David Wong has created a vivid masterpiece in Escape to Gold Mountain as a stellar graphic novel. With deep empathy, he has created a vibrant journey of the Chinese in Gold Mountain, Canada and America. Future generations of Chinese, Canadians, and Americans will surely appreciate the harsh hardships of the few sojourners. The Chinese Head Tax. Glendale Unified School District - Glendale, California. Escape to Gold Mountain A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America (Comic Book): Wong, David H. T.: A graphic novel to tell an epic sage of Chinese in their search for 'gold mountain' as seen through the eyes of the Wong family. It is a story of how the Chinese came to North America over the course of more than 100 years. It is a history filled with discrimination, heartbreak,.
- Escape to Gold Mountain, A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America
- Arsenal Pulp Press (2013)
David Wong, a successful architect, was at the peak of his career when his father passed away in 1995. For years, Wong -- always preoccupied with building the 'biggest, baddest' firm -- had put off fulfilling his dad's dream of visiting their ancestral village in China together. Suddenly, it was too late.
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Wong wanted to make it up to his father by writing the story of his family. But slowly it became something much bigger.
Based on historical documents and interviews with elders, Escape to Gold Mountain, A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America, is the story of every immigrant and no one in particular. It is the collective story of the thousands of Chinese who came to North America over the past 100 years, making incredible sacrifices in order to give the next generation a better life. The novel was published last fall to outstanding reviews, and has gone through its third printing.
Wong sat down with The Tyee this past winter to discuss the novel, and the messages it conveys about the Chinese experience in North America and British Columbia. Here are excerpts from that interview.
Why did you choose the graphic novel format?
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'I grew up in a very tough neighbourhood. Drawing cartoons was my way of staying out of trouble. But I got in trouble a lot. I was locked in my house to prevent me from making trouble.
'Because of that I wanted to be a cartoonist. Asian parents have this vision that you will become a professional. So I became an architect. But I never gave up on my youth. Even when I had an architectural firm we were doing animation. So when it comes to that question -- why did you decide to put it in graphic novel format? -- I was just waiting for the right opportunity.
'It came along about five years ago. I sold my firm to my partner, and I couldn't practice architecture for five years because I signed a non-competition agreement. So during that time I decided to follow one of my dreams to do a book.'
How did you distill 100 years of history and thousands of stories into one book?
'It wasn't easy. I had a very good editor (Susan Safyen). She helped me focus my story.. helped me balance the content. I had to pick and choose which stories would be most relevant, that would resonate the most with the reader.
'One of the stories I really wanted to convey across was the head tax, and the Exclusion Act, which was government or institutionalized racism dating back almost a hundred years ago.
'To many people, it's just a thing that happened, and it was a bad thing, and everyone says 'Okay, well now the Canadian government and the American government have apologized, and that's very nice.'
'But they don't realize that there are families attached to what had happened in the past; that what was more wrong was the tearing up of families.
'I had to convey a story which was based on a true story I heard from my grandmother, of family members who were separated because of these racist laws in Canada and also in the U.S. During the Second World War, when they tried to bring their family over to try to save them from what was happening during the war, they couldn't because both governments did not allow people of Chinese ancestry to come over here.
'So they were left behind in China and when the war happened, they were killed. And, you know, when you think about the man who was here, was essentially here working to send funds back to China to raise a family and hope for a better future for his family. All that work that this person did was all for nothing.
'At the end of the day, he lost his family anyway.'
What can you tell us about the relationship between Chinese immigrants and First Nations?
'One of the things I tried to infuse into my book was the long history of the Chinese and Aboriginal peoples throughout North America. Many of the Chinese men married First Nations people, because there were no Chinese women here at the time.
'In my afterword, I talked about stories I heard as a young person, and how the very strong relations between the Chinese and First Nations was repeated again as an adult when I was doing my research up in the Cheam nation up by Hope and Chilliwack.
'They used to be very, very close and have a very harmonious, joyful relationship.
'I have a story here that talks about some rail workers who were injured and were left to die near Castlegar. The Aboriginal people took them in and nursed them to health.
'I have a very dear friend, his name is Leonard George from Tsleil-Waututh Nation. He said, 'Did you know, David, that the nation all the way up to the Rocky Mountains, they all have rice as a staple in their diet. And that was because some of the early miners and railway workers had this as a staple and introduced them to the Aboriginal people.'
