Introduction to Marysville’s Chinatown

The Marysville Chinatown is the last Chinatown of Gold Rush California. It still has an active temple, three active Chinese associations, and the old Chinese school building. And every year, as they have done for the past 150 years, they still fire the “bombs” on Bomb Day, the second day of the second month of the lunar year.

The Marysville Chinatown has survived the horrors of the anti-Chinese movement led by racists who were determined that “The Chinese Must Go.”  It has survived the official reign of terror when the full weigh of federal, state and local governments were used to exclude and expel the Chinese from America. It has survived even the effects of a diminishing population base as their sons and daughters left town to seek better opportunities in the urban centers of the state.

The Marysville Chinatown has survived because the inhabitants, descendants of the original Chinese pioneers in California will not give up. They sense the historical importance of their home, and understand that if their Chinatown disappears, the last link to the beginning of Asian history in America will be lost forever.

So every year, as they’ve done for the past 150 years, they unpack the “Gum Lung” dragon, make the bombs for Bomb Day, sweep out the temple and prepare to celebrate another year in Old Gold Mountain.

The China Background.   In 1850, when the Chinese pioneers helped settle Marysville, China produced 33% of the world’s gross national product. But China was a country going through immense change. Its productive power would soon diminish as westerners sought the riches of China. England was a leader in this effort. It started the Opium Wars in 1839 in the name of “free trade”, so English merchants could sell the deadly drug in China.

The Cantonese have a history of being independent from the central government because of their distance from Beijing, the nation’s capital. “The mountain is high, and the emperor is far away,” is a favorite proverb.. They think of themselves as the true Chinese, living far in the south, away from the barbarian invaders from the north. As the true Chinese, it would be up to the Cantonese to save the nation, when the nation was in danger.

Canton (Guangzhou) is a major seaport and the provincial capital of the Cantonese people.  For 80 years before the first Opium War, Canton was the only port open to trade with the West. As trade with the west grew, Guangdong began to develop the infrastructure to handle the increased trade. This trade along with a highly developed agricultural base and light industry made Guangdong one of the richest provinces of China..

There is a special place in Guangdong called the “four counties” or Siyi (Szeyup). The four counties are Taishan (Toishan), Kaiping (Hoiping), Xinwui (Sunwui) and Enping.(Yanping).  80% of the early Chinese pioneers came from these four counties, 50% from Taishan alone. The land where the Siyi people live is in a beautiful part of Guangdong with rich soil, abundant rice paddies, and productive orchards. Because of the land and climate, the local farmers are able to harvest two or three crops of rice a year. The variety of fruits and vegetables grown there is a source of pride for the local residents.

Like all Cantonese, the Siyi people are well known for being confident, adventurous and open to new ideas. Their stubbornness is legendary. They refuse to give up even when a situation appears hopeless. This stubbornness is grounded in their history. When the Mongols invaded China, the Song dynasty armies retreated to the south. After a decade of fighting they made a last stand in Siyi. Knowing the end was near the Song dynasty prime minister Lu Xiufu strapped the Song boy emperor to his back and leaped into the sea near the Taishan Xinwui county line. With the death of the emperor, the Song forces disbanded. Many stayed in Szeyup. Even today many Szeyup families with the surname Chew, Jew and Jue claim descent from the Song royal line. Never surrender became part of the history of the Siyi people.

History was to repeat itself when more barbarians, this time Manchus, invaded China in 1644. Again the ruling dynasty retreated to the south. Again the resistance was most fierce in Guangdong. After defeating the Ming Dynasty, the Manchus established the Qing Dynasty which was still in power in 1850. Knowing the rebellious nature of the Cantonese people, the Manchus imposed political restrictions against them. The Manchus knew that when the revolution came it would be led by the Cantonese people.

The Gold Rush and the Coming of the Chinese Pioneers.  The California Gold Rush in the middle of the 19th century was an important event in world history. It marked the beginning of globalization when transportation and communications had evolved to such a state that one event could impact the whole globe. People from all over the world joined in the California gold rush. Americans from the eastern part of the United States came. The British, French, Spanish and Germans joined in. From the southern hemisphere came Chileans, Peruvians and Australians. Sonorans and Hawaiians took part. From the largest continent of all, Asia, only the Chinese came, and of the Chinese it was only the adventuresome Cantonese that crossed the Pacific.

