Saturday, July 7, 2012

Cayley Wallace and Rube Goldberg; What a Team!

Rube Goldberg examines the problem (courtesy of NPR)

If only I had known! Rube Goldberg, born on July 4, 1883, in San Francisco, began his career as an engineer for the City of San Francisco Water and Sewers Department. However, poop appeared to be insufficiently stimulating, and Goldberg used his considerable drafting talents to create models of impossibly complicated devices to complete simple tasks. Since he was a contemporary of my characters in Shaketown, and since he had such a fantastic sense of humor, he would have made a great character! Too late for this book, but we love you Rube! Read more here:

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Tao Warrior

In Shaketown, the character Wo Sam was a paragon of Taoist ethics, though his compassion became severely challenged as he moved further into the world of the tongs. Taoist propriety emphasizes the Three Jewels of the Tao: compassion, moderation, and humility, while Taoist thought generally focuses on nature, the relationship between humanity and the cosmos; health and longevity; and wu wei (action without effort--what we in the west might call "instinctive action" or "flow"). Harmony with the universe and its source (Tao) is the intended result of Taoist practices.
Religious Taoism traditionally features reverence for ancestors and immortals along with a variety of divination practices, including the throwing of Kau Cim, fortune sticks. Clerics of religious Taoism often take care to note distinctions between their ritual tradition and the customs and practices found in popular ("folk") religion. Chinese alchemy, astrology, cuisine, Zen Buddhism, several Chinese martial arts, traditional Chinese medicine, feng shui, and many styles of qigong have been intertwined with Taoism throughout history.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Following the Tao

In Shaketown, Sam Wo visits a Taoist temple in San Francisco's Little China. Taoism (pronounced and also spelled Daoism) refers to a philosophy and a religious tradition that emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao, the source and essence of everything that exists. The Chinese word Tao is usually translated as "way", "path" or "principle"; the word Tao can also mean "reality" or "nature". The proper path in life, says Taoism, is one that works in harmony with reality, the essence of the natural universe.
Religious Taoism has been institutionalized for centuries and has been influenced by a variety of cultures and traditions. Today the philosophy exercises a profound influence on modern thought worldwide.
The primary work of literature expounding Taoist philosophy is the Tao Te Ching, containing teachings attributed to Laozi, "the Old Teacher". A number of widespread beliefs and practices that pre-dated the writing of the Tao Te Ching were also incorporated into religious Taoism. After Laozi, the inherited beliefs and practices of Taoism continued to evolve. The philosophy, its literature, and the religious rituals profoundly influenced the culture of China and surrounding societies in Asia. The book most often translated into English after the Bible is the Tao Te Ching.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The REAL Nellie Bly

In 1890, at 25 years of age, Nellie Bly became the most famous woman on earth. In Shaketown, Cayley was so impressed with her efforts, she fought for her own independence.
In 1880, Elizabeth Jane Cochrane was hired by a Pittsburgh (PA) newspaper  after she wrote an intelligent and scathing rebuttal to an article; she took up a nom de plume taken from a popular song: “Nellie Bly”. Her early writing focused on the travails of working women, but she was eventually pressured into writing about fashion, gardening, and society tea-parties--the women’s section.
She quit and spent a year in Mexico, but returned to the States to take a  job offered by Joseph Pulitzer. Her first story held the New York World's readers spellbound: she went undercover as a patient into New York’s Women’s Lunatic Asylum, revealing the brutality and neglect uncovered there. Nellie Bly became a household name.
In November of 1889, she attempted to beat the mythical Phileas Fogg's journey in the Jules Verne book “Around the World in 80 Days,” saying she could make it in 75. Bly followed the route proposed by Verne scrupulously, traveling with one tiny suitcase, writing that “if one is traveling simply for the sake of traveling and not for the purpose of impressing one’s fellow passengers, the problem of baggage becomes a very simple one.”
She landed by steamer in Oakland (not San Francisco, as Phineas Fogg did), and arrived back in New York seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds after her departure— a record for circling the earth. New York greeted Nellie with fireworks, brass bands and parades. Songs were written about her, dolls and games were created, and her face and name appeared on posters, and advertisements; Nellie Bly had become the most famous woman on earth. The epitome of the gilded age's "New Woman", Bly said, “It’s not so very much for a woman to do who has the pluck, energy and independence which characterize many women in this day of push and get-there.”

