Chinese in Virginia City, Nevada During Comstock Silver Lode Mining 1870s-1880s

The Comstock silver lode discovered in 1859 created an overnight  booming mining town, Virginia City, Nevada with a jump from 4,000 to 25,000 residents within a few years.  

Chinese, who came to represent ten percent of Virginia City residents, referred to Nevada as Yin Shan, or "Silver Mountain," in contrast to Gum San, or "Gold Mountain," their term for California where gold was discovered in 1849 at Sutter's Mill.

Whereas Chinese immigrants in many small towns across the country during the 1880s worked almost entirely as laundrymen, and then cooks,  Chinese in Virginia City were involved in numerous occupations as early as 1870.  Two sample pages from the 1870 Census shows Chinese were merchants, miners, laborers, laundrymen, cooks, gamblers, and harlots.

A decade later Virginia City was still thriving and there was a large increase in the Virginia City population, including Chinese, and other immigrants. A sample page from the 1880 Census lists Chinese doctors, restaurant owners, along with gamblers and prostitutes who, it might be noted  had been labelled "harlots" in the 1870 census.

Eventually the silver mines closed, and during the 1880s Virginia City became a virtual ghost town as it suffered a rapid decline in its population and prosperity as the miners left.  The Chinese population also underwent a big drop.


Mother sponsors brother and his family from China

         Family unification is one of the main goals of U. S. immigration policy.  Accordingly after my father died in 1973, my mother soon decided that she would apply to sponsor her brother to come over from China.  She had never met him as she immigrated to the U. S. from China in 1928 but he was not born until around 1937.  I am sure she would not have been able to make this major decision when my father was still alive because in Chinese families, men traditionally have control over these types of matters.

Nonetheless she felt that she should help her brother and his family consisting of his wife, two sons and one daughter come to the United States. Her brother, and his wife, in their 60s, understandably, were reluctant to come to the U. S. at their age especially since they did not speak and understand English but realized that it would be an opportunity for their three adult children.  

The process was arduous.  She had to go through a lot of red tape in making the application which was delayed for many years before it finally was approved.  The petition she filed for one of her nephews, Kwan Wai Ping, illustrates just part of the required documentation.

Despite all her efforts and success in helping her brother and his family immigrate to the U. S., eventually her brother and his wife decided to return to China, as did their daughter.

Below is a picture my mother and her brother after he arrived. mom brings brother kwan over.jpg


A visit to North Adams, MA., site of the Sampson shoe factory that hired young Chinese as strikebreakers in 1870

            During my visit in 2016 to Williamstown, MA. in conjunction with a Williams College performance of South of Gold Mountain by the H.T. Chen Dance Center of New York, H. T. Chen took me to nearby North Adams, where in 1870 Calvin Sampson recruited 75 Chinese boys and men to work in his shoe factory rather than meet the demands of Crispin Irish workers who were on strike.

 H. T. Chen viewing the historical display in North Adams.
The original factory  building no longer exists and a new building is on the site.  Fortunately, a local historical museum had an informative display about the lives and experiences of these Chinese who travelled across the continent to a place where it is unlikely that any previous Chinese had ever been.

The young Chinese were quick to adapt to many American ways such as how to dress American style as illustrated in the photo below of three very dapper looking young Chinese.


           Lue Gim Gong, an Unusual 12 year old Chinese boy  

       When he was 12 years old, Lue Gim Gong sailed from China to San Francisco with his uncle and some other boys where they lived briefly before moving to North Adams, Massachusetts to work in the Sampson Shoe Factory with other young Chinese boys and men as strikebreakers.  
         Lue Gim Gong was frail and became ill. The daughter of a local farmer, Fanny Burlingame, took him in and nursed him back to health. Lue became a Christian and a US citizen while under her care. In1886, he and Miss Fanny moved to DeLand, FL because Massachusetts winters were too harsh for him. He and Miss Fanny's brother-in-law Mr. William Dumville planted oranges and other fruit trees. Lue was a promising horticulturist and in1888, he produced a new orange which ripened in the early fall and which was bright and sweet called the Lue Gim Gong orange, which helped develop Florida's citrus economy.  There is a monument in DeLand, FL., in tribute to his genius.


Chinese Transcontinental Railroad Workers: Faceless but not Nameless

This photograph made on May 10, 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah that memorialized the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad with the driving of the "Golden Spike" failed to include even a handful of the thousands of Chinese laborers without whose incredible work the line would taken longer to be completed.

Although historical documents rendered them "faceless" and left out of the commemorative celebration, at least their names are a part of the permanent record of the 1870 U. S. Census.  Below are a sample of these Chinese who were residing in Box Elder County, Utah where the Central Pacific Railroad from the west joined the Union Pacific Railroad coming from the midwest.

Note that most of their names were of the "Ah Wong" variety.  Even though none of them were actually named "Ah," early Census takers mistakenly heard Chinese say, Ah, before they gave their names.

It is valuable to examine the Chinese presence in the region a decade later with the 1880 Census.  It might tell us if many Chinese were in Box Elder County after the railroad was completed.  There were some Chinese there in 1880 working for the railroad. Whether they were from the original workers or represent new laborers is not clear.  However,  other Chinese came to the region who did not work on the railroad as the sample page from the 1880 Census shows. By 1880, Box Elder County had Chinese in many other lines of work: laundry, restaurant, grocer, tailor, prostitute, doctor, engineer.  
And, none of these Chinese are named "Ah."


Chinese Immigrants Supported Family Back in Their Home Villages

Even as a young child, I knew that my father sent periodic remittances to help his family back in Hoiping back in the 1940s.  I later learned that this was a common practice for Chinese immigrants in North America to help family members back in the villages financially.

I didn't know how often or how much father sent, or how much he could afford to provide. After all, growing up I always had the feeling that we were fairly poor ourselves.  But I definitely knew my mother often complained bitterly that my father did not permit her to send money back to her family. This situation reflected the dominant role of the husband in the traditional Chinese family, and was a source of periodic marital conflict for my parents.

Not too long ago, I discovered a heart-wrenching letter that my mother's younger sister back in the home village sent her in 1951. A friend translated it into English.  She was desperately begging my father and mother to send money to help her and her children get shelter and food as they were literally living on the street.

I don't know how my mother responded, but surely she must have agonized over it, and my guess is that my father was not supportive. This situation was certainly not unique for my parents but probably faced by many other Chinese immigrants in North America.

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