The great attraction that California held for emigrants from China dates back to the days of the Gold Rush. The discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848, and Sam Brennan's mad dash through the streets of San Francisco crying: "Gold! Gold in the hills!", catapulted the isolated coastal community into worldwide fame.
For the next several years, every conceivable mode of transportation was pressed into service to bring fortune-seekers from countless nations in a mad scramble for instant riches. Through the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay, they poured into the city and headed for the gold fields of the Mother Lode at Mariposa, Sonora, Placerville, Sutter Creek, Coloma and Mormon's Bar.
Prospectors came from Europe, Australia, South America and Mexico. Conestoga wagons creaked through hostile Indian territory; boats sailed around Cape Horn; intrepid souls trekked across the Isthmus of Panama. California had become Jason and the Argonauts' land of the Golden Fleece. In the Greek legend, the mythical fleece hung from a tree guarded by a dragon. In the rush of 1849, gold was truly to be found in California, but the people of the dragon were the last to arrive.
The news reached China in 1851 on clipper ships that docked at Amoy and Hong Kong before sailing up the Pearl River to the great city of Canton. The Cantonese and others of Kwangtung Province were among the first Chinese to hear of gold in California and were thus the first from China to respond. Today, the largest Chinese population in San Francisco is still Cantonese-speaking, in a tradition established when nearly 20,000 emigrated from South China in 1852.
Those who came were predominantly males out to make their fortunes, stumbling ashore at San Francisco or Monterey to chip a piece of Gum San, "Golden Mountain," a newly coined name for California. Most were farmers by trade and knew what it was to turn up earth, but where in China could they reap a harvest of gold? They landed with one dream: to make money and go back home. Some did, but the majority did not. Those who stayed were to give birth to another China in the New World.
In every settlement around the gold fields, there was a "China" Town, perhaps no more than a block long, perhaps a cluster of small buildings set somewhat apart, and sometimes no more than a single structure that served as a joss house, or Chinese temple, where the Orientals so far away from their familiar world could gather to seek consolation in worship. Today, in such towns as North San Juan and Weaverville, the old joss houses survive, and an entire Chinese-style street in Locke, California, still stands more or less unchanged. China Camp, a former Chinese fishing community in Marin County on the shores of San Pablo Bay, likewise retains a close-to-original appearance.
If anyone stood at the bottom in the pecking order of immigrants flooding California's shores, it was the Chinese. They were the most abused of the races that arrived with gold fever. They came with customs now considered quaint, but then thought absurd.
A people of contradictions, to the Western mind, the women wore trousers, and the men, when at leisure, often dressed in gowns. The men even wore a queue--a pigtail, or plait of hair hanging from the back of the head--as did the women, and, unfortunately for the Chinese image, as did many American schoolgirls of the day. In hot sunshine, they donned straw hats that looked like cones inverted on their heads.
They spoke "sing-song talk, that sheep-bleating Chinese," as the other miners called it. The ancient, sonorous languages of China, exquisite even on a farmer's tongue, were lumped in one basket and placed beyond the pale.
Modern European use of "China," in varying linguistic forms, stems from "Ch'in," the dynasty which began construction of the Great Wall in the 3rd century B.C. The poetic "Cathay"--an English version of Medieval Latin's Cataya--derives from the Tartar Khitai, a word more evocative of Marco Polo's days among Kublai Khan's Mongols than of anything purely Chinese.
The Chinese themselves call their country by the chauvinistic name Chung-kuo, translated as "Middle Kingdom." The written ideographs comprising the name more fully communicate the concept and can be rendered into English as "the flowery kingdom at the center (the middle) of the world."
Glorified as "Earth's Jade Mountain" by the Tang Dynasty poets of the 7th to 10th centuries A.D., China was also called the "Celestial Empire." This latter term originated the patronizing "Celestials," used contemptuously by early Californians to designate the Chinese. Scurrilous it may have been, but it was surely better than "Chink," "Charlie Chinaman," "wog" or worse.