Friday, May 11, 2012

Ghosts of Angel Island

Angel Island Detention Center, 1910
Many early Chinese immigrants to San Francisco and beyond were processed at Angel Island, now a state park in San Francisco Bay; more than 97 percent of the immigrants processed on Angel Island were Chinese. Unlike Ellis Island in the East where prospective European immigrants might be held for up to a week, Angel Island typically detained Chinese immigrants for months--sometimes up to two years--while they were interrogated to validate their papers. Some detainees expressed their feelings in poetry carved into the wooden walls of the detention center; some of these poems may still be seen by visitors today.
In 1940, a fire that destroyed the administration building caused the government to decide to abandon the Immigration Station on Angel Island. The "Chinese Exclusion Acts," which were adopted in the early 1880's were repealed by Federal action in 1943 (by that time, China was an ally of the US in World War II); in conjunction passage of the War Brides Act, Chinese-American veterans began to bring their families to American outside of national quotas, leading to a major population boom during the 1950s.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Tongs in Chinatown

Unlike Shaketown's English-speaking Wo Sam, most Chinese immigrants arriving in the United States knew only various dialects of Cantonese, one of the major branches of Chinese spoken in the Zhujiang delta. In the late nineteenth century, most Chinese immigrants saw no future in the United States; assimilation was impossible. Legally discriminated against and politically disenfranchised, Chinese Americans established their roots in Chinatowns. They developed a high degree of tolerance for hardship and racial discrimination and maintained a lifestyle similar to that formerly enjoyed in China. This included living modestly, observing Chinese customs and festivals through social or political organizations (tongs) and family associations that represented the collective interests of persons with the same family names. These organizations acted to arbitrate disputes, help find jobs and housing, establish schools and temples, and sponsor social and cultural events. Some organizations (such as the fictional Chee Kong tong that Wo Sam and Wo Li join) became powerful and oppressive, growing rich through smuggling, the opium trade, gambling and prostitution; by the early 1880s, the population had adopted the term "Tong War" to describe periods of violence in Chinatown.

Monday, April 30, 2012

80 Years of Exclusion

Chinese emigres aboard ship, from Harper's Weekly, 1876
From 1882 to 1965, only diplomats, merchants, and students and their dependents (such as Shaketown's Wo Sam and Wo Li) were allowed to travel to the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act greatly reduced the numbers of Chinese allowed into the country and the city, and in theory limited Chinese immigration to single males only. Exceptions were in fact granted to the families of wealthy merchants (hence the inflow of "wives" and "sisters", brought in for the purpose of prostitution), but the law was still effective enough to reduce the population. All Chinese were confined to rigidly defined areas ("Chinatowns") in major cities across the country. Chinese were deprived of their democratic rights: By congressional and judicial decisions, Chinese immigrants were made ineligible for naturalization. The Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, particularly the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 brought in a new period in Chinese American immigration. In 2009, the California Legislature passed a Bill, apologizing to Chinese Americans for the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and other unjust discriminatory laws that resulted in the persecution of Chinese living in California.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Mark Twain in Virginia City

A big hunk of silver ore
Boomtowns of the west held quite a fascination for American readers, and Virginia City, home of the Comstock Lode, was first among them. In February 1863, 20 years before the mines were played out, Samuel Clemens, a reporter on the local newspaper Territorial Enterprise, first used his famous pen name: Mark Twain. In Shaketown, Wo Sam and his cousin are sent to Virginia City after the boom is well over. Economic development defined patterns of settlement for the earliest Chinese immigrants. Before the Chinese Exclusion Act, immigrants followed work in the western states: because mining and railway construction dominated the west, Chinese immigrants settled mostly in California and states west of the Rockies. The earliest immigrants were able to bring their wives and family members from China prior to the Exclusion Acts (at the time, the Chinese population in the United States was about 110,000). As railway construction and mining declined and anti-Chinese sentiment increased, the Chinese fled into small import-export businesses, service businesses and small manufacturing in such cities as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Others moved into abandoned towns and took over mining claims, such as those in Shaketown's Virginia City, forming their own tightly knit, well-functioning societies. In spite of the distance, a number of Chinese businesses (especially gambling) were controlled by San Francisco tongs.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Who is the Enemy?

A run on the Stock Exchange

  The Panic of 1873 was a severe worldwide financial depression caused by a fall in demand for silver (Germany's decision to abandon silver as the basis for monetary worth set off the panic). The plummeting value of silver was one of the reasons for closing the Comstock Lode in Virgina City in Shaketown. Economic fears on the west coast caused racial tensions in San Francisco to boil over into full-blown race riots focusing on Chinese Americans, who were thought to be stealing jobs from whites. The Consolidated Chinese Benevolent Association (known as The Six Companies) evolved out of labor recruiting organizations that brought immigrants from different areas of Guangdong since the gold rush; the organization attempted to quell the violence. The heads of the Six Companies were leading Chinese merchants; they sought to represent the Chinese community in front of the business community as a whole and San Francisco city government. The organization proved powerless to stop the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and further restrictive immigration laws such as the Geary Act, which required all Chinese residents of the United States to carry a "US Resident Card", a sort of internal passport. Failure to carry the permit at all times was punishable by deportation back to China or a year of hard labor. In addition, Chinese were not allowed to bear witness in court (which is why Wo Sam couldn't testify for Cayley). From 1882 on, Chinese Americans were confined to segregated ghettos and suffered the worst forms of racial oppression.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Building the Hard Road

