1871 Los Angeles was a dangerous place, especially for the refugees, migrants and troublemakers who lived on Calle De Los Negros, at the heart of Chinatown.
Yut Ho, a beautiful young refugee, came to LA and fell in love, only to be drawn into a showdown between two of Chinatown's most notorious gangsters. Before long, the entire city was caught up in a life or death struggle where old-world values of kinship, honor and loyalty clashed with new-world issues of race, sex, and identity. The ensuing conflict would threaten the lives of Yut Ho and all the denizens of Chinatown– and would change the face of Los Angeles forever.
This true but largely forgotten event from California's past is brought to you by the Holmes Performing Arts Fund of the Claremont Colleges, the Music Department of Scripps College, the Pacific Basin Institute of Pomona College, the Entrepreneurial Musicianship Department at The New England Conservatory, and the Public Events Office at Scripps College.
Blood on Gold Mountain was written and produced by Yan-Jie Micah Huang, narrated by Hao Huang, introduced by Emma Gies, and features music composed by Micah Huang and performed by Micah Huang and Emma Gies. A special thanks to Evo Terra from Simpler Media Productions for his expertise and support.
Iron Horse Road: a Tale from Gold Mountain
Iron Horse Road: a Tale from Gold Mountain recounts one of the great untold epics of American history: The story of the Chinese laborers–neither truly enslaved nor truly free–who built the most rugged stretches of the Transcontinental Railroad.
More than 150 years ago, these Gold Mountain Men tunneled through mountains, dangled over cliffs, and dragged entire trains over alpine summits where other Americans feared to tread. The prosperity of the gilded age was founded on their blood, sweat and grit, but their story has long been suppressed, minimized and forgotten.
For Iron Horse Road, the father/son team behind Blood on Gold Mountain retrace the steps of these workers from the Sacramento hills to the snows of Donner Summit. Equal parts history and travelogue, Iron Horse Road uses binaural 3D audio to transport the listener to deep canyons, echoing caverns and windswept peaks–a world where adventure is always around the corner, and the past is carved in blood and stone.
I mention that Cantonese was a common language among the Railroad Chinese. This Is true, however, it is important to acknowledge that other dialects, such as Toishan, and languages, such as Hakka, were spoken by large numbers of Chinese laborers in the old west.
Importance of Transcontinental Railroads:
Union Pacific vs Central Pacific
a href="https://www.trains.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/150transconrrebook.pdf" rel="noopener...
Act One of the play Jianchi/Perseverance is based on the outbreak of bubonic plague in 1900 in San Francisco Chinatown, which led to suspicion and demonization of Chinese who were identified with the “China plague,” a term used to describe the bubonic plague.
The history of Chinese in San Francisco is a fraught affair. Drawn at first by mid-nineteenth century stories of riches to be found in “Gold Mountain” (California) just for the working, many impoverished Chinese laborers left home to escape war and famine, and to earn money to send to their starving families. Most arrived too late for the Gold Rush, so many had no choice but to become laborers for the transcontinental railroad, doing the most dangerous and least remunerative work. Little by little the survivors drifted back to cities, to try to build a life for themselves. By 1880, nearly 16% of the population of San Francisco were Chinese immigrants. They experienced daily humiliations, persecution and segregation: the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was the first act to ban legal immigration rights to a country on the basis of race.
After killing more than half the population of Europe during the Middle Ages, bubonic plague had taken a break as a pandemic, but it resurged in Asia in the mid-1800s, taking 6 million lives in India and millions more in southern China. Because of San Francisco’s position as America’s foremost Western port, Dr. Joseph J. Kinyoun, the chief quarantine officer of the Marine Hospital Service on Angel Island, anticipated that San Fransisco would be the first American city to experience plague cases before any other. Unilaterally, he instituted a new policy: all ships from Asia or Hawaii would be thoroughly inspected before disembarking in San Francisco. California’s businessmen, newspapers and politicians were derisive. They accused Kinyoun of overstepping his authority and dismissed any suggestion of a potential outbreak as a “plague fake” intended to create a panic that would boost demand for his medical services.
Since ship checks focused on finding infected people, for several months, rats and their plague carrying fleas went ashore from ships onto San Francisco’s streets, concentrating in the city’s most squalid and poverty-stricken neighborhood - Chinatown. In March 1900, the first suspected plague victim died there.
