11/30/12

Faces and Places of Chinese Miners on Gum Saan

Many Chinese immigrants came to California to seek their fortunes on Gum Saan or “Gold Mountain” after the 1848 discovery of gold in the Sierra mountains. Although many accounts have been written about these men, there is little visual evidence about these men who struggled in their quest for gold.

An unusual and fascinating document at the California Historical Society is a notebook maintained by John T. Mason, a justice of the peace in Downieville, once a thriving gold mining town in the Sierras in the mid 19th century that gives rare and arresting head and shoulders photographs of close to 200 Chinese, the majority being miners, but included some cooks, and several merchants.  The collection of photographs, probably taken for use on the identity cards that Chinese were required to carry under the1890 Geary Act. Most of the photos, which resemble police mug shots, were taken in 1894 by D. D. Beatty at Downieville in Sierra County. By this date, Downieville was no longer a major source of gold but some elderly Chinese miners were still there. The grim and sullen expressions on their faces reflect the harshness of their difficult lives as they were met with racial prejudices and physical violence. Each photo is accompanied by brief physical descriptions of the height, age, occupation (miner or cook), physical defects or injuries, and facial marks for almost 176 Chinese, mostly middle and older aged men, with no children and few women.

                                       Partial list of the names of the 176 Chinese, mostly miners. 



 Photographs of eight of the close to 200 Chinese miners and cooks. 

 An accomplished contemporary photographer, Jason Francisco, took Mason’s journal and interspersed his own photographs of the rugged Sierra terrain and their ramshackle dwellings among the 70 or 80 pages of photographs of the Chinese to create a compelling visual document that almost brings the men back to life by embedding the isolated faces in the mug shots in photographs of the physical surroundings where they once lived and worked.

Francisco aptly describes his creation as “part document, part poetic archaeology.” Picturing the men in the physical landscape where they toiled in search of gold, Francisco gives us a deeper appreciation of the difficulty of their lives.



                                    Two of Jason Francisco’s Photographs Placed Among the Pictures of the Men. 

 In Francisco’s words: “A Land of Shadows (2005-ongoing) is an inquiry into immigrant Chinese life in rural 19th century California—a communal life that was itinerant, vulnerable, preyed upon, resilient, and centrally important in the state’s and the nation’s history. Taking its title from a traditional Chinese metaphor for the domain of the ancestors, the project integrates my own photographs of the remnants of Chinese settlement in the Sierra Nevada foothills and the Sacramento Delta areas into a forgotten compendium of government mug shots of Chinese immigrants, made by D.D. Beatty in Downieville, circa 1890.” A Land of Shadows,  Francisco's creative remake of Mason’s album, draws attention to the need to include the historical experience of the Chinese miners to help us understand the emptiness that the photographs of the men project.

11/21/12

The Impact of The Changing Face of Chinese in America


Perhaps the most generally accepted 'label' for categorizing descendants of the immigrants from China to the United States starting around the mid 19th century is "Chinese American" (or "Chinese Canadian" above our northern border). Even though we are usually lumped into the politically pragmatic catch-all category, "Asian American," and we sometimes passively accept it, this designation fails to reflect the fact that Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans, and so forth, are as different from each other as are Americans with European ancestors such as French, German, Italian, Swedish, Danish, and English, etc.

Chinese in America were a relatively homogenous group before the 1950s, generally poor rural immigrants from Guangdong province who came to seek gold, but wound up building railroads, and working in laundries and restaurants. Their descendants, born here or in China, were the majority of the Chinese in America then. But today, Chinese have come here from many places other than Guangdong including Hong Kong, Taiwan, People's Republic of China, Southeast Asia, and other countries in the region.

Not only do these Chinese have some proficiency in English, they read and write Chinese, which most descendants of earlier Chinese immigrants can not. Moreover they speak Mandarin rather than Cantonese or Toishan-wa, the language of the earlier cohorts of Guangdong immigrants. Many newer Chinese do not seek to assimilate to the extent that earlier generations did. Indeed, many of these Chinese are transnational in outlook, with one foot here and the other foot in their country of origin. Moreover, many of them are highly educated and are often affluent. Yet, there are also newer Chinese from Fujian province next to Guangdong, who must work long hours for low wages trying to pay off the debts incurred for illegal entry.

