FAITH, FORTUNE AND COMPETING CALENDARS: TRANSLATING INSCRIPTIONS

14 February 2014

Finnish inscription

Finnish inscription

Between “In the month of Baramhāt, in the year 1315” and “early summer of the year of Ding Si”, dating some of the inscriptions scattered across the Q Station can prove challenging. In fact, the site is home to over a hundred inscriptions written in languages other than English, with further messages employing scripts which suggest that English was an acquired language for the writer.

One of the priorities for the Quarantine Project has been to ensure that non-English inscriptions are not only documented, but meaningfully translated and incorporated into our reading of the site. We want to capture the wording, the intent and – if possible – the identity of the author. Our task is complicated by the variety of languages encountered, from Chinese and Japanese, Indonesian and Fijian, Russian and Greek, to French, German and Finnish.

Yuhanna Abi Khalil

Yuhanna Abi Khalil's message

Some, such as “Finland, E. Laakso, Suomi, 14” are seemingly straightforward. That is, until our research begins to reveal that seaman, Emily Laakso, may have changed his name after arrival on the RMS Orsova in 1914 to John Laakso, or even John Larson – a common Scandinavian appellation. Tracing others, such as a crewman arriving on the SS Caledonien, can be complicated both by the limited literacy of the author and erosion of the inscription itself. Was his name “Yuhanna Abi Khalil” – as it appears that he wrote it – or the more formally correct “Yuhanna Abu Khalil”? Can the dates he inscribed in Arabic – either 1895 or more likely 1899 – be reconciled with the quarantine of the Caledonien in February 1898?

Inscriptions in Chinese represent the largest body of non-English messages at the Quarantine Station. Their resonance with the vast number of similar inscriptions at San Francisco’s Angel Island immigration station is striking, but the differences are important. Carving Chinese characters into wood is one thing; it is another to faithfully represent characters and display fine calligraphic skills when etching in sandstone.

For this reason, perhaps, many of the Chinese messages have been rendered in black paint or pitch, including a welcoming compound character found under the palm trees near the entrance to the wharf area. The figure itself cannot be pronounced, but its components “zhāo cái jìn băo” transliterate to “summon wealth enter treasure” – a common blessing for Chinese New Year. Context is important, too: the image is positioned next to a carved shape, which could be an urn, bone pot or barrel. Wishes that a family’s rice barrel should be always full are common at Chinese New Year, suggesting to us that the shape is indeed a rice barrel. Unfortunately, however, the inscription on the barrel itself is no longer legible.

Quite a different message has been painstakingly carved into a slate drain cover near the former first-class accommodation area. Sadly unfinished, the form of the inscription suggests that it followed a classical Chinese poetic form, quiyan lushi. Although anonymous, this literary allusion and the use of simplified characters suggest an author versed in classical Chinese texts. His (or her) sense of longing for the comforts of home is palpable.

We sincerely thank Honorary Professor Michael Carter for the Arabic translations, and Maria Sin, of the University of Hong Kong, commissioned to translate and interpret several Chinese inscriptions. We also thank Professor Helen Dunstan and Dr Andres Rodriguez, from the Department of History, for their expertise regarding translation and historical context for the Chinese inscriptions.

Dunstan and Rodriguez inspect inscriptions Chinese New Year inscription
  Helen Dunstan and Andres Rodriguez inspect
  Chinese New Year & barrel inscriptions
  Chinese New Year blessing
Islamic blessing Inspecting Chinese inscriptions
  Islamic blessing and imagery for the Caledonien
 1898
  Ursula Frederick and Maria Sin documenting
  Chinese inscriptions