For many upper and middle-class white San Franciscans, the first sign something was wrong in Chinatown on March 7, 1900, were their empty kitchens. Switchboard operators noticed next, as lines lit up with angry callers, demanding to talk to their missing Chinese servants. From there, word began trickling out around the city: Chinatown was locked down. It was only then that white San Franciscans began to remember that they had started seeing dead rats — far more than the regular count — on the streets of Chinatown in January 1900.
“The Chinese were not the only people who had to suffer,” huffed The San Francisco Chronicle. “The white employers of the Chinese awoke to find that there was nobody on hand to prepare breakfast.”
Responding to white outrage, San Francisco Mayor James Phelan ordered a company of doctors to make a sweep of Chinatown to track down and identify every possible plague case. This provoked terror throughout the SF Chinese community, which was well aware that just a few months earlier, 4,000 homes had been burned to the ground in Honolulu’s Chinatown to eradicate a plague outbreak.
After a year of waging a campaign of denunciations and denial, California Governor Henry Gage finally allowed federal officers in to inspect, test and diagnose Chinatown residents, on condition of Dr, Kinyoun’s immediate reassignment out of state. On June 1st 1901, he declared victory over the “China plague.”
The epidemic’s official death toll is recorded as 119, but it’s likely that more cases were hidden, covered up or never discovered.
This episode introduces some key players in the story of the Chinatown Massacre, and gives some background about the social and political conditions for Chinese Immigrants in Wild-West California.
Yut Ho and Ah Choy are based on historical figures. For more information about them, a great resource to check out is “The Chinatown War,” by Scott Zesch, who has collected and attempted to decode a number of primary sources contemporary with the events in this story.
Accounts of the lives of Chinese miners are scarce and unreliable. The closest thing we have to a primary source (in English) is this stunningly racist essay by author Henry Kitteridge Norton, published in 1924 and transcribed by the San Francisco Museum:
This and other similar sources supplied the material on the lives of Chinese miners. Historically, no murders of Whites by Chinese immigrants were recorded...until the day of the massacre, as we shall see. However, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
A wonderful fictional account of Chinese miners can be found in the Ken Liu story “All The Flavors,” published in “The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories” (2016) and available online for free.
Prostitution was actually much less prevalent in Chinatowns across California than politicians made it out to be in the late 1800’s. However, it was a constant danger for those few young women who made it through immigration. The old woman from the Huiguan (“benevolent association” in Cantonese) is fictional, but I have seen the Mahjong Halls of San Francisco Chinatown, and received the brutal solicitations for prostitution that hound young Asians of many genders across America, to this day.
The Characters are presented as speaking in Cantonese, rendered as an accessible, 20th-century English familiar to the listening public. So much for Historical Verisimilitude. Here is a basic lexicon for transliterated terms used in the story:
Gwailo: Translating as something like “ghost” or “foreign ghost,” it refers to western would-be-colonizers in China. Also used in the US, by such figures as that APB-busting superhero, Ghostface Killa.
Mei: a common Chinese diminutive for younger sister
Huiguan: A communal association designed to help get new immigrants on their feet. Often possessed of premises; a kind of outside-the-law town hall.
If you have questions, thoughts, your own family stories, or historical context to share, please send us a message at @bloodongoldmountain on Facebook or Instagram.
Blood on Gold Mountain is brought to you by The Holmes Performing Arts Fund of The Claremont Colleges, The Pacific Basin Institute of Pomona College, The Office of Public Events and Community Programs at Scripps College, The Scripps College Music Department, and The Entrepreneurial Musicianship Department at The New England Conservatory.
Blood on Gold Mountain was written...
In some ways, one might think of this episode as containing our version of a land acknowledgement. Immigrants are always trying to listen to natives and learn from them, and I thought Yut Ho and Ah Choy deserved a chance to do so.
Indian Camp is a fictional waypost in the foothills of the coastal range near Big Sur. The Elder who dwells there is called only by his title, Haya, which is a transliteration of the Esselen word for “Father.” He is a member of the Esselen tribe who, like many other groups, received exceedingly brutal treatment from the governments of Mexico and then the United States as their ancestral home was conquered and fought over by the two imperial powers. They are still not recognized by the US government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, but they are still here, and you can read more about them on the tribal web site https://www.esselentribe.org/history
Our group does not have any known association with the living Esselen or Olhone people. However, we have walked on their native land, drunk from the streams from which their ancestors drank, and worshipped the spirits of their homeland in foreign tongues. It behooves us to learn as much as we can about their history and culture.
