Illegal: More Than A Musical

By Bryan Zhao

Angel Island, San Francisco Bay, 1910. A place where over hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants were detained in terrible living conditions, confined into tightly packed barracks where they awaited for weeks, or even months, to either be allowed into the United States or deported. A story based on these historical injustices is masterfully told in Illegal: A New Musical.

The story of Illegal plays out against the backdrop of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first and only law banning an ethnic group from immigrating to the U.S. The protagonist is Kee Lin, a female Kung Fu master living in Hong Kong. Her brother Kai Chung has received U.S. citizenship, and plans for the two of them to move to the U.S. However, Kai Chung is shot dead by a corrupt Hong Kong police officer while visiting Kee Lin, and their parents blame her for his death. With nowhere else to go, Kee Lin attempts to immigrate to the U.S. with a paper son, Slim Chin, who pretends to be Kai Chung. Slim Chin has a best friend, Fat Pork. The three board a boat to Angel Island, where their entry will be determined. Whether or not they eventually make it into the U.S., you’ll have to see for yourself!

Illegal was written by Skyler Chin, a Yale graduate, musician, martial artist, and writer, based in New York City. Born in San Francisco, a short distance away from Angel Island, he created this musical to tell the stories of the many “illegal” immigrants who came from China to the U.S. during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act, including his own two grandfathers: one was a “paper son” who entered the U.S. under an assumed name, and the other suffered months of separation from his family at age 10 when he was detained at Angel Island. Using the rap-rock style he grew up with and his storytelling expertise, Skyler worked with Sita Sunil, also a Yale graduate, an experienced composer and songwriter, to form spectacular musical numbers. The two of them visited Angel Island and saw Chinese poetry engraved upon the walls, like locks filled with the pain and sorrow of immigrants deported and imprisoned. They also partnered with Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation to enrich the knowledge presented in their musical.

I watched Illegal in the Kupferberg Center for the Arts at Queens College in Queens, New York, the hometown of 15 year old Ethan Song, a sophomore in a Connecticut boarding school. Ethan loved the musical and its spirit, and felt that the musical covered important sections of Asian American history that weren’t well known. Because of this, he decided to start a fundraiser to bring Illegal to Queens. Enduring through countless emails and phone calls, all the while working a 9-5 summer internship, Ethan was able to raise over $13,000 which helped pay for the venue and other expenses of the performance.

Ethan’s hard work paid off. At the Kupferberg Center, there were audiences of all different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Throughout the event, the feeling of a fighting spirit, hope, and unity was consistent in the atmosphere. After the show, one Asian American family said they brought their teenage son to watch the musical because they wanted to introduce him to his heritage and culture. Others emphasized the impact Illegal had on them, saying that it was of utmost importance to know one’s history. The hardships those in the past faced paved the way towards where we are today.

Illegal presents a critical piece of U.S. history in a contemporary and attractive way for audiences of all ages. It also exposes the fact that injustices towards people of Asian descent in this country began long ago.

Until 5th grade, I never knew much, if anything, about Asian American Pacific Islander History. That changed when I watched a PBS documentary titled “Asian Americans”, and realized how our schools barely taught any of it. From the approval of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, to the brutal murder of Vincent Chin in 1982, to nearly 11,500 anti-Asian hate incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate’s reporting center between March 19, 2020 and March 31, 2022, history always finds a way to repeat itself.

As the New York State Senator John Liu, who introduced legislation requiring all public schools to provide instruction in Asian American history, said in the remark before the musical performance at Queens College, “At the end of the day, what really is going to finally eradicate the racism that we have faced as the AAPI community is education.”

In this way, I believe that Illegal is not only a powerful musical, but also a vital lesson.

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