Teow Lim Goh

From China Mary
San Francisco, California, 1855.


They say I am a lucky girl—Madame
took a liking to me, bought me
for her house. She gives me silk dresses
and shows me to sit still, my face
turned just slightly away—the men
like it that way, they say. Here the men
are city leaders and merchants and if
they like me, they would take me
to their parties and shower me
with jewels I can keep—my earnings
in lieu of wages. I could be
in the cribs, they say, serving
any man who stumbles up the alley
smelling of grime and whiskey. Here
I can study English or practice the piano
or learn to powder my face just white
enough to let them see just a hint
of the wild beast of my skin. Here
I want to say, no, leave me alone, no,
get away from me, no, get your hands off
me, but I open my mouth and find
the words have hardened in my throat.


Men sail across the sea, hustle
across the prairie, stumble in the heat
of the desert to come to this place

where you can gather gold
in the rivers. They tell me all this
when they come to the city

looking for women to adore.
Naked, they talk of their exploits
in the mountains, tales

of cards and guns and somehow
they are the hero. Their eyes
drift away and I pick their pockets

for gold, maybe a watch. Their bodies
pulse with rage and heartache
as they press on me.


Some men just want to talk over
dominoes and opium

in the parlor. I help them
write letters to their wives, asking

for children they haven’t
seen for years and parents who are ill.

They tell me about children
born years after they’d left, children

they now consider theirs—what
choice do they have?

At least they have someone waiting
for their return.


There is a man who comes to me
at the beginning of each month.

He does not say much
as he kisses the bruises on my arms, digs
his callused fingers
into the muscles of my back.

Maybe he’s the one
who will buy me out of here.

The other day a letter fell from his pocket.
I flicked it under the bed, read it
when he’s gone.

He has a wife and son at home.


I’m alone in my bed. The moon
casts slivers of light
on the ledge. Stars tell stories
I cannot yet read—


Teow Lim Goh is the author of Islanders (Conundrum Press, 2016), a volume of poems on the history of Chinese exclusion at the Angel Island Immigration Station. Her work has been featured in Tin House, Catapult, PBS NewsHour, Colorado Public Radio, and The New Yorker. She lives in Denver.