Anyone who has watched many movies or television shows dealing with Chinese laborers in the early days of the American West knows the story. The immigrants, whose work was essential to the development of the West, were ill-treated by their Caucasian bosses and counterparts -- made to do backbreaking work and then subjected to bigotry and humiliation. At least that's the way it's often been portrayed in both fiction and in historical research.
But, history professor Sue Fawn Chung found herself thinking, almost all that research has concentrated on race relations in the West's big cities. Was it the same in smaller, rural settlements?
That question came to Chung as she was doing some work for the U.S. Forest Service at an archeological dig of a Chinese mining site. It started her on a research path that led to the publication of The Pursuit of Gold.
Chung focused on the Nevada towns of Tuscarora, Island Mountain, and Gold Creek and on John Day, Ore. She combed through official records and interviewed descendants of the people who lived in the areas decades ago.
What she found was heartening: The prejudice and bigotry of the big cities wasn't the norm in the rural enclaves. "It had to be an isolated location" for prejudice to be absent, she notes. If a large city were nearby, the negative attitudes prevalent there tended to influence the people of the smaller towns.
One reason for the seeming harmony in the smaller settlements is easy to understand. The people needed each other to survive and thrive. People tended to be valued for what they could bring to the community rather than disliked because of where they or their parents were born, Chung says.
Many of the Chinese immigrants were exceptionally skilled in placer mining, for instance, and could build mammoth irrigation ditches. Some could even make the water run uphill. Their expertise was invaluable to mining companies, she says.
Caucasians who owned general stores often strongly influenced how Chinese immigrants were viewed in the community, she says. Storeowners typically were at the center of life in small towns; if they looked favorably upon the Chinese, their neighbors were likely to follow suit. She interviewed one Caucasian person whose family had raised and sold ducks, establishing a very congenial relationship with the Chinese in town.
In Island Mountain, Chung found information on a Caucasian family that socialized with a Chinese merchant and his roommate. The family would invite them to dinner, serving foods the family normally ate, but being sure to add rice to the menus for their guests. They forged a friendship that lasted 30 years or more and included the family taking their Chinese neighbor to the doctor when he became ill.
In John Day, Chung learned about a Chinese doctor, Ing Hay, who established a practice during the heyday of mining. When the townspeople fared unusually well during the flu pandemic of 1918, they credited their doctor and named a street, and eventually a museum after him. Hay's nephew had locked up the doctor's office after his death. The property was donated to the city, but somehow that fact was forgotten over time. The city discovered it owned the building in the 1970s or 1980s and then opened it. "It was just like a time capsule," Chung says, noting that it was filled with pharmacy items from both the East and West.
Chung has written extensively about the Chinese in the American West during her more than 40 years as a historian, publishing numerous articles in refereed journals.
Her interest germinated in an undergraduate class at the University of California, Los Angeles. "The teacher was so engaging when he talked about China, and I thought, 'Here's a country that, basically, nobody knows about.'"
This was, after all, during the 1960s -- a decade before President Richard Nixon made his historic journey to China, opening diplomatic relations between the two nations.
Chung also recently published The Chinese in Nevada, a collection of photos depicting Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans from roughly the 1860s to the present. It grew out of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant that came to Chung via Nevada Humanities. "I was curator for a photo exhibition that was displayed at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City. It was well-received and even was written up in Sunset magazine," she says. The exhibition moved to Las Vegas and was updated as people donated new photos.
The photo book is part of the "Images of America" series. It includes portraits and family groupings as well as images of towns and workplaces from the early 1900s.
Some of the photos are of people familiar to Las Vegans today. They include former university Regent Lilly Fong and businessman Richard Tam, both of whom have UNLV buildings named after them.
Chung, whose next work will deal with the impact the Chinese had on the lumber industry, says she hopes people who read her books will have a better understanding about what the American West really was like in its early days. "It was a multicultural caldron," Chung says. "It's time for people to recognize these other groups, such as the Chinese, and give them credit for what they did to help build the American West."