Coming Home in Gold Brocade: Chinese in Early Northwest America

Coming Home in Gold Brocade: Chinese in Early Northwest America

Bennet Bronson, Chuimei Ho

Reviewed by Patricia Roy

In Coming Home in Gold Brocade, Bennet Benson and Chuimei Ho, an anthropologist and an archaeologist/historian respectively, present results of their ambitious study of the Chinese in Northwest America -- an area including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, western Montana, southern Alaska, and British Columbia -- from the first recorded contact in 1788 to 1911, the beginning of the Chinese revolution. In addition to examining an extensive variety of secondary material (curiously, From China to Canada [1982], edited by Edgar Wickberg, is not in their notes) and such documentary sources as government reports, private correspondence, and newspapers, they have searched websites and smaller museums, including the one in Clinton, where they found an illustrated members’ manual for what was likely a local branch of the Chee Kung Tong. They have imaginatively exploited gravestones as a source and interviewed many knowledgeable individuals. Such assiduous research was necessary to compensate for the lack of detailed information about individuals, especially women. Alas, at times, the narrative is little more than a compendium of facts as in the detailed summaries of temples and shrines.

In many respects, Benson and Ho tell a familiar story, but they also challenge it. They argue that Chinese immigrants were not necessarily escaping dire poverty nor were they naïve victims since they usually knew what to expect in North America. The Pearl River Delta, from which most of them came, had a standard of living well above the poverty line. Sending men abroad as part of their filial duty was an investment; remittances would allow the family to rise to the middle class. Bennett and Ho suggest that few wives left China because supporting them abroad would reduce remittances. As the title hints, men expected to return wealthy and to be honoured accordingly. The last chapter on burial customs shows the alternative version of “every sojourner’s dream” (230).

The authors rightfully call for studies of the mobility of the Chinese not only within local communities, but also regionally. Although not explicitly comparing the Chinese experience in the American Northwest with that of British Columbia, they point to such significant differences as the earlier ban on Chinese immigration in the United States and the ability of American-born Chinese to enjoy full civil rights, which Canadian-born Chinese did not. Yet, the Chinese in British Columbia faced far fewer examples of violence than their American counterparts, a point demonstrated by the dozen pages cataloguing incidents of violence south of the border in the 1880s and a single sentence on Vancouver’s 1887 riot. They remark that whereas Chinese were “tolerated” in Vancouver Island coalmines and in the province’s lumber industries, many Chinese were expelled from the coalmines and lumber mills of Washington in the 1870s and 1880s. A difference that invites further research is the authors’ finding that by 1900 Chinese restaurants serving chop suey and chow mein to non-Chinese customers appeared elsewhere, including Vancouver, but were scarce in the American Northwest.

Well chosen and strategically located illustrations enhance the book, but making scholarly apparatus such as footnotes “more efficient and less burdensome” assumes ready access to the internet. That problem and a few minor factual errors, for example, referring to the 1907 riot as Vancouver’s only attack on the Chinese, do not seriously detract from what is both an encyclopaedic account of the Chinese in North West America and a helpful guide to further studies.

Coming Home in Gold Brocade: Chinese in Early Northwest America
Bennet Bronson and Chuimei Ho
Seattle: Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee, 2015. Xviii + 285pp. illus $15.96 paper.

 

BC Studies no. 194 Summer 2017