Promontory Summit, Utah
  Chinese immigration began shortly after the California Gold Rush in 1849 and ended abruptly with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The earliest migration in 1849 consisted mostly of young male peasants who were recruited from their homeland to extract metals and minerals, reclaim swamplands, build irrigation systems, work as migrant agricultural laborers and fishermen, and construct a vast railroad network (like Wo Sam's and Wo Li's elderly companion on the train in Shaketown). Chinese immigrants were the unsung heroes in the success of the Transcontinental Railroad: in spite of major racist opposition, the Central Pacific Railroad Company under Charles Crocker employed about 15,000 Chinese to construct the eastward-bound leg by early 1867; the Chinese laborers were determined and tireless, toiling under extreme working conditions in the Sierra Nevada (workers of the west-building Union Pacific were mainly Irish immigrants and Civil War veterans). To blast through the mountains, the Central Pacific built huge wooden trestles on the western slopes and used gunpowder and nitroglycerine to move tons of rock, hollowing out tunnels through the granite--often with loss of life and limb. The two railroads met at Promontory Summit in Utah in 1869.

Friday, April 13, 2012

No Gilded Cage for Victorian Women

Mrs. Lawrence Lewis
Late 19-century urban middle- or upper-class women--such as Shaketown's Mrs. Rolifer--were frequently characterized as "only a bird in a gilded cage", a song popular at the time. Such women were viewed as fragile and endangered; in the first 20 years of the new century, they increasingly began to flex their political muscle. The late 1890s brought major changes in the way many women interacted with the world at large. Though working-class women (often immigrants) like Cayley were brought into the work force the moment they could stand (child labor laws were either non-existent or not enforced), they usually filled positions of the lowest sort. Most women of this ilk were in survival mode. However, women in more stable situations were often at the forefront of movements such as suffrage, temperance and anti-corruption. Those without political connections sometimes paid a high price-- suffragettes such as Mrs. Lawrence (Dora) Lewis and Lucy Burns were beaten and starved for their political beliefs. Today, it's difficult to believe that women were considered property and were unable to vote until the hard-won passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, almost entirely due to the relentless self-sacrifice of women like these. This Snopes article refers to a true email that is circulated about members of NWP, the National Women's Party:

Monday, April 9, 2012

The REAL Ripper

The "real" Jack the Ripper--on whom Shaketown's Ripper was modeled--murdered five prostitutes in London in 1888.  He was never caught or identified, and may have been responsible for many more deaths. The murders occurred in Britain at a critical moment when feminist politics challenged social norms, and the country witnessed intense conflict over gender and class divisions--the unrest spread to America. Contradictory interpretations of feminine roles in society transformed the Ripper into a   cautionary tale, a mythic warning to women on the perils of sexuality. The Victorian separation of "proper" women into objects of chaste worship and "soiled doves" was one of the reasons for the popularity of prostitution. However, for many women, a foray into prostitution was neither dangerous nor a life sentence. In Shaketown, Opal's dream of saving up and moving to Seattle came true for many-- it wasn't unusual for women who went into "the trade" to conserve the money they earned and find legitimate work and a new life under a new name.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Refined Eroticism

In Shaketown, Cayley is faced with the difficult choice of crossing over into the deeply reviled world of prostitution or losing what little she's gained by being independent. From a paper published in The American Historical Review (Vol. 104, Feb. 1999, U. of Chicago Press) T.J.Gilfoyle states the obvious: "Prostitutes were 'ordinary' young females confronting limited possibilities and making rational and sometimes desperate choices." (pg 120). "Prostitutes formed a subterranean counter-society, an explicit moral, social, sanitary, and political threat. They symbolized disorder, excess, pleasure, and improvidence" (That's our Cayley!). "…changing patterns of urban consumption between 1896 and 1913 spurred the expansion of unregulated prostitution. In this period of material affluence and economic growth, bourgeois prostitution 'found its golden age.'". Bawdy houses--especially the high-end type run by Cayley and Opal satisfied aristocratic and bourgeois clientele "in search of refined eroticism."

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The REAL Cayley Wallace

The REAL Tess Wall
   Cayley's character in Shaketown is based on a real woman by the name of Tess (Theresa) Wall. Though I pulled many elements of Cayley's life out of thin air, Tessie's real life was so compelling I felt I had to create a character that honored her. Like Cayley, Tess was born to a poor Irish family "South of the Slot" (Market Street), worked as a domestic servant for a time and married a fireman with a weakness for drink. How she came to be in "the business" was pure conjecture on my part, but the fact that she was the most notorious and successful Madame in San Francisco is true. I can only hope that she had close friends like Opal, Ellen and Beatrice as Cayley does in the book. One fact about Tess' life is well-known: she married a gambler by the name of Frank Daroux. An acrimonious divorce followed by Daroux' subsequent affair led her to shoot him, uttering the famous line, "I shot him 'cause I love him, God damn him!" Daroux survived, but refused to prosecute--he left town shortly thereafter.