Roundup: August 2021

Roundup Synopsis

In August, the Westerners held, possibly, the last of our web-based roundups. Serendipitously, our need to gather at a distance led us to join with the Hawaii chapter of the Tsung Tsin Association and Chinese genealogical organizations in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Together, we explored an area in which our respective spheres of interest overlapped. As such, we dipped our collective toes into the rich waters made up by the stories of Chinese immigrants to Hawaii and California. The gathering on August 23rd was the culmination of a special two-part series hosted by our newfound collaborators. It featured a lecture by Dr. Brian Dillon which focused on the experiences of Chinese immigrants in our part of the country and their influence in helping to shape the California that we see today. The introductory portion of Dillon’s talk reminded us that, until the latter half of the 20th century, the Chinese were all but omitted from the history of this country. When an author deigned to mention them at all, it often served only to perpetuate general misconceptions with something trite, along the lines of, “They built the railroads, then moved to San Francisco.” As we learned throughout Dillon’s presentation, the Chinese story in California is much more complicated. The construction of railroads was not the only undertaking of large numbers of Chinese workers, as they also left a significant stamp on the mining industry. Indeed, by 1854, as many as one-in-five California miners were Chinese, often working abandoned claims and making them profitable. Remnants of mining ditches, wagon trails, and irrigation canals hand-dug by Chinese, today serve as testament to their creators’ contributions to the progress of the West, apart from the railroads which made their fellows famous. Unfortunately, these Chinese immigrants were subject to terrible mistreatment in their new homeland. Racially motivated mass murders, including the largest lynching in California’s history in Los Angeles in 1871, were far from the only crimes to which these people were subjected by their white neighbors. Both rural and urban Chinese communities endured unfair hardships perpetrated by their neighbors. Making things worse, all levels of government, from local to federal, stripped the Chinese of their civil rights, making it impossible for injured parties among them to seek justice. The Chinese who stayed in California after the Gold Rush, being mostly single men, eventually died of old age. Their slow decline led to many “One-Man Chinatowns” dispersed throughout California’s small rural communities. Afterwards, urban Chinatowns became the last significant haven for California’s Chinese population. Some of these urban Chinatowns still thrive today. This cooperative presentation enabled us to learn more about the efforts of Chinese immigrants in the 19th-century development of our home state. Especially in this present, COVID-induced era of rising anti-Asian racism, it is essential that we celebrate such contributions and lament the mistreatment which is too often the only reward of such immigrants. Here’s to future communions with groups like the Tsung Tsin Association, which provide a great opportunity, for all involved, to incorporate new perspectives into our respective worldviews. — Alan Griffin