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Review

Escape to Gold Mountain: A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America

By David H.T. Wong

November 4, 2013

Review By LiLynn Wan

Graphic texts are becoming increasingly popular as a way of telling history. Within three months of its official launch, David Wong’s Escape from Gold Mountain: A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America made the bestseller list of the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia and the top seller position in three Amazon.ca categories. Wong joins a growing list of talented artists, including Chester Brown (Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography) and Willow Dawson (Hyenas in Petticoats: The Story of Suffragette Nellie McClung), who have published their interpretations of Canadian history in panels of illustration and minimalist text. Alyson King has recently pointed out that graphic texts convey history differently from written texts because they forefront “the physicality of actions, subjects and events.”[1] As such, graphic texts can be a more efficient way to convey to readers the highly complex premise that historical knowledge is embedded in materiality. This is particularly useful in telling histories of racism and oppression, where experience is tantamount to finding the balance between acknowledging oppression and attributing agency to the subjects of that oppression. 

Escape to Gold Mountain offers a historically accurate, albeit selective, account of keystone events in the history of the Chinese in North America that spans 170 years. The author describes his work as “a fictional story… based on facts.” Wong has taken creative liberties to weave a biographical story that follows three generations of one family’s journey in North America through this chronology. Nonetheless, the story is set in a rich and carefully researched historical context, the bulk of which is presented visually, through images. The meaning that these images can convey is immense, and it is refreshing to see Chinese people in the past portrayed in such a human fashion. Most of the images of the early Chinese in North America that exist in the archives — many of which Wong has cleverly incorporated into his own illustrations — are, in one way or another, distorted by a colonial lens. When these are the only images of the past that we see, even in a carefully contextualized academic context, they can become normalized. To be able to visually follow the characters in Escape to Gold Mountain through more than two hundred pages as fully formed and central actors in history is a highly entertaining and enjoyable step towards decolonizing our history. In addition to being of wide popular appeal to audiences of all ages, this book will make an excellent teaching tool in high schools and universities when used in conjunction with appropriate supporting material.

 


[1] Alyson King, “Cartooning History: Canada’s Stories in Graphic Novels” in The History Teacher 45:2 (February 2012), 212.

Escape to Gold Mountain: A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America
By David H.T. Wong 
Vancouver, B.C.: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012. 256 pp, $19.95 paper