Gold Mountain

Gold Mountain

Written on 10/26/2021

The first Asian immigrants to come to the United States in significant numbers were the Chinese in the middle of the 19th Century. The Chinese, primarily from Guangdong province were motivated by problems at home as well as opportunities abroad. At that time, China was rocked by a number of violent conflicts including the Red Turban uprisings (1854-64) and the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) responsible for the death of at least twenty million Chinese. The Opium Wars of 1839-42 and 1856-60 against Great Britain also inflicted economic devastation. The Qing government of China, having lost to Britain in both conflicts, was forced to pay reparations. As a result, the Qing imposed high taxes on farmers, many of whom lost their lands because they could not sustain these payments. When the news of the 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill reached China, the dream of economic opportunity in California, popularly called Gam Saan or “Gold Mountain,” lured these disenfranchised farmers as well as middle-class merchants and entrepreneurs.

Once the Chinese immigrants arrived in California, they found that the gold mountain was an illusion. Mining was uncertain work, and the gold fields were littered with disappointed prospectors and hostile locals. Work could be scarce, and new arrivals sometimes found it difficult to earn enough to eat, let alone to strike it rich. Even worse, they soon discovered that they were cut off from their families: With no source of money, the immigrants could not pay for their wives and children to make the long voyage from China, and could not go back home themselves. As the dream of gold faded, these men found themselves stranded in a strange new land far from home. It was a land that did not welcome them, a land that afforded them few means of survival, and a land in which they were very much alone.

Becoming American: The Chinese Experience, with Bill Moyers (PBS). from Joseph Angier on Vimeo.

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