'There was an exchange of sharing food, medicine and knowledge. That first wave of people developed interesting support for each other's community. I thought that was really, really cool. That history can go a long ways to help heal and things like that.'
What are your hopes for the book as an educational tool?
'What I would like schools to do is to have the young ones look at this and then realize that all of them have ancestors who migrated from their place of origin to North America.
'For the young ones to essentially go back home and ask their parents and grandparents, 'Why did we leave our place of origin? Was it because of unrest or because of economic opportunities?'
'And then to understand why people migrate. What I want is for them to stop using their cell phones or computers and things like that and to start talking around the dinner table. I'm hoping it will be a catalyst to encourage family talks around the dinner table and then they'll share their stories with friends at school.'
What has been the response from the Chinese community?
'My book tour down the West Coast was really an eye-opener for me, because I didn't know what to expect. I've never written a book before and I really have no clue what goes into these things.
'I found that the common theme going through everything was that this is what they all wanted for a long time. The folks who are most interested are multi-generational North Americans. Because the stories of nation-building are usually lost within the first two generations. A lot of young men and women actually died serving for Canada even though they were not recognized as citizens. They had to prove that they were actually loyal to this nation that didn't look at them as human beings.
'When I wrote this thing up and when I drew it up, it made it much easier to present to the new generation of young people. So they're very happy that it was presented in a format that can be well received by young ones. I've got lots of folks just coming up to me, thanking me.'
How have others responded to the novel?
'Charlie Smith at the Georgia Straight forwarded me a letter to the editor from a person who said, 'Here we go again. The white guys are the bad guys pickin' on the poor Chinese, why's it always the white folks who are the racists?' And I didn't want to reply back, never did reply back, but my thought is that it's interesting to say that.
'For example, I was really upset when a lot of these folks from Hong Kong after Expo '86 were moving to Vancouver, and the first thing they did was cut down trees.
'[They said] they're cutting down trees because it's bad luck, it's a cultural thing -- you know, 'You're being a racist by saying you don't respect our feng shui..' -- things like that.
'This wonderful article came out in the New York Times.. they interviewed a lady from the Dunbar and Kerrisdale Women's Committee, tree committee. Her name was Johanna Albrecht. She said, 'These people come into our city and chop down our trees. That's wrong. And we have to stop it. And if they call me a racist, then so be it.'
'When I read that article I called Johanna. 'Let me help you.'
'Because the way to stop this thing was to work from within, and shame them into not cutting down the trees. You have to give them a vested interest.
'We actually held a conference at city hall, had a rally there called Save our City. I went to the Chinese media and said, 'I bet the first thing you did on this hot summer day is park your car underneath a tree, so it gets some shade. And you talk about feng shui. I did my thesis on feng shui in university. The first concept of feng shui is embracing nature, and have the trees to block the wind. So don't give me this bullshit story about the feng shui being bad. You guys are cutting down trees because you're too damn lazy to look after it and you want a bigger house and the tree gets in the way. So call a spade a spade.'
'You fight racism not by saying that racism hurts, because it doesn't make any sense. But you show them the value of the culture of these things by letting both sides of the fence look at each other's perspectives.
'The wholesale embracing of multicultural society is a real double-edged sword. You tell people to accept and to be tolerant, but you don't really inform people why it's good for society to do that.
'I like the word diversity better [than multicultural], because it includes cultures, communities, partnerships; how people select their lifelong partners and things like that. That brings a lot of fresh ideas and knowledge. You get this engine of creativity and the innovation that comes from it.
'That's why I think the very positive thing about diversity is the sharing of ideas and of knowledge. That's what's really in it for humanity. If we really embrace this notion of acceptance then we can progress much quicker as a group.'
Sometimes a book’s message is bigger than the sum of its parts.
Such is the case with David H.T. Wong’s historical fiction/non-fiction hybrid graphic novel, Escape to Gold Mountain (I’ve been trying to settle on a format for titles on this blog, and I’ve decided now: books are underlined!) The “Gold Mountain” of the title is the way early Chinese immigrants referred to Canada and the United States. The message of Wong’s book is particularly resonant, not only for those of Chinese descent, but for anyone impacted by immigration today (i.e. everyone.)
