By Max Millard
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Written for Cameron House Bilingual Youth Program
San Francisco, California, summer 2004


1. Introduction

a. What is meant by Asian American studies?

Asian Americans are Americans whose origins are traced to Asia. This means that they, their parents, grandparents, or more distant ancestors came from Asia and immigrated to the United States. The major population groups CAME from three areas: (1) East Asia -- Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans; (2) Southeast Asia -- Cambodians, Laotians, Thai, and Vietnamese; and (3) the Pacific Islands -- Filipinos, Fijians, Guamanians, Hawaiians, and Samoans. When talking about all these groups, people call them Asian Pacific Americans because islands in the Pacific Ocean are not necessarily part of Asia. The largest groups are Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, Asian Indians, Koreans, and Vietnamese.

The largest concentrations of Asian Americans are found in Hawaii and in the California cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego; and in Seattle, Wash. Many also live in other large metropolitan areas, including Washington, Chicago, Boston, and New York City.

b. Why should anyone be interested in Asian American studies?

Asian Americans should be interested because they are a product of two different cultures, and if they want to understand themselves, their families, and the Asian American community, they need to study the past. By learning about the struggles that Asian Americans went through, they can feel pride in their accomplishments and be more sympathetic to new immigrants from Asia who still face some of the same struggles today.

Asian Americans make up a very large part of the population in San Francisco and other cities in California. But in most of the United States, there are very few Asian Americans, and other Americans don't know much about them. Have you ever been asked, "Where are you from?" Or told, "Your English is so good," by someone who thought you must have been born in Asia? It's important to educate other Americans so that wherever you go in the country, you will be treated just the same as someone whose ancestors came from Europe or Africa. Some Asian American families have been in the United States for more than 150 years, but sometimes they are still treated as foreigners. This needs to change.

Americans who are white, black, Latino, and Native American should also learn about Asian Americans because the Asian American population is growing rapidly. The United States is changing from a primarily white country to one in which nonwhites are the minority. This has already happened in California: less than half the population is white. It is estimated that in the year 2050, one out of every eight people in the country will be Asian American.

There's a lot of misinformation about Asian Americans in movies, on TV, in newspapers, in children's books, and other media. More people need to be educated about Asian Americans so that everyone will be treated fairly.

Like members of other racial minorities in the United States, Asian Americans have endured a history of racial discrimination and restricted opportunity for full participation in American life. Despite these adversities, the distinctive cultural heritage, industry, and resourcefulness of these people represent a unique contribution to the American experience.

c. Can someone make a career out of Asian American studies?

Yes. Some people become teachers of Asian American studies, especially at colleges. There are textbook writers, children's authors, novelists, screenwriters, actors, singers, dancers, choreographers, painters, newspaper reporters, TV and radio broadcasters, museum curators, Internet Web site designers, community workers, and many other professions for people who specialize in Asian American studies. The more the Asian American population grows, the more opportunities there will be.

d. Why are we lucky to be studying this subject in San Francisco Chinatown?

Ever since the California Gold Rush of 1849, San Francisco has had the largest community of Chinese people outside of Asia. There's more information about Chinese Americans in Chinatown than anywhere else in the country. San Francisco has the nation's only museum that is devoted to Chinese American history. Its buildings, shops, restaurants, family associations, community organizations and cultural attractions are the most impressive and the oldest in the country. Chinatown is like a living museum. It has preserved its past while adapting to the present. It remains a vital neighborhood for thousands of Chinese Americans to live in, and for others to shop and visit.

The field of Asian American studies is too big to cover in just six weeks, so we will be concentrating on Chinese American history.


2. Chinese history.

In order to understand Chinese American history, it's a good idea to look at some Chinese history first.

China is one of the world's oldest civilizations. Chinese people have used agriculture for at least 7,000 years. Chinese writing, Chinese cities and Chinese calendars have existed for more than 3,000 years. China has been united as a nation for about 2200 years, since Shi Huangdi, or "First Sovereign Emperor," succeeded in conquering all of China. Under Shi Huangdi, the Great Wall of China was built to keep the barbarians out, and China's first empire was formed.