California was and is home to a staggering diversity of indigenous cultures. In Los Angeles, the Tongva people are very vocal and active in the reclamation of indigeonous and pre-colonial history. The Tongva are a large, diverse group in themselves, and our group has worked with activists from Tongva communities on other projects. Another LA indigenous group is the Tataviam. UCLA has a very engaging interactive site with information on Indignous LA here: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=a9e370db955a45ba99c52fb31f31f1fc
Yut Ho’s story is, in substance, historically accurate. The Taiping Rebellion was fought between the two Opium wars. It was a rebellion against both British and North-Chinese imperialism, and was spearheaded by the Hakka (or Kejia) tribes of the South-Chinese interior. The Huang Family is Hakka, and likely had members on both sides of the conflict. In many ways, the Taiping Rebellion foreshadowed the Communist uprisings of the 20th century in its ideology (populist egalitarianism) and scale (at least 20 million killed, which is comparable to the figure from World War 1.) However, it was far from the first Chinese rebellion against a hated imperial regime. China is huge, with an immense level of linguistic, cultural and ethnic diversity. Every time one group has conquered many of the others to form a dynasty, injustice and resentment have led to large scale rebellions. The Chinese Communist Party is only the latest wave of conquest to subjugate the entire region to the northern capital of Beijing. Their repressive policies are partly founded on fear of rebellion.
Yut Ho mistakes the Esselen elder for a Chinese elder for good reason: Native Americans and East Asians are closely related not only on a genetic level, but also culturally. Certainly, both my father and I are frequently mistaken for Indigenous men (at least, by indigenous people) but the connection is more than skin deep. During the years my father (that is to say, our narrator, Dr. Huang) spent studying traditional music with Tewa elder Peter Garcia in San Juan Pueblo, NM, he was struck again and again by the similarities in family structure, social etiquette, and mythology between the Tewa and our own Hakka/Baihue family. Mr. Garcia said that the Tewa were Turtle People (a trope also touched on by writer Sherman Alexie) and that long ago, in the old country, the Turtle people had lived alongside the Snake people, but the two groups had quarreled, and the...
This episode addresses one of the most important and neglected aspects of early Chinese immigrants’ experience in California.
Relations between Chinese immigrants and their Anglo counterparts were not always hostile. Despite the fact that there were few women in California when Chinese men started arriving, sometimes relationships would form. The only references to such relationships that we have in the primary sources have to do with the Anglo establishment’s attempts to prevent them. Some examples include rhetoric associating Chinese men with drug use and debauchery.
See pg. 30 of this article from Harvard's online archive.
Other sources refer to legal measures taken to prevent Asian men from marrying white Women.
INTERRACIAL MARRIAGES AMONG ASIAN AMERICANS IN THE U.S. WEST, 1880- 1954
Sources from the early 20th century show that white women who married Asian men would lose their citizenship and become social outcasts. However, prior to the Chinese exclusion act of 1882, sources are scarce. Because of this, our writer, Micah Huang, turned to popular fiction accounts from the time in order to get a sense of what these characters’ experience might have been.
The most compelling story of this kind that Micah was able to find was “Poor Ah Toy” by Mary Mote published circa 1870.
See PDF Page 5- The Third Sex by Robert G. Lee
Poor Ah Toy tells the story of a Chinese man who is hired as a servant by a white woman named Fanny Siddons. Over the course of the story, it becomes clear that Ah Toy has fallen in love with Fanny. Eventually she gets engaged to a white man named Jeremiah Ward, whom Ah Toy confronts, prompting Fanny to fire him. At the end of the story, Ah Toy hangs himself. Fanny marries Ward but continues to visit Ah Toy’s grave for the rest of her life.
The events in this story are informed by the sensibilities and constraints under which white women authors at the time were operating. On the face of it, it is a cautionary tale about what happens when non-white servants forget their place. However, there are sub-textual clues to a deeper, darker meaning. First off, the use of the word “Toy” in the titular character’s name is not coincidental. While it would have been totally unacceptable for a white author (especially a woman) to explicitly refer to sexual contact between a white woman and a Chinese man, the events in the story suggest and evoke a secret or “illicit” sexual relationship between Fanny and Ah Toy.
The power dynamic between the two characters is an inversion of standard portrayals of male/female relations in American popular literature at the time; a quiet rebellion on the part of Mary Mote which is reflected in Ah Toy’s name and the fact that he is ultimately disposed of like a used plaything. His defiance and Fanny’s ultimate penitence represent a nod to the impossibility of his situation–something to which Mote’s female readers might have been able to relate in 19th century America.
