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Chinese Gold : THE CHINESE IN THE MONTEREY BAY REGION by Sandy Lydon (Capitola: $29.95, hardcover; $18.95, paperback; 550 pp., illustrated)

December 29, 1985|Jade Snow Wong | Wong is author of "Fifth Chinese Daughter." and

When I was growing up in the 1920s in San Francisco's isolated Chinatown, I was unaware that, according to Sandy Lydon, "strangled by immigration restrictions and decimated by the emigration or death of many of the pioneer immigrants, the Chinese population in America dropped to its lowest point in 1920." Through passing remarks of my parents, I heard of Chinese communities elsewhere: fishing in Monterey, gambling in Salinas, farming at "The Great River."

In reading "Chinese Gold" 60 years later, I became involved in the lives of those fishermen, gamblers and farmers, as well as of railroad workers, merchants, laundrymen, vegetable vendors. With a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Lydon worked 15 years to record the rise, shifts, and fall of five Chinese communities in the Monterey Bay region. He writes with clarity, affection, respect, and the interpretive skill of a humanities scholar. The period covered lasts about 100 years: from mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. The communities--Monterey, Watsonville, Santa Cruz and Salinas--are examined closely within themselves, while their differences are seen as reaction to their treatment (and mistreatment) by the white communities. Each Chinese settlement grew in response to the need for competent, cheap, dependable labor for white capitalistic/agricultural expansion and for other services (legal and illegal).

While we may have been aware of such facts, Lydon documents and dramatizes them. "Between 1875 and 1880 the Chinese built three separate railroads, laid 42 miles of track, drilled 2.6 miles of tunnels to stitch Santa Cruz County together. For every mile of railroad, one Chinese died." Yet, at the same time the Santa Cruz Sentinel was busy fueling the anti-Chinese hysteria in California that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882: ". . . this prolific land by the broadest sea lies prostrate and helpless, the Chinese dragon standing on its throat and vomiting its degraded vermin into its gaping mouth." Santa Cruz's anti-Chinese rhetoric catapulted its political leaders into statewide fame.

In the hands of a Chinese writer, this material might not be handled so evenly, and another diatribe for social justice might be dismissible. But Lydon tells of kindnesses for the Chinese. The Methodist Chinese Mission at Point Alones Chinese Fishing Village from 1883 to 1894 provided the only educational opportunity to the village children. Its first male student was sent to London and completed work at UC Berkeley.

The intriguing title, "Chinese Gold" does not describe the metal. A third income source was the Chinese ability to use intensive labor and discipline, their ingenuity in the face of adversity, to produce what nobody else thought of or were willing to do. "Chinese gold" was found in netting and drying squids; planting and thinning sugar beets; leasing swampy tracts to reclaim them (for strawberries while white farmers concentrated on expansive wheat fields); drying apples from culls and making cider and vinegar from peelings. Legally prevented from owning land, without capital, the Chinese created wealth by "working the edges."

I know that unspoken, unshaken pride in their culture enabled the Chinese to endure white pressures. Early on, they tried tactfully to gain respect. In 1898 in Watsonville, ordinary Chinese laborers and cooks with their queues, and a few women with bound feet, the former on foot, the latter on horseback, donned imported Chinese silks to stage a splendid parade, astonishing residents who 10 years before had chased them across the river.

Writers normally have no control over the looks of their printed volume. It's fortunate for both Lydon and reader that Capitola Book Co. produced an aesthetically stunning volume with meticulously redrawn maps and a bonanza of photographs that fortify our historical sense of that period. However, I found Lydon's omission of footnotes and numbers, which necessitated constant flipping to an end section, disruptive to smooth reading.

In all, Lydon is talking about a group that totaled 2,537 persons or only 7% of local population at its peak in 1890, but "this small group . . . accomplished feats disproportionate to their numbers despite exclusion and discrimination." Why did they persist in the face of odds? Those Cantonese in Monterey may be likened to their brethren in Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma where they might be Hakka, Teochow or Fukien. Every one of the foregoing nations has put Chinese on the run. The Monterey area was not singular in mistreating the Chinese. The 14th Amendment was not ratified until 1868. In the 1870s, illiterate Chinese coolies in Macau were being recruited for the planter class in Peru; once there, they were slaves; some were physically branded. They made "Peruvian" gold.

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