By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
By Karen Shepard
Tin House Books, 2013
In June 1870, Calvin Sampson hired 75 Chinese laborers in North Adams, Mass. to work at his factory. What the men didn’t know was that they were strikebreakers, or part of what Sampson called his “Chinese experiment.”
The influx of newcomers — so different from the locals — has an effect on all who live in the small New England town. Most are friendly, merely curious to learn about the foreigners, but others are not so welcoming and are threatened by the Chinese’s presence — especially the factory workers who went on strike. For others still, the relationships they share with their new neighbors run deeper.
And when Sampson’s wife Julia returns from a long trip away with a half-Chinese baby girl, all of North Adams wants nothing more than to know who the father is.
“The Celestials” combines history with fiction and shows readers how some of the first Chinese immigrants to the United States were treated. Despite most of the North Adams community’s friendliness, it is plain to see they don’t view the Chinese men as their equals. Rather, they are viewed more as children who need to be taken care of. (Granted, many of them are teenagers.)
Despite the novel’s overarching themes of assimilation and meshing cultures, Shepard’s story is ultimately about the characters. All of her characters face a number of obstacles and struggle with the tough decisions, making them relatable to readers.
At times, their thoughts and actions can be seen as selfish and egocentric — and I’ll admit that this sometimes drove me crazy. But it is clear most of the time that it is their emotions which drive them to do what they do.
And who among us has not felt the need to do what we feel is best for ourselves, regardless of how it affects others — especially in a high-stress situation?
Escape to Gold Mountain: A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America
By David H.T. Wong
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012
When the Chinese first came to North America more than 100 years ago, they were treated like any other new group of immigrants: harshly (to say the least) and with a great amount of racism and discrimination.
“Gold Mountain” is a graphic novel that follows one Chinese family through this time, from the first ancestor to set foot on Western soil to their descendents many generations down the line, living in present-day Vancouver, British Columbia.
The Wongs survived through the construction of railroads in the United States and Canada, various exclusion acts, immigration laws, and head taxes designed to keep Chinese out of the United States and Canada.
Although the family in the story is fictional, they are affected by very real historical events, such as the aforementioned legislation passed to keep Chinese out of North America and massacres by locals to drive the Chinese out of their towns. By weaving a story and providing a narrative within the context of these historical events, it is easier for readers to follow the chronology of how we got from then to now.
As a graphic novel, “Gold Mountain” provides an illustrated look at a time period that is not widely discussed or usually taught in-depth in schools. I’ll admit that while I knew a bit about the Chinese’s history in this country, I did not know anything about what had happened across the border and how the Canadian government had followed the United States’ lead in excluding the Chinese.
Wong’s drawings help readers get a better sense of what happened during this dark time in North American history. He gives a face — albeit fictional — to those who suffered through these tough times. The graphic novel, as a medium, also makes a tough and complex subject accessible to young readers who may find textbooks difficult to read.
Beyond the Sand Creek Bridge
By Scott Wyatt
Highland House Press, 2012
In 1882, in the Pacific Northwest’s Idaho Territory, in the small town of Sandpoint, the body of Sheriff Roger Langston is found under the Sand Creek Bridge. Wong Hok-Ling, a newly arrived Chinese railroad worker, is charged with his murder. This comes mere days after his fiancée Mei-Yin arrives unexpectedly, having disguised herself as a man on a ship from China to escape her father, who gambled her life away in a game of mah-jong. Set to defend Hok-Ling is Jason McQuade, a man who has just arrived in Idaho Territory himself.
As if the situation wasn’t complicated enough, when Jason meets Mei-Yin, he begins to question how far he is willing to go to save his client’s life.
“Sand Creek Bridge” is a story about the life of Chinese immigrants when they first arrived in the United States.
To say life was challenging is an understatement. In addition to coming to a new land thousands of miles away from home, they must deal with trying to learn a new language, racism and discrimination from the locals and, in some cases, the high expectations of those back home who assume things are easy in this new country.
The encounters between the locals and the Chinese Wyatt describes are cringe-worthy in the blatant mistreatment of the latter group. And while this made them difficult to read — especially the scenes in which the local teenagers abuse the Chinese workers for no other reason than existing — it was also important to include them.
The United States has a history of terribly mistreating minority groups, but the focus is usually placed on blacks and slavery. The country’s behavior toward Asians was just as horrible, and in treating that part of history, Wyatt certainly did not sugarcoat things.
The book serves as a reminder that Asians have been in the United States for quite a long time, despite many still being treated as foreigners. (end)
Samantha Pak can be reached at email@example.com.