"Let us consider the vile coolies, who like craven beasts work the goldmines only to return to their native land and bring no profit to our state." - John Bigler, California governor 1852- 1856
The film's narrative reveals the strength of these American ancestors, who, upon arrival, met with unremitting suspicion and hostility, yet managed to sustain their embattled community and culture, and help build a nation.
The Chinese were the first nonwhite foreigners who arrived en masse of their own free will, unlike shackled African Americans, who were brought as slaves, or Native Americans, who were decimated in their own land. Yet like these other non-white peoples, Chinese immigrants were prevented from owning property or becoming citizens. They were also subject to violent attacks and new laws enforced only against them, such as the Foreign Miner's Tax.
Despite this treatment, we see how during the three decades encompassed by the film (1850-1882), Chinese labor became an essential underpinning in the developing economy. In taxes from gold mining alone, the Chinese contributed up to 50% of the California's total revenue by 1860. In addition to working on the transcontinental railroad that eventually linked the frontier west to markets back east, Chinese laborers hand-built aqueducts to transport water and timber, bridges and flood-control levees, and some of the first wineries in the state, where they carved the storage caverns and constructed massive stone buildings.
The Chinese also reclaimed swamp land and transformed the Sacramento delta into one of the world's great farming lands. By 1870, three quarters of the agricultural work force at every level in California were Chinese.
"As it turned out, California's economic development in the 19th century could not have been accomplished without the Chinese. And I can say this unequivocally." - Professor L. Ling-chi Wang
Many of their contributions can still be seen today in rural California, as the film shows. Yet, their contributions are missing from most historical records, such as photographs of the building of the railroad and standard textbooks on the development of the west.
None of their contributions were perhaps more long lasting and significant to all Americans than their struggles to advance civil rights for themselves and the immigrants that followed.
Denied the basic right of citizenship, the Chinese forged an alternative route to becoming Americans: they relentlessly pursued their rights in America's courts. They turned to the justice system precisely because they understood and believed in the American promise of equality and freedom.
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