The gold discovered in California was immense, but equally important, the gold was “free for the taking”. In Guangdong a circular listing the attractions of California. “(The Americans) want the Chinese to come …It is a nice country, without mandarins or soldiers….”  Finally, a country where they won’t be persecuted by mandarin officials. It didn’t take long for the Cantonese to make up their mind to join the greatest gold rush in the world. The early Chinese pioneers to America were not disappointed. California during the gold rush was a free and surprisingly egalitarian society. Everyone was a pioneer with the pioneer’s spirit of treating people by their contribution to building a new society.

Chinese Pioneers in America.  When the Cantonese came to California starting in 1849, they encountered a land such as they had never imagined before. They had come from a land that had been settled for over a thousand years; every rock had a name, every tree an owner. Suddenly they were in a land where there seemed to be no boundaries. Gold was free for the taking. But it wasn’t only the gold. The wealth of the long California seacoast had been untapped; the forest uncut and the rich soil of the central valley undisturbed. Everywhere they looked there was opportunity. They quickly went exploring; first in the gold country of California, from the southern mines to the northern mines. Then later, to the Trinity Mountains. They opened restaurants from one end of the state to the other. Still later they expanded their reach to Oregon, Idaho, Washington, Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico. Pushing further they were soon in Canada and Alaska.

Prevented by the Manchu overlords from organizing political groups, the Cantonese in California formed Tongs. Each member of the Tongs swore an oath to “Fan Qing, Fu Ming”, “Overthrow the Qing, Restore the Ming”. It would not be long before the worse fears of the Manchu despots were realized.

In the gold fields the Chinese soon made their presence known. Their food and medicine was superior compared to other miners. Boiling water for tea kept them healthier than many who drank water directly from creeks and streams. And their clan and Tong affiliations meant that they could form large partnerships of more than 100 men to mine the more difficult sites that other miners could not handle. In time, the Chinese miners became a major force in the mining camps of California. In 1860, 30 percent of the miners in the golden state were Chinese. By 1870 half the miners in California were Chinese.

In the first two decades of their coming to America, the Chinese built over 30 Chinatowns. More than 90% of the Chinese in the state lived in these small town Chinatowns. In every Chinatown, they built temples, introducing Buddhism and Taoism to North America. They brought their skills in farming, started the fishing industry, opened restaurants; they had made a place for themselves in the Golden State.

The Anti Chinese Movement and Stereotypical History.  The golden age in California for the Chinese would not last. The transcontinental railroad, which the Chinese helped build, would prove to be their downfall. Once it took a pioneer to make the journey to California. Now the masses could come with just a ticket and a week’s time. California was soon flooded with immigrants, many newly arrived from Europe.

One of the myths about race relations has been that there was a “White” race that started the anti-Chinese movement. But the truth was more complex. There have always been two European-American positions on the Chinese question, the “pioneer position” which was pro-Chinese and the “racist” position, which was anti-Chinese. The pro-Chinese position was taken by businessmen, clergy, diplomats, manufacturers and those that believed in equality. The anti-Chinese position was taken by the working class, mainly those that were newly arrived from Europe, public officials that depended on the working class vote and newspapers that voiced the position of the working class.

America is a country founded on the idea of equality and freedom for all. Reaching that ideal has not been easy. The history of America has been one of integrating the “lower class” Whites into the “upper class” Whites. This was America as the Melting Pot. In 1870, the newly arrived Irish were in the lower class. Their leaders knew that in order to become accepted by the upper class Whites, they had to play the Race Card. Led by Denis Kearny, an Irishman, they played the Race Card masterfully.

It was during the anti Chinese movement, started in the 1870s and continuing for half a century that the stereotype against the Chinese was created. The movement was ostensibly based on competition for jobs, but in fact, it was based an appeal to race animosity and a creation of a racial stereotype in order for the lower class Whites to gain acceptance by the upper class Whites. The stereotype the racists created depicted the Chinese as semi-slaves, drug fiends, misogynists and immoral. They were of the coolie class and came from the poorest part of China. They were only interested in working for low wages, saving enough so that they could return to China. They could never assimilate into American society. The racists created this stereotype so that they could convince the general population to discriminate against the Chinese. Against all evidence to the contrary, it worked. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. A part of the American dream died that year; the dream that America was a freedom loving land that welcomed everyone.

