese presence in America came much later. In the mid­seventeenth century, Chinese seamen traveled on board Spanish trading vessels via the 

Philippine Islands, which were known in Cantonese as Leuisung (Lüsong), after the island of Luzon. Some settled in Mexico, which they called Siu Leuisung (Xiao 

Lüsong) or Little Luzon, probably because Spanish was spoken in both countries and they thus appeared similar in culture. These Chinese settlers became a part of the 

local community, making their living among the Mexicans.3 Merchants and traders from southeastern China,

2. Wei Juxian, Zhongguoren faxian Meizhou chu kao (A preliminary investigation on the Chinese discovery of America) (Taibei: Shishi chuban gongsi, 1975). Wei uses 

archaeological evidence of similarities between Native American and Chinese culture to suggest that Native Americans are Chinese in origin. See also Wei’s Zhongguoren faxian 

Meizhou tiyao (A summary regarding the Chinese discovery of America) (Rpt., Taibei: Shishi chuban gongsi, 1975) in which he claims that ancient China had a long history of 

communication with natives in the American continent. Fusang is often identified as a hibiscus plant. In Chinese writings, its red blossom alludes to the sun, hence it becomes the 

name for the eastern part of the world where the sun rises and, consequently, for the island nation of Japan, which literally means “sun’s origin.” However, Wei in his studies 

argues that fusang must be the redwoods of America. He also cites the mention of hummingbirds, native birds of America that never appeared in any Chinese writings prior to that 

entry in the Liang shu, as proof of his theory, since it was Hui Shen who introduced these new items to China.

3. Chin et al., p. 6.

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long experienced in doing business with foreigners, were seen regularly in the ports of Mexico. In 1838 the earliest Chinese reached Yerba Buena, the name for San 

Francisco before California was incorporated into the United States in 1850.4

In 1849, the news of the discovery of gold in California reached China, and hundreds of Chinese began arriving in the early months of 1850. Thousands followed in 

subsequent years, as mining, farming, and railroad construction boomed. Then, as now, the Chinese called the United States Gamsaan (Jinshan), or Gold Mountain, a 

term deriving from the 1849 Gold Rush. It was also called Fakei (Huaqi), or Flowery Flag, a name inspired by the fancy graphics of the American flag.

Instead of the cruel coolie system of slavery found in Southeast Asia and South America, the Chinese workers usually came to the United States under the “credit fare”

system. A man would repay the loan that paid his passage by working under contract for a specified period. He was then free to pursue his own living. Workers were 

largely Cantonese, natives of Guangdong province in southeastern China, an area that had prospered from foreign trade since the sixteenth century. Specifically, they 

came from two regions around the Pearl River delta. The Saamyup (Sanyi) area consisted of the “Three Counties”—Naamhoi (Nanhai), Punyu (Panyu), and Seundak 

(Shunde). The Seiyup (Siyi) area encompassed the “Four Counties” of Sunning (Xinning)/Toisaan (Taishan), Sunwui (Xinhui), Hoiping (Kaiping), and Yanping 

(Enping). Saamyup natives in

4. Chin et al., p. 10. In 1946, Americans renamed Yerba Buena “San Francisco.”

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Map 1. 

The Pearl River Delta and the American 

West Coast

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America often engaged in mercantile and other business trades; Seiyup natives, mainly laborers, accounted for 70 percent of the total Chinese population in the United 

States.5

In San Francisco, the Chinese soon formed fraternal organizations based on their county of origin to assist those who came to earn a living in America. In the early 

1850s, most Chinese workers did not stay long in the port. For them, as for their white Gold Rush counterparts, San Francisco was only a stopover on the way to the 

vast interior. Merchants, traders, and providers of services and supplies would stay. In the mid­1850s, more Chinese began to settle in San Francisco, engaging in 

service industries, which provided stable employment and income. The so­called Chinatown of San Francisco was formed in those early years, as a concentrated area 

of Chinese commercial and other business operations began to take shape. The owners and workers usually occupied living quarters located behind the storefronts. 

However, Chinese were scattered throughout this frontier city, living an integrated existence among San Franciscans of various ethnic and cultural origins.

At first, the arrival in California of the “China boys” was welcomed. Aside from working in the mines, the Chinese provided the major labor force for reclaiming 

California land for farming. Some were skilled fishermen and shrimp harvesters. Later, tens of thousands worked, and many died, building the transcontinental railroad, 

even laying a record­breaking ten miles of track in a single day on April 28, 1869. However, by the mid­1850s, conflicts had developed in the mines, and

5. Chin et al., p. 4.

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Chinese miners became the victims. When the transcontinental railroads were completed in 1869, a massive labor surplus was created. Some Chinese workers left for 

the farms, but many turned to San Francisco, now the major urban center in the West. However, the rail­road was also facilitating the movement of workers from the 

depressed East Coast cities into an already saturated West. Conflicts arose, fueled by the belief in “manifest destiny” by the white men who would claim the American 

continent. This created a tremendous hardship for the Chinese on the West Coast, who became the objects of attack by and exclusion from the greater American 

society. The benign tolerance of times past turned into hysterical rejection. “The Chinese must go!” became an accepted slogan, serving the self­interest of both the 

white working class and the opportunistic politicians, as wealthy capitalists exploited cheap Chinese labor for their own gain.6 Chinese were attacked everywhere as 

white workingmen and labor unionists and their supporters tried to drive the Chinese away.

California had the largest concentration of Chinese; many lived in San Francisco. Although discriminatory practices were severe in the city, there was no safer or 

economically more feasible place for them to go. The Chinese realized that the presence of so many of their countrymen would enable them to render mutual as­

6. For an excellent analysis of the conflict in the triangular relationship among the white working class and white unionists, the capitalists, and the Chinese workers, see Alexander 

Saxton, The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti­Chinese Movement in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971). Saxton views labor conflicts between the 

Chinese and white workers from a class perspective, in which the capitalists manipulate the two groups to advance their self­interest and their profits.

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Map 2. 

San Francisco Bay Area, with Street Map of Chinatown

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sistance and comfort in a time of crisis. As it turned out, while the Chinese were often stoned or physically abused in non­Chinese neighborhoods, once inside their 

own enclave they were relatively safe. As a result, a large Chinese community, sometimes called the “Canton of the West,” existed in San Francisco by the early 

1870s. It was located two blocks west of Yerba Buena Cove, the city harbor (today the landfilled area occupied by the financial district and the Embarcadero). The 

area surrounding Portsmouth Plaza (now Portsmouth Square) and Dupont Street (now Grant Avenue, but in Chinese still called by its former name) was San 

Francisco’s downtown, but later, when Chinese businesses and residents moved in as white ones moved out, it became part of Chinatown. Sacramento Street was 

called Tongyan gaai (Tangren jie), the Street of the Chinese. By the time the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 restricting Chinese immigration was passed, the Chinese 

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