Academic journal article Chinese America: History and Perspectives

Gold Mountain Wives: Rhapsodies in Blue

Academic journal article Chinese America: History and Perspectives

Gold Mountain Wives: Rhapsodies in Blue

Article excerpt

An Essay by Tan Bi'an in Xinning zazhi (1949)

Translator's Note: This essay, entitled "Jinshan fu xing" (Rhymes of the Gold Mountain Women), was originally published in the 1949 issue of Xinning zazhi, a magazine published in Taishan county since 1909. The magazine enjoyed wide circulation both in the Cantonese Siyi (four counties) regions and in Chinese immigrant communities in North America before World War II. It focused mainly on the lives of overseas Chinese in Taishan emigrant communities and on news about the Americas. Until 1949, it regularly reported U.S. immigration news and activities against Chinese settlement in North America. It was truly a first transnational magazine, bridging both sides of the Pacific for Chinese Americans and their families in southeastern China.

Besides news items, the magazine published creative works, many of which carried didactic remonstrations on the harm involved in opium addiction, gambling, and womanizing. Some of these writings were also concerned with the American experience. For instance, in 1911 the magazine published the complete text of a narrative rhyme on the Angel Island Detention Center in San Francisco Bay. (This poem had first been published a few months earlier in San Francisco, with some lines censored.) (1) For years, Xinning zazhi contained brief news reports on the lives of the socalled Jinshan po ("Gold Mountain wives") in Taishan, mostly about the lives of these married women and their sons, the socalled Jinshan shao ("Gold Mountain sons"). The general perception was that these families whose menfolk had emigrated to America (Gold Mountain) lived a life of materialistic comfort and luxury; indeed, they were the envy of the local peasants. Yet in most of the reports, they served as cautionary examples against wasteful extrav agance and harmful indulgence.

"Jinshan fu xing" was written by Tan Bi'an and published in Xinning zazhi in January 1949. It contained excerpts both from local folk rhymes and from writings by local literati about the tragic legacy of Gold Mountain wives, who suffered the effects of local cultural mores and emigration practices alike. This article was the first extensive prose written on these women as forsaken spouses of participants in the rush to Gold Mountain. No further study has followed this thematic treatment since the 1949 publication of the essay. It was not until the 1980s that the plight of the Jinshan po gained the scholarly attention of Chinese American Studies in the United States.

Tan Bi'an, a Siyi native, worked as a librarian in Guangzhou for many years before his retirement. He immigrated to San Francisco after the 1979 Sino-American normalization. In 1982, Tan Bi'an and Him Mark Lai separately provided this translator with a copy of Tan's original handwritten manuscript, in which there was a paragraph referring to how Tan's family had been affected by the American sojourn. This paragraph had been deleted from the 1949 publication but is included in the present translation.

A popular Cantonese rhyme begins with the following line: "In the second reign year of Haam-fung / A trip to Gold Mountain was made." If we were to take this date (1852) as a historical reference, it has now been almost one hundred years since the Cantonese Chinese set foot in North America.

When China was forced to open its doors with five treaty ports to the Europeans and Americans, (2) the British and U.S. consular officials and merchants conspired in trafficking Chinese laborers, known locally as the "piglets" (zhuzai). First, they set up gambling dens and "piglet houses" (zhuzai guan) in Macau. The unemployed peasants were tricked into gambling, losing what little they had. They were then forced to sign contracts to become zhuzai to work in the Americas. In retrospect, this was but a continuation of the European slave trade, moving the site from Africa to China, and the participants from Negroes to Chinese. …

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