Posted on April 8, by Linda Chiavaroli Comments 0. To refute the long-held assertion that the Chinese who labored in California's Gold Rush were all indentured servants, Mae Ngai delved deep into The Huntington's collections of Western American History. In her lecture this year at The Huntington, " The Chinese in the Huntington Archives: Hiding in Plain Sight ," Ngai made her case, revealing the daily lives of the Chinese in California's gold mining counties through original sources from the 19th century.
Ngai, a professor of history at Columbia University, has nearly completed her book on the formation of Chinese diaspora communities that arose from the gold rushes of the s. Ngai went through scores of letters, diaries, journals, newspapers, guidebooks, travel narratives, and photo albums to illuminate many dimensions of the Chinese experience.
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An photo taken at Auburn Ravine, located a little more than 30 miles northeast of Sacramento, shows both white and Chinese workers, prompting questions from Ngai that demonstrate how historians use archival materials to think about history. The image was clearly composed by the photographer.
The whites are obviously miners, but what is the role of the Chinese?
What is the relationship between the two groups? Were the Chinese part of a work gang, or did they work individually? According to exclusionary laws at the time, Chinese could work only abandoned claims or claims sold to them by whites.
But how extensively were these exclusions applied? Such directories are extremely rare, but they contain a wealth of detail, such as who owned which mining claims. Directories noted claims owned by Chinese, indicating that the Chinese knew the rules regarding registering claims and obeyed them.
Racism existed, but exclusions were applied unevenly. The diary of H. Lansing from Tuolumne and Calaveras counties in and shows the interaction between Chinese and whites. The gangs built the infrastructure of the gold country, digging miles and miles of sluices and blasting hillsides. Both the El Dorado company and Brown kept records of the Chinese separate from those of whites.
Ngai found El Dorado employed Chinamen per day during one four-month stretch. Another Chinese man paid in vegetables, cash, and gold dust for his rice, barley, and stagecoach fare. A third purchased tools, duck, and oysters; payment was deducted from his wages. The town had 1, people, of whom were white. Chinese-owned restaurants and laundries were community hubs.
The town had three temples, large buildings with rich decorations and plantings of persimmon trees, narcissus, and trees of heaven a pungent variety of sumac. Ngai hopes her book will contribute to reclaiming and interpreting the Chinese in 19th-century California as the real people they were—neither relegated to separate ledgers nor invisible in the official records of the time.
Miners at Auburn Ravine, California, Unknown photographer.
The Columbia District was the only district out of 30 in Tuolumne County that cited the exclusion of Chinese. The diary of the gold miner H. Lansing, On Jan. Tried to sell a claim to some Chinese but could not come it. They are getting entirely too sharp.
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