Historical Setting: This traces the experiences of Chinese immigrants to Gold Mountain (note that early Chinese settlers didn’t much distinguish between Canada and the United States) and their descendants, from 1835 to 2011.
Appearances by Historical Personalities: As the story is interwoven with historical events, there are almost too many to count. Those given the most time in this book include: John Sutter, Charles Crocker, Sun Yat-Sen, Emily Carr, Jean Lumb, Frank Wong.
Historical Events Covered: Again, there are too many to list here, but the ones most pivotal to the story are: The First Opium War, the California Gold Rush, the building of the Central Pacific Railroad in the U.S., the Chinese Massacre of 1871, building the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese Head Tax, and World War II.
“Celestial”: Even his non-swear words were bad (HBO)
Timely Dialogue:“You’ll be one of the only celestials there.”
“Celestial” was originally a flowery way to describe Chinese people. It was coined by 19th century American newspapers in order to show off their vocabulary. The Chinese thought of their Emperor as ruling all under heaven, that is, the Celestial Kingdom. Soon, white Americans gave the term a charged meaning. They contrasted the heavenly meaning of the word with the filth and degradation they frequently associated with Chinese immigrants. It became a form of insult, best not used today, unless you’re Ian McShane in a Western.
Oregon’s Mail Tribune has a very good article on the topic.
Which Historical Personality Is This Book?Larry Kwong. Known as the first player to break hockey’s “colour line,” Kwong only ever played one game in the NHL. The meaning of that one game far outweighs anything that happened in the game itself. Like this book, the message was bigger than the sum of its parts.
The story starts in the 1840s with a young Chinese man, Wong Ah-Gin. After losing the Opium War, when the British Empire pushed drugs on the Chinese people under force of arms, China struggles to pay the extortionary penalties imposed by Britain. Desperate to escape poverty in his home village, Ah-Gin stows away on a ship bound for America. Landing in California in 1849, he works at a saw mill just in time to see gold discovered on the property.
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Hearing this story, those back in China dub the land across the Pacific “Gold Mountain.” Many make the difficult journey in search of fortune to support their families. The whites who “came to America first” resent their presence. Then and now, bigots rarely have a sense of irony.
So begins a cycle of exploitation then persecution. Chinese workers are greedily recruited from overseas because of their willingness to work for low wages. They work under horrific and dangerous conditions. Once the work is done, they aren’t given passage back home, like they were promised. That would be too expensive. It’s easier to just run them out of town through persecution violence. And when the next batch of hard work needs doing, the cycle repeats.
With China still suffering from civil strife and foreign invasions, the Chinese in Gold Mountain will likely die if they go back. But racist anti-immigration laws also prevent them from bringing families over. For decades, until the 1940s, Chinese settlers, mostly single men, eke out an existence, often finding support from other persecuted minorities. Simply starting a family is a colossal hurdle to overcome. Wong Ah-Gin is one of the lucky ones, and the story continues through the eyes of his adopted son and his ancestors.
The laws finally changed, not just because of well-meaning white liberals, but because the Chinese themselves became politically active. This book recounts these changes as it weaves in elements of the fictional tells this story by weaving in elements from the fictional Wong family’s story.
The latter part of the graphic novel breaks down at this point. It becomes more of a list of Chinese-Canadian and Chinese-American milestones. Yet the story still had an impact on me. My parents benefited from these milestones, able to move to Canada and live as something other than a second-class citizen.
While I’ve long known of the early Chinese who came for the gold rush or to build the railroads, I’ve often wondered about years between then and my parents’ arrival. How did Chinese people keep coming when the laws excluded them. How did they manage when those laws forcibly separated families? How did things change?
Escape to Gold Mountain answers those questions. Even for someone with a keen interest in history, it was full of revelations.
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- Deftly weaves the personal struggles of the Wong family with real events and personalities
- Meticulous research that includes recreating original photographs
- Several segments pack a strong emotional punch
- A static drawing style lacks immediate appeal
- Some of the narrative and panel layouts are confusing and difficult to follow
- The last section of the book is more of a list of historical events than a story
When they’re old enough, I want my kids to read this. It’s easy to be complacent when you’re considered a “model minority.” They cannot forget that the struggles of refugees today are the same struggles their forebears went through. So even though I might rate this book as “ok,” it’s essential reading, which is high praise of another sort.
★★★½ (of out 5)