6. Chinese Pioneers in America
The Chinese quickly established themselves in the Gold Country, building Chinatowns in all the gold centers in the Sierra foothills, and later expanding their reach into the Trinity Mountains in Weaverville. Free to travel and settle in any part of the state, they took full advantage of their new found freedom. In their home country, bound by tradition and unchanging land ownership, where families had lived in the same location for hundreds of years, they encountered a land that was unsettled and unpopulated, open to being developed by anyone that had the ability and time. It was like entering a land of unlimited possibilities.
In the first two decades of living in California, the Chinese built over 30 Chinatowns. In those days, more than 90% of the Chinese lived in these small town Chinatowns. The San Francisco Chinatown would not attain its prominence until later.
The Chinese introduced Buddhism and Taoism to North America. In every Chinatown they built a temple where their gods could be worshipped and at the same time reminding European Americans that there are many gods in this world.
The spread of Chinese culture in California grew as the new Chinese pioneers opened Chop Suey or “fusion” restaurants featuring Chinese and American dishes throughout the state. Food was the first contact that many European Americans had to Asian culture.
They made a place for themselves in the California economy. They started the fishing industry and did most of the work to start the agricultural industry. In urban occupations, cigar making, woolen mills, salmon packing, boot making, and domestic work, they either were a major presence or dominated those industries. Railroad work was another area in which they excelled. During this period the Chinese constituted twenty five percent of the total California work force.
For a time, the Chinese thought they had found the Promised Land as they were no longer oppressed by Manchu officials and were able to work to their full potential. It was during this period that President Lincoln freed the slaves. America the Chinese felt was indeed a great country worthy of their loyalty. Democracy was an idea that they felt comfortable with. Perhaps they could not vote now, but soon, in the not too distant future, the ideas the Lincoln expressed, a nation, of the people, by the people, and for the people would apply to them also.
From 1850 to 1870, California was an exceptional place. In the mountains there was gold; in the valleys, a bountiful agricultural wonderland was being born. The magnificent Pacific seacoast held the abundant treasures of a virtually untapped source of wealth. The riches produced by the gold, agricultural, and sea products were bringing forth a new society.
Not only was there physical wealthy, but there was individual freedom. The issue of whether California would enter the union as a “free” state or a “slave” state had been newly decided. California would be free.
With an abundance of natural resources to develop, the growth of its cities financed by the seemingly unlimited supply of gold, a strong economy where everyone who wanted to work had a job, California for those brief twenty years, was a special place. That sense of “specialness” was further accentuated by the fact that everyone who immigrated to California during those years, had to work hard to get here. Everyone shared a “pioneer” spirit and a common goal of building the foundations of what would later be known as the “Golden State”.
During that golden age, California was more like an independent kingdom than part of the United States. Cut off from the other states by high mountains and the Great Plains, California was free to develop a new society. But that was soon to change. A wave of new immigrants would hit the state bringing the ills of the old world. The idyllic lifestyle that the early Californians developed would soon disappear.