What Lies on the Border

The Poetry of "Contraband"
Written by
(Image: Angel Island interrogation, c. 1920s, via National Archives / Him Mark Lai)


Last week Representative Steve King tweeted out, with characteristic glibness, a toast to the Border Patrol, celebrating the deportation of “The first non-valedictorian DREAMer,” a snarky reference to the immigrant youth who had been granted temporary legal protection under the Obama administration, and who in his mind were too often portrayed as stellar students and not drug traffickers. For King, the migrant smuggling contraband is no different from the border absconder earning an honors diploma.

But these dueling documents that King considered worthless: the honors diploma, the temporary legal certification protecting a young person from deportation, are both, actually, a  kind of contraband, and both are completely authentic tetinonies. The genius of the undocumented is that it’s American ingenuity embodied: to be present as an “illegal” and to hide under the cover of fraud--they’re all a form of storytelling, of substituting one artifice of truth with a more real and vital human imperative---of transmutation in order to become who we know we are, despite the borders that deny our existence and invisiblize reality. Bonnie Kwong, a poet and software coder in the Bay Area, plays with the image of the real and the fraud in "Contraband," a polyglot poetic passage that is part of the "100 Days of Action" on Trump.

Her documentation is the story that one saves from childhood and repeats again and again, half folktale and half prayer, always seeking home even as the chorus recedes into memory.

The Chinese lines of the poem are in the mother tongue of “illegality.” The “paper sons” seeking passage into America in the late nineteenth century--to get past racist anti-Chinese bans--fabricated elaborate stories, forged documents, and coached scripts to convince immigration agents that they were “authentic.” These early “illegals” lied seamlessly about every detail of their falsified family histories, the interiors of imagined homes, fantasized names. Before DACA, "social security fraud" or "unlawful entry" were criminalized, the racial exclusionist law considered the Chinese identity thieves, cons--they were the cheaters, not the valedictorians, right?

But what is real when seeking passage through a border? The checkpoint is always where translations are exchanged, where the story becomes a revealed truth. Though she claims she has "nothing to declare," she reveals: “I traffic in songs/ steal from you/ when you are not watching/ sing to you/ when you are not/listening.” The lyric that is believed, even in silence. What more proof do you need?

--Michelle Chen, April 24, 2017



Immigration documents for Ben Jung, 1921 (Southern Fried Rice)


when we touch




 you can taste

                    the languages I speak

              水  sui  water [diphthong]


      客 haak guest [consonant clipped from your lips]

                 水客  water guest               

         I ask you for songs

                      your mother sang to you

    I remember them

                                          and sing them in the quiet

                   I know a song


                             a clay doll:






                                                                 泥娃娃 泥娃娃


也有那鼻子. 也有那嘴巴.



          ta shi ge jia wa wa                              she’s a doll

bu shi ge zhen wa wa                              not a baby

  ta mei you tsin ai di ma ma                              she has no mommy

ye mei you ba ba                              she has no daddy

  ni wa wa      ni wa wa                              clay doll   clay doll

      yi ge ni wa wa                                        a doll of clay

Jew Joe Clan History (juejoeclan.blogspot.com)

  ye you ge bi zi                              she has a nose

ye you ge zui ba           he has a mouth

zui ba bu shuo hua                      but she can’t speak


                                  I know a song

         about a rabbit and the moon.

うさぎ うさぎ




                     usagi                                                rabbit   

                          usagi                                                rabbit

        nani mite haneru                      where are you jumping to

     zyuu go ya otsuki sama I’m jumping to the full moon

                        mite haneru        of the fifteenth  


when we touch





 you know

                   I traffic in songs


    I steal from you

         when you are not watching


              sing to you


                                                                          when you are not



                                                                     Nandito ako

                                                               umiibig sa iyo

Angel Island (Carved in Silence (Lowedown))

                                             Kahit na nagdurugo ang puso

   Kung sakaling iwanan ka niya

                                                                Huwag kang mag-alala

May nagmamahal sa iyo

    Nandito ako

                       I am here loving you

                              though my heart is bleeding.

If she leaves you

Don't you worry

There is someone who loves


                    I am here


                                                                     I come

                                                              from a line

                                                                               of smugglers

                        my great grandfather

    was a 水客, a water guest,

         though he walked   


                   Hong Kong


                      the mainland


    the contraband

              --don't laugh--

          dried seafood

                   what duty

        would he have had to pay

                                                          my father arrived in the US

                                         with a suitcase

                                                full of nothing but ideas


                                                   my parents settled in snow

                 snow past spring


US Customs and Border Protection Welcomes You to the United States

I have nothing to declare


Read the rest and view the animated version.

Learn more about 100 Days of Action.


A Message from Favianna Rodriguez

"Art is always a reflection, a testament and a record of our human condition." Donate Now!