"We labor 21 hours out of 24 and are beaten....On one occasion I received 200 blows, and though my body was a mass of wounds I was still forced to continue labor.... A single day becomes a year.... And our families know not whether we are alive or dead."- Testimony of Chinese plantation laborers, China-Cuba Commission Report, 1874
Upon arrival in the sugar plantations of Cuba or in the toxic guano pits off the coast of Peruwhere they faced brutal exploitation without rights, and worked long hours, lashed and shackledthe lives of the "indentured coolies" differed from that of slaves in name only. It was unlikely that they would ever see their homes again. As awareness of the conditions grew, many new workers resisted. The records tell of frequent mutinies on the ships.
The exploitation of coolies became so well known that the Chinese government sent representatives to Cuba to question the coolie workers directly. The China-Cuba Commission Report in 1874 preserves for posterity the testimonies of the workers who bravely gave witness to their inhumane treatment and conditions.
"There was no peace....One voyage in every 11 had a mutiny....Bands of us threw ourselves upon them: Release us or we will burn the ship! We have nothing to lose....Thirteen times we succeeded and gained our freedom." - Narrator
In Cuba today we also meet descendants of those who stayed and brought generations of countrymen to Cuba. Among the early coolie laborers were those who fought alongside Cuban plantation laborers in the uprisings to achieve liberation from Spain in the late 19th century. We see a Cuban monument to the "Chinos mambises," memorializing the "brave Chinese" who fought in that insurrection and remained to make new lives on the island to which they had been unwillingly brought. We see racially mixed Afro/Spaniard/Chinese Cuban people in the streets of Havana today, and Spanish/Chinese names on the tombstones of the large Chinese cemetery in Havana.
Asian Indian coolies, facing similar hardships, were taken from their home areas in coastal Calcutta and Madras and sent to the plantations of other British colonies: Trinidad, Jamaica and British Guiana. We hear the plaintive songs of the departing Asian Indian coolies, and see how the villagers of a fishing town set up clay gods in the sand facing the ocean to beseech protection for those who went to sea.
"We survived, took root and made a home." - Narrator
Some descendants of these Chinese and Indian workers later re-migrated north to the United States. The film takes us to New York, where numerous Indo-Guyanese have settled, forming a large community in Queens. We also meet Fabiana Chiu, a 4th generation Chinese from Peru, whose ancestors possibly labored in Peru, loading ships with the toxic guano that fertilized the farms of the world.
As an Atlantic port city, New York also received some of the first Asian arrivals in the early 1800s, long before California's Gold Rush. Sailors and traders of the China trade became part of the port culture that formed in this city teeming with immigrants. We learn that many Chinese men in NY took western names and married Irish women, and see how the American popular press took note of these pairings, with their mixed-race offspring.
By program's end we have come to understand that the earliest Asians arrived in North America by many routes: via Mexico, South America and the Caribbean, and finally, to California, during the Gold Rush. The film concludes by showing a young Chinese man preparing for the voyage to California's "Gold Mountain" in the mid-1800s.
Almost simultaneously with the arrival of coolies in the Caribbean and South America this "Gold Mountain" hopeful will arrive by another route in another part of the Americas. He is full of expectation, believing he will return to those who await him. Unlike the coolies who came before him, he will not lose control of his destiny. He is determined to be a free man.
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The series continues in Part 2 - CHINESE IN THE FRONTIER WEST: An American Story.