I’ve gotten a triple dose of Chinese-American history this week. It started when the American Experience episode on the Gold Rush arrived in its bright red Netflix envelope. A few days later I saw an interesting segment on the History Detectives about a Tong community association building in Isleton, just outside of Sacramento. And today, I decided to take an extended lunch break to check out the California Historical Society’s exhibit The Chinese of California: A Struggle for Community.
The exhibit is small but absorbing, taking up most of the first floor and several side rooms. Two vibrantly colored Lion Dancer heads flank the stairway at the back of gallery and there are scarce but illuminating photographs and even some very nice small paintings of San Francisco’s Chinatown before the Great Fire, when it was still a place of alleyways and buildings crowding in upon one another. When the community began reconstruction, they self-consciously recreated their home as a kind of wonderland at a crossroads between Chinese Architecture and baroque Orientalism. One of the artifacts on display raises an immediate shudder: a Remington “Chinese Must Go” capgun. Yanking on the queue of Chinese men seems to have been a popular daydream for white engravers. But a nearby political cartoon’s sentiment stirs solidarity in me. Two Irishmen depicted in the etching opine that if the Chinese are treated as second class citizens then we (and who knows who else) are probably going to be next. A few photographs and a wall card tell the story of one Chinese woman, separated from her husband in America, who gained reentry by presenting her nephew as her own child, a so-called “paper son.”
But the bulk of the exhibit is of printed works that I wish I had more time to read closely: immigration documents, handbills, letters, and newspaper articles. An enlarged reproduction of a Chinese language newspaper (helpful translation right beside) relates the closing of the hated “Wooden House” on San Francisco’s coast, destination of all potential Chinese emmigrants until the construction of the detainment center on Angel Island. The article describes a hanging noose, still visible inside the building which is the legacy of one man driven to despair.
Obviously, the Gold Rush was one of the prominent events in Chinese-American history. The exhibit pointed out that the Chinese called California “Gum San,” “Gold Mountain.” “By 1870” the Gold Rush American Experience episode had noted, “there were more than 48,000 Chinese in California.” People were streaming into California from everywhere on Earth, but I wondered if it was only the lure of fortune that drew them here from China. A few times I had read that ambiguous and generic explanation assigned to all immigrant Americans that they had come in search of “a better life.” I became interested in just what was going on in China that led so many people to migrate for work or to settle in what must have seemed such a strange place. I decided to do a little History Detective-work of my own, in the laziest way possible: by using my old friend the internet.
The answer, it seems, is that by the mid-nineteenth century China had become something akin to hell on Earth. Aside from natural disasters and interventions by the West, the latter half of the 1800s saw one of the most bizarre coups in Chinese history, one that would bring widespread suffering to the country.
After a succession of failed civil service exam attempts, farmer Hong Xiuquan became enraptured by study of the Bible and eventually was seized by the idea that he was Jesus Christ’s brother. Hatred for the ruling Qing was already pronounced, and a sect formed around Hong in time transformed into an armed revolutionary movement.
The ensuing revolt would go on for 14 years. In areas that Hong controlled, laws were proclaimed that turned the world upside down for those under their yoke. Land ownership was declared illegal. For a time husbands and wives were forbidden to live together. While some sound reformist to modern readers (an end to the practice of foot binding for instance) others must have been awkward or humiliating for people, like the banning of queues. The conflict itself was worse than any of the new regime’s edicts. According to Wikipedia “between 20 and 30 million” perished due to the ongoing struggle between the Qing and Hong’s Rebellion of Great Peace, either from fighting or starvation.
Looking back to the exhibit, I’m struck by the effect of room after room of printed broadsides declaring the Chinese a menace, inhuman, calling for their deportation. Page after page of acrimonious displays represent a battle that would lead to heavy targeted taxations and culminate in the United States passing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In one of those bizarre quirks in human history, it’s very possible that many who flocked to these shores did so because of the effect of another bit of pamphleteering. It was a Christian tract that Hong acquired in the streets of Canton that led to his conversion and eventually to his assumption of the persona of a new Messiah. It’s also possible that the person who gave the tract to Hong was an American, a New England missionary named Edwin Stevens.