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."