Carved in Silence (review)
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 20, Number 2, 1990
- pp. 33-34
- Additional Information
should be important to American historians. Shortly before he died de Antonio reflected: "We see ourselves as the spectator and not part ofthe spectacle." Ripmaster wishes to thank Stuart Hutchison and credit his WBAI radio commemoration of de Antonio. The films can be purchased or rented from Turin Film Corporation, Box 1567, New York, NY 10017. Phone 212475-2630. Film Review Carved in Silence (1988) color, 45 minutes. Felicia Lowe Productions, 98 1 1th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103. This film presents an account of the Angel Island experience of Chinese immigrants with an emphasis on the period between the early 1920s and 1943. Angel Island in San Francisco Bay served as a cheap version of Ellis Island for Asian immigrants. Interviews in the film with elderly Chinese-Americans suggest that poverty in China and hope for a better life in America motivated Chinese immigration to the United States, despite the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, anti-Chinese prejudice, and denial ofAmerican citizenship. A combination of the lack of vital records in China and the destruction caused by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 provided a loophole for Chinese immigrants to come to the United States as spouses or children of previous immigrants. Immigration inspectors on Angel Island vigorously examined potential immigrants to identify false marriage papers and eliminate fake relatives. But Chinese immigrants and their ChineseAmerican contacts devised an ingenious system for getting around the immigration inspectors. The kitchen staff, primarily Chinese-Americans, took notes to Chinatown for the detainees and brought back replies that they taped to the bottom of dinner plates. Most Chinese immigrants preferred to forget their experiences on Angel Island, where immigrants were often confined for six months to two years before a determination was made in their case. One of the themes that filmmaker Felicia Lowe successfully brings out in the film is the emotional and mental anguish many Chinese felt on Angel Island. Through interviews with elderly Chinese-Americans, dramatic re-enactments, and sensitive use of archival photographs and poetry, Lowe makes the viewer appreciate the isolation and humiliation endured by Chinese immigrants — like her own father. Her use of archival photographs, many taken of smiling Chinese by government officials, adds an ironic contrast to the reality endured by the immigrants. The interviews with elderly Chinese-Americans are especially moving. Unfortunately, the film's concentration on Angel Island is a weakness as well as a strength. Although there is an attempt to provide some historical background, little is actually said or shown about Chinese immigration between the 1840s and 1920. Even during the period of the film's focus, from 1920 through the 1940s, there is no real indication of the problems faced by Chinese-Americans once they arrived. There is only passing reference to Chinese immigration since 1965, and no attempt to compare the Chinese experience with that ofother immigrant groups. 33 Carved in Silence does provide historians, sociologists and students with a compassionate understanding of one aspect of the ChineseAmerican experience. It also demonstrates how one American ethnic group found a way to widen the door for immigrants despite the rigorous efforts of Congress, the public, and immigration inspectors to close the door on Asian immigration. Although the film aptly depicts the despair ofthe immigrants and bigotry ofofficials, it also carries a message ofhope. This film would be useful in an American History survey course or one on ethnicity in history. There is need to supplement the film with additional background material on immigration in general and the Chinese immigration in particular. The film also needs to be put into the context of more recent trends in Asian immigration. It is probably best seen in conjunction with a reading of H.M. Lai's "Island of the Immortals: Angel Island Immigration Station and the Chinese Immigrants," California Histoiy (Spring, 1978), 88-103. Despite my reservations, I think that Felicia Lowe has provided us with a moving account of the problems faced by Chinese immigrants on Angel Island. Viewers who know about the Ellis Island experience should find the events on Angel Island equally interesting and important for our understanding of immigration. We need additional documentaries on Asian immigration, and Ms. Lowe has...