To call all of these diverse groups "Chinese Americans"obscures such vast differences. For one matter, many of these groups do not relate well to each other, reflecting historical conflicts among them. The language differences as well as social class variations also serve to keep them separate. For example, in the 1950s, American Born Chinese (ABCs) who were making strides in being accepted in mainstream America dissociated themselves from new less educated immigrants that they disparaged as "fresh off the boat" (FOBs). Today, the tables are turned as some newer affluent Chinese look down on the ABCs as not being fully Chinese because they can't speak Chinese well or at all. The Changing Face of Chinese in America, is a significant development stemming from the different histories and backgrounds of the different subgroups that has transformed the social structure of Chinese communities.

Chinese in America have their problems among their subgroups but they also face concerns about their place in American society. For, unfortunately, to many non-Asian Americans, these subgroups of Chinese 'look the same'and accordingly they will be prone to treat all Chinese the same way, despite their differences. Until recently, America's inability to distinguish among Chinese subgroups favored them because attitudes toward Chinese improved substantially from after W. W. II until the rise of Red China. Today, however, there is a growing trend toward China-bashing due to the threat of China's economic growth as well as to China's faults that include corruption, human rights violations, censorship, contaminated food and product exports.

Chinese in America, irrespective of where they came from, how long they have been here, how educated they are, or assimilated they are, will suffer if non-Asians think all Chinese here "look the same." We will be viewed as more "Chinese" than as "American." (Ironically, if we visited China, we would be clearly seen as American, not as Chinese.) The old negative images and prejudices that have been dormant for decades will resurface as we become once again, the yellow peril. The challenge for Chinese in America is how to transcend our differences and unite to counter these dangerous trends.

11/10/12

Trends in Racist Terms in Text Referring to Chinese

Google's ngram tool, provides frequency counts of the occurrences of words and phrases in books and other printed text across decades. Although it is not flawless, results obtained for ethnic epithets or racial slurs might mirror prevailing social attitudes. This illustration shows a count of the occurrence of two negative terms describing Chinese, Chinaman (in blue) and Chink (in red),from 1800-2000. The occurrence of 'chink' is relatively constant and lower than the occurrence of 'Chinaman,' which showed a sharp rise from 1840 to 1900 and large drop in occurrence from 1900 to about 1960. Whether these trends matched spoken use of these terms is a separate question, but one might think they would parallel each other.

11/6/12

Gong Lum v. Rice (1927) Chinese School Segregation Before Ole Miss Blocked James Meredith (1962)

Long before Mississippi governor Ross Barnett stood in the doorway to block the admission of James Meredith half a century ago in 1962 as the first African American student to enroll at Ole Miss, Chinese in the Delta faced similar barriers. Back in the fall of 1924 the Rosedale, MS. school administration denied admission of Chinese children to the local elementary school. Gong Lum, a local Chinese merchant, filed a lawsuit on behalf of his two daughters, Berda and Martha, against this ruling. He was initially successful, but the Supreme Court of Mississippi in 1925, and the U. S. Supreme Court in 1927 upheld the decision to deny Chinese admission to whites-only public schools. The family portrait below in 1920 before the girls were old enough to attend school shows Berda in the lower left and Martha near the center.
Photograph Courtesy of Carolyn Hong Chan.

Although the Lum sisters were dismissed from the school on the first day of the fall term in 1924, they had actually, despite the Mississippi law, been attending the school during the previous year, and possibly earlier since they were in the 3rd grade. A recently discovered photograph of a 3rd-4th grade class at Rosedale school, dated April 16, 1924, was posted on Facebook by Linda Gatewood Bassie. The two Chinese girls in the bottom left were identified as Berda and Martha by Carolyn Hong Chan, a relative who grew up in the area. Moreover, the photograph shows another Chinese girl on the right side and two older Chinese boys in the upper left top row. (It might seem odd to have such wide age differences in the same class, but some Chinese children were recent immigrants and not fluent in English) Even though the attendance of these 5 Chinese was in violation of Mississippi law that restricted white schools to caucasians, in practice, different local authorities varied in their adherence to the law and it was not uncommon for some towns to accept Chinese children while a nearby town might not. Gong Lum may have lost the legal battle, but he did realize his goal of his children attending white schools by moving his family across the river to Elaine, Arkansas, where they were admitted.

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