By Brad Wong
For Northwest Asian Weekly
For one week in July, a big blue bus rolled east, west, north, and south in search of places that Chinese pioneers touched, lived, and left during the 19th century in the western U.S.
Inside the bus, which had the destination word “America” hanging on a window, were about 35 individuals of different generations. A few were born in China. We were ready to explore mining and other historic sites, as part of the Seattle-based Chinese Heritage Tour of the American West.
The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience and the USDA Forest Service sponsored this year’s trip — the first since 1994 — to retrace and rethink important places that can easily be overlooked.
Stops, many in national forests, included places in Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada. We were on the road from July 20 to July 26, though we gathered for a pre-trip Cantonese soul food dinner on July 19.
Most of us were Chinese Americans from the Seattle area — but some hailed from New York City, Washington, D.C., California, and Idaho.
At times, we sat for hours as “America” curved through the mountainous roads. We became familiar with each other’s lives. But most of all, we waited.
Our patience was rewarded when we set foot on hard-to-reach places that had been Chinese mining sites from the mid- to late-1800s. At the Ah Hee Diggings near Granite, Ore., we stood about 5,000 feet above the sea and cast our eyes on 60 acres of heavy rocks that were stacked high in rows.
More than a century earlier, Chinese workers — mostly from the Taishan, or Toisan, area of southern China’s Guangdong province — endured the heat and labor on these piles in search of fortune. They were surface mining, and they moved the rocks to find precious metal.
We saw what these pioneers were willing to undertake to survive and support their loved ones thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean. Archaeologists told us that Chinese miners were often the second group to work on the land in this area — the first group consisted of Europeans, who had the initial rights to claims.
We searched for pottery shards and artifacts at abandoned Chinese camps and towns. We soaked up stories and facts uncovered by historians and archaeologists who met and sometimes traveled with us.
At times, the temperature jumped into the high 90s. The sun made its presence known. We chugged bottles of water. Hats and sunglasses appeared quickly.
For me, it was worth it.
There is no substitute for traveling to places in person — especially to understand the depth and distances that newcomers experienced to hopefully take one step forward.
I’m a third-generation Chinese American. My grandparents and relatives left China’s Guangdong province during the 1910s and 1930s. They moved to California and Georgia.
I have always believed that understanding your group’s shared history is one of the most important goals in life. They can give you a foundation and provide lessons for life. So, of course, I was interested when the Wing Luke Museum asked if I had time to work as the trip writer.
In Baker City, Ore., we stopped at the city’s Chinese cemetery. Bettie Luke, a Seattle resident and Wing Luke’s sister, organized a joss paper-burning ceremony. We paid respects to the Chinese pioneers who traveled overseas and were buried on U.S. soil. However, many were exhumed and returned to their birthplaces.
In Virginia City, Nev., there is a mountainous area that legend says once had gold in every hill. We stood about a mile above the sea and overlooked a vacant lot where the Chinese once lived.
We learned that the pressure from labor unions kept the Chinese from entering and working inside the gold mines. The thought, at the time, was that Chinese miners would undercut others. Instead, many Chinese who arrived in this mountainous region survived by running stores and cutting trees, which were used to fuel the railroad and support mine shafts.
Throughout the trip, we reflected on what the Chinese before us experienced — the heat, the labor, the long boat rides on inland rivers, wagon and rail trips, and the sense of being away from home.
For many pioneers, their arrival came years before the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — which barred the entrance of laborers from China into the United States.
A particular theme that we kept hearing from historians on our trip was that without the Chinese, many of the places we visited would never have been able to survive economically. The Chinese provided labor — both when gold rushes were booming and when they had withered away.
Imagine that, people who moved from one country to a new one helped cities and towns exist and operate.
The night before we headed to the airport in Reno to fly home, we gathered at a Virginia City restaurant for a celebratory meal of sorts.
By then, the participants’ feelings had welled up. What we had seen and learned had tapped people’s curiosity about their own past, about what their parents and grandparents might have talked about — or what might have been buried deep down inside.
One of the beautiful aspects about a group trip, such as this one, is its dynamic nature. People shared stories about their own histories. Younger participants asked questions.
If you’re ethnic Chinese or Chinese American, these types of trips give you a chance to be more comfortable with and conscious of your identity. They might answer questions about your family, the ethnic Chinese people, or people in general.
You realize that famine, bandits, political instability, and armed invasions during one century in one country — and word about a place believed to be better than your own — can push you to pursue a life you never even imagined.
At the very least, these trips prompt you to think — that part is inescapable. Actually, it’s healthy.
After our plane landed at Sea-Tac Airport, I walked toward the luggage carousel to fetch my bags. So, too, did other participants. It had been a long journey. We were tired.
But while my body was back on the ground, my thoughts remained in the mountains. ♦
Brad Wong is a Seattle-area freelance writer and a former reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. To read the Heritage Tour trip blog, please visit http://db.wingluke.org/tourblog.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.