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An American Story

"Leaving their villages in China, they journeyed far, with only each other and the power of memory.... remembering families an ocean apart...remembering how to make a home on the soil under their feet....With spirit and strategy they fought for their place in America." - Narrator

Chinese immigrant familyThe second part of the ANCESTORS IN THE AMERICAS series unfolds with the arrival of Chinese on the West Coast during the Gold Rush, not as coolies laboring in the bleak outposts of the New World's plantations and mines, but as free men embarking for "Gold Mountain." Pushed by hard times at home, they arrived full of hope for wealth and for an auspicious return to their homeland.

An early scene in CHINESE IN THE FRONTIER WEST: An American Story imagines a Chinese man's departure from his wife and homeland. We see the young wife silently braiding her husband's long queue (hair), perhaps for the last time. Setting out, like so many others, the traveler glances back at her over his shoulder. What does the future hold for them and their descendants? The close-up on his face, a recurring image in the film, captures an intensely personal moment in a new chapter of world history.

Could these Chinese pioneers, who came seeking gold, have imagined the pivotal role they would play in building the American west? Or that they would challenge and change laws that would eventually reshape our nation's definition of who is an American?

How little their contribution was understood at that little it is known even today.

CHINESE IN THE FRONTIER WEST uncovers a surprising and complicated web of relationships—economic, social, cultural and legal—between 19th-century Chinese immigrants and other white and nonwhite pioneers who came to America's western territories from all parts of the globe.

Asian woman carrying basket

Clip from Part 2
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"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.

Rickshaw"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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