STORY BY AVNI RAJAGOPAL, PHOTO BY ARYA NASIKKAR
The Los Altos History Museum will host a talk by Asian American historian Connie Young Yu in a program titled “Journey to Gold Mountain: Chinese and the Gold Rush” on Thursday, Aug. 12 over Zoom.
The program will detail the experiences of Chinese immigrants during the gold rush.
Yu, who has lived in Los Altos for 50 years, is an author who writes about Asian American history. A descendant of a continental railroad worker and an immigrant to San Jose, Yu said she “always felt [she] had the background to write about this.” Although at first she didn’t include her personal family history in her work, the recent rise in anti-Asian crimes inspired Yu to become more involved in writing about the history of her own ancestors.
The reason Yu is interested in the gold rush specifically is because of how meaningful it was to the history of Chinese immigrants — it caused the first wave of Chinese immigrants to come to America.
Chinese villages heard of Gold Mountain, or Gam Saan, which sparked the dream of finding gold for these immigrants, many of whom simply needed a way to support their family. Yu said she found the emphasis on family fascinating when studying the Chinese gold rush experience.
“When they came, it would be like a small mining company,” Yu said. “And after the first wave of people, there would be an organization … that would greet the next wave and help them … find their way to Sacramento.”
But when the Chinese arrived in California, they were quickly shut off and restricted by discriminatory laws and violence, Yu said. In fact, one of the first legislative acts of California was the Foreign Miners Tax in 1850, which enforced a tax on all miners that were foreign.
“Who would be the most foreign people, the most distinguishable foreign people, but the Chinese?” Yu said. “ Tax collectors … would just go through the camps just to threaten the Chinese.”
Because of this, fewer and fewer Chinese people mined, and they looked for other ways to earn an income, Yu said.
“The whole stereotype of the Chinese as laundrymen and as cooks came from the Gold Rush era, because they couldn’t mine without extreme danger, without being threatened,” Yu said. “Then, of course, because of the fact that they were cheap labor, for the building of the railroad, Chinese were employed.”
Although the Chinese immigrants were critical to the building of the railroad, California legislation continued to work against them. After the Foreign Miners Act in 1850 came People v. Hall, which ruled that a Chinese man could not testify against a white man. This was repealed in 1872.
Then came the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prevented Chinese people from becoming U.S. citizens. This law was only repealed in 1943.
“That created this total exclusion of one race of people,” Yu said.
This discrimination was especially hypocritical because of how important the Chinese immigrants were to America, Yu said. They helped develop agriculture, built roads and were a large part of the daily lives of white people. The Chinese American culture that came out of the gold rush is still a prevalent part of life today.
“If you go to Chinatown, it’s distinct Chinese American culture — in the food, in customs, in the various enterprises,” Yu said. “And it started in the gold rush days.”
Many parts of Chinese culture have become commonplace in America thanks to the gold rush, from the observance of Chinese holidays to recognizing the animals of the zodiac. Asian Americans also united over the shared discrimination that they face, and that unity is something that hasn’t been lost today.
“[Activists] feel this is something we could do that’s positive, by knowing the past and knowing the challenges of our ancestors and knowing how we can challenge that injustice in our society,” Yu said. “The textbooks, for so long … didn’t include the Chinese in the American narrative. And that’s why we have this opportunity to continue to uncover this history and put it back in its rightful place.”
Yu’s talk takes place on Thursday, Aug. 12, from 6:00-7:30 p.m. on Zoom. Sign up here.