“The Far Country” at Yale Rep

Robert Schneider in New Haven, Connecticut
31 May 2024


In 1970, a park ranger discovered Chinese characters carved into the walls of San Francisco’s Angel Island Immigration Station by people detained there earlier in the century. When layers of puddy and peeling paint were removed, almost 200 poems were revealed. They speak of disappointment, resolve and injured dignity. The immigrants had no doubt of their cultural superiority to the Western barbarians. Their surprise and pain at being denied immediate entry to the land of the flowery flag are recurring themes.


David Shih, Tina Chilip, and Hao Feng.
Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson.



Everyone says traveling to North America is a pleasure.
I suffered misery on the ship and sadness in the wooden building.
After several interrogations, still I am not done.
I sigh because my compatriots are being forcibly detained.

Like immigrants everywhere, they also thought of those they’d left behind.

The west wind ruffles my thin gauze clothing.
On the hill sits a tall building with a room
of wooden planks.
I wish I could travel on a cloud far away,
reunite with my wife and son…

Some relate the author’s plans for a life in the new land:

Leaving behind my writing brush and removing my sword,
I came to America.
Who was to know two streams of tears would flow
upon arriving here?
If there comes a day when I will have attained my ambition
and become successful, I will certainly behead the barbarians
and spare not a single blade of grass.


All the poems are by men; the women’s barracks burned down in 1940.

These compositions are the archive that fuels Lloyd Suh’s Pulitzer-finalist play The Far Country currently in a masterful but subdued production at Yale Rep. The play taps into two basic fears: the fear of being held back and the fear of interrogation.

For Asian immigrants attempting to reach California in the period of the play (1909-1930) the border was as much an obstacle as the sea they crossed to reach it. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 only allowed the immediate family of American citizens to enter. Almost one in five were refused entry, a much higher percentage than at Ellis Island. Hence the second fear: of not being able to answer elementary questions that a family member would know and that another family member, already in America, could verify independently.


“How many steps lead up to the door of your school?”

“What color are they?”

“Speckled gray or solid gray?”


It would be difficult for many of us to answer these questions; we’re not sufficiently aware of tiny facts in our daily lives; we have no reason to concentrate on them. For the characters in Suh’s play, the questions are nearly impossible; they aren’t family members. They’ve been recruited for other reasons, economic or matrimonial. They spend the long voyage across the Pacific memorizing every detail of “family” life in their “hometown,” hoping to pass the exam.

In the play, their interrogators are officious, but never insulting or violent. They occupy positions of power which they exercise with restraint and intelligence. Time is on their side; there’s no limit to the number or length of interrogations. They can come back to sticky points later. Poor students are sent back to China quickly.

Suh focusses on the very best, a young man named Moon Gyet (Hao Feng) who’s sponsored by a “father,” Gee (David Shih), who himself underwent interrogation to establish his American birth after the city’s records were destroyed in the San Franciso fire of 1906. Moon Gyet will spend 17 months on the island, interrogated at odd intervals as resources allow. It’s a game of cat and mouse, both doing the best they can.


Hao Feng, Haskell King, Joe Osheroff.
Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson.


Suh’s interrogators are very different from Pinter’s in Mountain Language. Their brutality is bureaucratic, a purely technocratic form of torture. It is violent only in the fact of its existence, not in its methods. Listening to the play, you can’t stop thinking about America’s southern border.

At a critical point, Gyet has had enough, he races ahead of his questioner, reeling off a long list of questions he might be asked. In a more conventional play, Gyet’s recitation would end the scene. He’s shown that he understands the game as well as his interrogator; it should be a draw. But his interrogator (Haskell King) is unabashed even though outwitted. The scene continues with the interrogator choosing new questions from the list his victim has supplied. Absurdity isn’t a problem for those watching a border.

After Gyet is returned to the barracks, the interrogator tells his colleague “They’re all lying.”  So why let any of them in? They don’t have family in America, only potential employers or spouses. Perhaps Angel Island isn’t so much a barrier to Asian immigration as a filter. Only the best and most determined liars are admitted. Or perhaps the interrogators, schooled by their victims, eventually come to understand membership in a family as a question of devoted study and dogged persistence rather than blood ties. The immigrants, after all, have abandoned their birthname, parents, and sometimes spouses and children to attempt entry. They are “paper sons” and “paper daughters” whose “papers” are hard study and strict examination. Perhaps the examiners concede that anybody who survives 17 months of indefinite detention on Angel Island deserves to be a part of the American family.

The first act closes with a cadenza which gives voice to 300,000 detainees who came to America under the Chinese Exclusion Act (which only ended in 1943). It draws directly from the Angel Island poems, presenting the detainee experience in an expressionistic montage of light, sound and image (scenic design by Kim Zhou, lighting by Yichen Zhou, sound design and original music by Joe Krempetz and Xi Lin, projection by Hana S. Kim).

The cadenza aside, Ralph B. Peña’s production is restrained and very nearly static. It emphasizes the play’s intelligence rather than its dramatic flash points. Gee, for example, goes into his birthright citizenship interview with a cute Charlie Chan voice and a self-depreciating manner, assuring the investigator that all his friends think “he funny guy” and “do good work at laundry.” The authorities have provided an interpreter (Joe Osheroff) to help him as needed. Everything Gee says to the interpreter, that is to say, everything that’s in “Chinese” (and which the interpreter faithfully repeats to the investigator) is standard English. Moreover, it’s standard English of a particularly fluid, elegant and exacting variety. So we learn to accept that when characters speak “Chinese” in the play, even if they’re illiterate peasants, they sound like graduate students from Stanford. The poems carved in the barracks walls by a cultivated minority of detainees have, in Suh’s play, lent their quality of expression to the entire cast.

A further irony, left implicit, is that some of the immigrants’ descendants will become graduate students at Stanford. Many of the Asian-Americans in the creative team putting on this play are descendants of immigrants and have earned (or are in the process of earning) graduate degrees.

Gyet and his “paper father” prosper in their laundry business well enough for Gyet to return to China and recruit (in a wonderfully layered scene) a “paper wife,” the nineteen-year-old daughter of a rural family (Joyce Meimei Zheng) whose older brother already attempted the trip and was turned back, plunging the family into debt for the expenses of his voyage. While both characters try to be forthright and realistic, she receives his business proposition as a form of wooing while he receives her wooing as part of a business proposition. Neither of them has much choice: it’s a package deal.

In the final scene of the play, set in 1930, we learn that they have five children. The laundry now employs American labourers. They have thrived, or at least survived in the new land—the best revenge for the indignities of entering it. Gee, on his deathbed and cared for by his “daughter-in-law,” looks back at his life with incredulity. Was it really his? He can’t remember. His memories are troubled by the fictions he has been forced to rehearse and perform.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but the past president of the nonprofit Angel Island Immigration Foundation, which supports and promotes the Angel Island museums today, is also named Gee and is a descendant of a “paper son.” Buck Gee was vice president and general manager of Cisco Systems and a member of the Committee of 100. He co-founded the Advanced Leadership Program for Asian American Executives at the Stanford Graduate School of Business He joined the Angel Island Immigration Foundation as a volunteer when he retired from Cisco in 2008.