Five Fires: Race Catastrophe and the Shaping of California — Chapter Three: Exclusion, The Chinese and the Daughter’s Arrival

five firesDavid Wyatt has an interesting way of looking at the Chinese experience of California, not one I had thought of before.

This thesis is that California has been shaped by racism throughout its history and that this can be seen in the literature of each major catastrophic event in California’s history. The Gold Rush is the second catastrophic event covered in Mr Wyatt’s book, but he gives the Chinese experience its own separate chapter.

Much of the previous Gold Rush chapter dealt with the world without women that sprang up in various mining camps and early California towns.  The Chinese men, or China Men as Maxine Hong Kingston came to call them, suffered this situation much more heavily than the other  miners did.  Of the 11,794 Chinese living in California in 1852 only seven were women.

Unfortunately, almost no first hand accounts of this experience survive.  What this life was like for the men and the women who later joined them is all but unknown.  A handful of English language newspaper accounts and legal documents provide the only first hand insight.

Until women begin to arrive from China in greater numbers.

Mr. Wyatt  builds the last section of this  chapter around three books that I think would make for an excellent course.  The first is an early collection of short stories by Edith Eaton who was born in England to a Chinese mother and an English father.  She arrived in California 1898.  In 1912 thirty of her short stories were published in a single anthology Mrs. Spring Fragrance.  Her stories, like those of the two authors who follow, deal with women trying to navigate within a world that does not value daughters.  The women who left China in the 19th and early 20th century entered a new world that did not value daughters any more than the world they left behind did.

Mr. Wyatt next looks at Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong published in 1945 when the author was 23.  Her book is an autobiography of her struggle to find success growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown before the second world war.  Mr. Wyatt ends this section with Amy Tam’s Joy Luck Club which tells the stories of four sets of mothers and daughters dealing with life in both China and America.

It was interesting to me to see how well documented the experience of China Women is compared to the lack of voices given to China Men though they out numbered the women through much of California’s history.  I can’t help but wonder if this is a by-product of translation.  Mr. Wyatt does not mention them, but it’s my understanding that there have long been Chinese language newspapers in San Francisco.  Surely, these must provide some information regarding the experience of China Men in the 19th century.  That said, I am really thinking about reading all three of the books Mr. Wyatt discusses in this chapter.