Thursday, July 23, 2009

A pictorial history of the Chinese experience in California


Historian Hannah Clayborn, based in Walnut Creek, writes that "Word of the 1848 gold discovery in California first spread on ships, and the people of Guangdong Province, burdened at home with political corruption, war, and floods, were some of the first to hear of it." By 1852 some 25,000 Chinese were listed on the California census. "Their countrymen called them Gam Saan Haak (guests of Gold Mountain). . . . The typical Chinese argonaut was young, single, and uneducated. He intended to return to China with his fortune made."

Clayborn tells the story of a century of immigrant experience in "Historic Photos of The Chinese in California" ($39.95 in hardcover from Turner Publishing). It features nearly 200 images drawn from such collections as the Oroville Chinese Temple and Museum, UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, and the Library of Congress.

"Despite violence and discrimination," the author writes, "the Chinese clung tenaciously to Gold Mountain, taking jobs on road crews, reclaiming marshlands in the Sacramento Delta and Central Valley, digging reservoirs and wells in new towns, and piling stones for property line fences." And they worked on the railroad, "doing the most hazardous tasks involved in laying track over the Sierra Nevada."

One photograph shows a procession of some sort down Montgomery Street in Oroville ("City of Gold") around 1890. Clayborn notes the town "was once the center for a population of Chinese miners, railroad workers, and agricultural laborers reportedly numbering above 10,000."

Another image, from 1895, shows Chun Kong You, "the most prosperous Chinese businessman in Oroville." He owned the "Fong Lee (Big Profit) store, which sold herbs and was a licensed gold purchasing agency. His descendants . . . helped preserve the Oroville Chinese Temple."

With the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, the city's "old Chinatown, home to an estimated 14,000 people" became "a muddy mash of crusted pottery, ash, twisted metal, and an untold number of charred bodies." But in a twist of historical fate, the destruction of the birth records meant that "Chinese men could now claim citizenship and therefore the right to bring their families from China." A new Chinatown was built, families began to arrive--and so did the tourists. The story doesn't end there, and Clayborn's book repays repeated visits.

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