Almost everyone took advantage of the Chinese immigrant. Robbery of him was commonplace, as were assault and murder. But the Chinese were possessed of a vast inner resource, an almost spiritual strength developed during thousands of years of unique civilization in their own land, where wars and conquerors swept over the countryside like mighty winds across the plains of time.
They had come from a nation even then caught up in the Taiping Rebellion and were accustomed to belligerency. They put up stoically with the state of cultural siege that existed for them in the land called Golden Mountain. They would, at all costs, survive-- in spite of harrowing persecution.
Under pressure from American miners, the California State Legislature in 1850 had imposed a Foreign Miners' Tax. The tax was high enough to force most foreigners out of the gold country until the Chinese flooded Golden Mountain. The law had lapsed by 1852, but was quickly renewed by the legislature when the Americans beat, maimed and killed scores of Orientals to protest the lapse. The state collected several millions of dollars from this tax over the next 18 years, but the Chinese continued to be victimized, even by the tax collectors, who sometimes killed them to collect it.
The Chinese thus were forced to band together for protection. There were few Chinese females for companionship. There were no clubs or other entertainment to turn to, so men from the same village, usually sharing the same family name, formed exclusive groups of their own. These Family Associations took firm root in Chinese-American culture.
The chop suey found today on Chinese restaurant menus the world over was not the only legacy the gold-field Orientals were to leave to posterity. The Chinese cook in some forgotten California mining camp who threw his leftovers together in one dish and called it, in Mandarin, tsa sui, or "various things," surely left his mark on Western culture, but of far more impact on modern times was the enforced isolation of the Chinese from the mainstream of American life.
At the close of Gold Rush days in the mid-1860's, with California established as a state since 1850, the railroad surged forward from its eastern terminus in Nebraska, bent on making California a part of the United States in more than name only. The majority of the westbound crews blasting the tunnels, building the bridges, graveling the track beds and laying the iron rails for the Union Pacific Railroad were Irish immigrants who had left the Emerald Isle during the great Potato Famine of the 1850's.
Who would meet them from the West?
The "Big Four," directors of the Central Pacific Railroad--Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Collis Huntington, the empire-builders of San Francisco politics and wealth--surveyed the seemingly insurmountable task of closing the gap between East and West.
The Central Pacific would have to carve its way through the granite barrier of the Sierra Nevadas. These craggy mountains, blisteringly hot in summer, also suffered harsh winters made legendary by the tragedy of the Donner Party, 87 settlers who foundered in the snows of 1846 and resorted to cannibalism to survive.
The Big Four had already tried to employ the countrymen of the workers who approached from the East. Hundreds of the Irish had flocked by sea to Northern California after the gold strike, but the rowdy adventurers made excessive wage demands. They also had the unfortunate propensity to disappear in large numbers after payday. They were found drinking and fighting-- acting out, in essence, the archetypical "fighting Irishman"--in the saloons, gambling halls and pleasure palaces proliferating in Old San Francisco's bawdy waterfront district, the "Barbary Coast."
In 1865, Charles Crocker, supersalesman of the Big Four, came up with the answer: Hire the Chinese! Thousands were then in California, and thousands more were already on the way as indentured workers hired by overseas agents of the Central Pacific. Passage was paid against promissory notes for $75 in gold coin, secured and endorsed by family or friends. Full payment was due after seven months in California. The money owed was recorded by the Six Companies, and no Chinese was allowed to return to China until this and all other debts were paid.
Crocker bought them with the promise that if they died in the construction of the railroad, their corpses would be shipped to ancestral homes on the far side of the Pacific, an offer as important to them as life itself. Those who survived would prosper on a diet of mother-country food, from won-ton dumplings to steamed white rice.
The nabobs of San Francisco, the snobbish ruling class, found this "coddling of coolies" incomprehensible. The Chinese became known to them as "Crocker's pets."
The downtrodden Chinese jumped at Crocker's chance and, with it, took all the risks. They died in hundreds, broken by the heat and the cold, many blown apart by the dynamite used to tunnel over and through the precipitous mountain chain. Crocker dispatched contractors to hire fresh laborers in China to replace the fallen.
Shades of Emperor Huang-ti and the "Longest Cemetery on Earth"!