The Marysville Chinatown was the commercial, social and political center for the smaller Chinatowns that surrounded it. When the anti-Chinese movement erupted, the smaller Chinatowns were attacked by 19th century terrorists led by groups like the Order of Caucasians. Chico, Red Bluff, Oroville, Redding, Wheatland, up and down the northern valley, killings and burnings were visited upon the Chinese. The Marysville Chinatown, founded by tough and hardy miners, became a place of refuge. The Chinese knew they had to make a stand there. If the racists were not stopped in Marysville, the next stop would be the port of San Francisco for the trip back to China. The Chinese in Marysville did not falter. They welcomed their compatriots from the smaller Chinatowns fleeing from murder and arson. They armed themselves, preparing for a last stand, should one become necessary. They remembered the words of their ancestors. Never surrender to the barbarians.

Building a Chinese America.  The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act was a major blow against the Chinese in America. But they did not give up their dream that the greatest democracy in the world had a place for them. The Chinese fought back in the courts, with an undying belief in the American justice system. They engaged in civil disobedience. When Congress passed the Geary Act, forcing every Chinese person in America, citizen or not, to carry an identification card, almost every Chinese in America, 100,000, refused to obey the law. As part of the Chinese defiance of the Geary Act, in 1894, for the first time in a Bok Kai festival, the Chinese in Marysville refused to fly the American flag. During the latter part of the 19th century and through the early part of the 20th century, the Chinese fought a number of important civil rights cases all the way to the US Supreme court. Some they won, others were lost, but they never backed away from fighting for their rights.

They believed that they were entitled to be part of the American dream so they created the paper son plan, a method of claiming entry to America through false documentation that insured the racist goal of expelling them from America would not succeed. For a time it seemed that the racists had won. Decade after decade after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese population in America decreased, so that by 1920, only 60,000 remained. The Chinese acquired the distinction of being the only immigrant group to come to America and see their population dwindle. Without the paper son plan, in another few decades, the Chinese in America would have vanished.

One of the goals of the anti-Chinese movement was to force the Chinese to return to China by depriving them of a way to make a living.  So racists passed laws that restricted the work the Chinese could do. Unions not only prevented Chinese from becoming union members, they organized boycotts against those that hired Chinese workers. One of the ironies of the anti Chinese movement was that proponents said the Chinese were taking work away from European American workers. But in fact the exact opposite was taking place. The Chinese had arrived in California first; it was their jobs that were being taken away by the newly arrived immigrants to California. As the Chinese were forced out of industry after industry they adjusted.  They opened restaurants, laundries, and herb shops, all small independent businesses that did not rely on being hired by the government or European American businesses. Slowly the Chinese built a foundation for survival in a hostile land.

One area where Chinese Americans excelled was in education. Starting around the turn of the 19th century, they started entering the best universities of the west coast. They did so even though their high school teachers told them it would be a waste of time as no one would hire them when they graduated. For years, even into the 1930’s, no jobs were available to Chinese American college graduates. A graduate with a doctorate from MIT ended up working in a San Francisco Chinese furniture store. Many graduate engineers worked in restaurants. Only with the start of WWII did the race barrier start to crack. For the first time, Chinese American college graduates could apply for jobs with the state and federal governments. Then later, in the 50’s, private employers started to hire Chinese Americans. Some areas of employment took longer. It wasn’t until the mid 1970’s before a major law firm hired a Chinese American attorney.

During this period when they were fighting for their survival in America, they never forgot their homeland. When the reformers, Kang Youwei and Liang Qichiao came to America in the early 1900’s to learn about American democracy and raise funds, they were given a warm welcome and much needed financial support. When reform of the imperial system no longer seemed possible, the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen came to appeal for the help of Chinese Americans. In 1943, Madam Chiang Kai-shek was given a hero’s welcome for defending the homeland against the Japanese invasion. At every stage during China’s turbulent modern history, Chinese Americans sent money and people back to help China develop into a new nation.

Racism Defeated; a New Chinese America.  With the entry of the United States into World War II, China and America became allies in the fight against Fascism. Chinese Americans volunteered in large numbers to serve in the armed forces of the United States. Within two years, in 1943, America repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and Chinese immigrants could become naturalized citizens. The racist idea that America had no place for the Chinese had been rejected.

Though the glass ceiling exists in many aspects of American society, the effort of the Chinese American pioneers, have led to a better life for all Chinese and Asians in America. The ideal these pioneers believed in, that America, the greatest democracy in the world, had a place for the Chinese, is starting to be realized.