When Micah encountered Mary Mote’s story during his research, he was immediately struck by the similarity between the names Ah Toy and Ah Choy. This was reinforced by the frequency with which Anglo people mispronounce Chinese names. Micah began thinking about what kind of woman would be a fitting romantic partner for a character like Ah Choy, and he arrived at an archetypal romance-on-the-edge, something along the lines of Romeo and Juliet or Bonnie and Clyde. The...
Life in California’s early Chinese communities was challenging and dangerous, particularly for women. Discriminatory laws made it harder for women to emigrate, leading to a severe gender imbalance in California’s Chinatowns.
Eve of Exclusion
Initially, the gender gap was a result of American employers’ perception that men were a more desirable form of cheap labor. However, the exclusion of women quickly became a mechanism for preventing Chinese communities from taking root in America. Yut Ho was fortunate to arrive before the Page Act of 1875, which severely restricted emigration of Chinese women by asserting that they were all prostitutes. This was the first US law explicitly restricting immigration and set the precedent for the Chinese Exclusion act.
Forbidden Families: Emigration Experiences of Chinese Women under the Page Law, 1875-1882
Women’s Lives on the Frontier
In fact, most of the Chinese women in California were married and worked as laborers or business owners. According to the 1870 census, there were thirty-four women in LA Chinatown and more than half of them were married. (Zesch, The Chinatown War, 61)
Of those who were unmarried, many were actually prostitutes. This was a normal state of affairs in the wild west; prostitution was was one of few ways American women could make money in frontier towns. Some estimates say that there were over 50,000 prostitutes of all nationalities in the West at the time of the Chinatown Massacre. Frontier society was dominated by rough men and rule of law was a questionable proposition at best. Under these conditions, most women were forced to rely on men, either through marriage or prostitution.
Where East and West Collide
The descriptions of Chinese marriage customs in this episode are based on inside information. While Western portrayals of Chinese women are usually demeaning and disempowering, traditional family structures had an elaborate system of checks and balances between the sexes. This is not to say that Chinese society was immune to patriarchy; it’s just that it contained matriarchal elements as well. The most famous 19th century Chinese matriarch was the Empress Dowager Cixi, who came to power after the first opium war and ruled China until her death in 1908. She belonged to an ancient tradition of female rulers, which dates back at least to the Tang dynasty. On a domestic scale, family matriarchs are still celebrated to this day as in the case of the writer’s grandmother, Yi-Yin Huang, or the fictional “Nai Nai” in the film, Crazy Rich Asians. Gendered divisions of labor are fluid and hard to pin down. However, some polls indicate that women still control finances in the majority of households in China.
Yut Ho’s unusual marital situation is a product of the bizarre ways in which respectability politics shaped LA Chinatown. While many of the details are fictional, it is indisputable that Yut Ho and a number of other Chinese women played a major role in the struggle between factions who vied for control over Chinatown. Yo Hing and Sam Yuen were both fond of accusing their rivals of mistreating women in order to damage their credibility in the press. The strategy was very...
This podcast is so colorful and so rich, it tells more story in 30 minutes than some do in an hour. With equally passionate narration and musical accompaniment, it breathes life and complexity into old land and long dead people, including their overlooked struggles. It is a (often painful) pleasure to listen to.
Great story telling but history could use more context
I learned about this podcast from a session at the American Planning Association conference in Anaheim of 2022. I started listening and was drawn in by the stories of the characters.
As a Californian, I had always been told that workers had come from China to help build the railroad, etc. Never once did I learn about or consider what conditions were in China that would lead to such an exodus of these people. This podcast helped me understand the conditions in China as well as the conditions those people faced once they arrived in California.
In my graduate program, I did learn a bit about the Chinatown massacre of 1871 in downtown Los Angeles. But until I heard this podcast it didn’t really sink in as real. The storytelling here is compelling, and made me care about the characters.
What is missing, however, is an episode of explanation or a real history lesson. The 1865 podcast had a debrief episode after every storytelling episode; I wish this podcast had at least one final debrief or history lesson at the finale of the first season. It is unclear which parts of the story were factual versus embellished for the storytelling purposes. The outcome of the 1871 massacre is unclear. In my opinion, this is a major opportunity lost.
The play in the second season is more grounded in the outcomes, and the point well made.
I’d recommend this podcast but would ask the makers to consider another episode for context and background.
Really compelling characters and great writing!