For most of its history, China has had one of the most advanced civilizations in the world. A thousand years ago, it was far ahead of the white countries of Europe. At that time the Chinese people had better lives, more money, a better government, and had more art, literature, fine food, and other luxuries than people in Europe.

Chinese people are responsible for at least three of the greatest inventions of all time: paper, gunpowder and the compass. Without these three things, the world would be completely different today. Lets talk about the importance of these inventions.

a. Paper

The invention of paper can be traced to a Chinese court official named Cai Lun in about A.D. 105. That was almost 1900 years old. AD stands for "anno domini," which means "year of our Lord." Our calendar begins in the year that Jesus Christ was born. So 2004 is 2004 years after the birth of Jesus. Any date before that time is listed as B.C., which means "before Christ."

The Chinese had probably made paper from silk fibers even earlier, but Cai Lun was the first person to succeed in making a paper from vegetable fibers and tree bark. China didn't want other countries to make paper, and they kept the process a secret for 500 years. Then the Japanese learned the secret. The earliest dated printed book, known as the Diamond Sutra, was produced in China in A.D. 868.

In the year 751, Chinese soldiers attacked an Arab city named Samarkand, north of Afghanistan. The some Chinese were taken as prisoners. Among them were a few men who were skilled in the art of papermaking. They were forced by the city's governor to build and operate a paper mill. Samarkand soon became the papermaking center of the Arab world.

From Samarkand, the knowledge of papermaking traveled westward, spreading throughout the Middle East. In about 1150, the first European paper mill was built in Spain. Next they were built in Italy (1276), France (1348), Germany (1390), and England (1494). By the 1500s, paper was being manufactured throughout most of Europe.

In 1440, a German inventor named Johannes Gutenberg invented a printing press that could print books quickly, cheaply and in large numbers. The most famous book he printed was the Bible in 1452. It was the world's first book to be published in large numbers. It is now called the Gutenberg Bible, and is very rare.

As the knowledge about papermaking spread, books began to be published and more and more people learned to read. The process for making paper remained almost the same as they were in the beginning. Vegetable and wood fibers were shredded, mixed with water and made into a pulp. Then a screen was dipped into the water and removed with a thin layer of pulp. As the water drained off, the pulped fibers formed a sheet, which could be dried and pressed very thin.

Paper is used for many different purposes -- not only for printing books, magazines and newspapers, but for printing from a computer, making photocopies, sending faxes, doing schoolwork, writing letters, and making paper towels, napkins, toilet paper, posters, labels, packaging, and many other things that the Chinese inventor probably never thought of. Scientists tell us that someday we won't need paper any more because everything will be done on computers. Maybe so, but paper is still one of few inventions that we use every single day.

b. Magnetic compass

The compass is a device that indicates direction on the Earth's surface, relative to magnetic north. It is the principal instrument of navigation; without it, a navigator would have difficulty in setting the course for a ship or airplane.

Although no one knows the name of the person who invented the magnetic compass, there is little doubt that it was invented in China. The first time a compass was mentioned in any writing was in a Chinese encyclopedia in A.D. 1040. The earliest record that it was used by Chinese sailors was in 1115.

The compass points north because the Earth has a magnetic field, and when you float a magnet in water, it will be attracted by the Earth's magnetism. By using a compass, sailors can tell which direction they are going.

From China, the discovery of the compass spread to Europe, and soon European sailors were using it in ships. Without the compass, Christopher Columbus probably would not found America in 1492.

c. Gunpowder

Gunpowder, or black powder, was the first true explosive. No one knows who invented it, but it first appeared in China and was made into explosive grenades and bombs in A.D. 1000. The Arabs learned it from the Chinese and took the knowledge to Europe. By the early 14th century, gunpowder and guns were being made in Europe. Early firearms were clumsy and not very dependable, but they rapidly improved.

For about 900 years, until the late 1800s, gunpowder was the most important explosive. Without gunpowder, many wars could not have been fought, and the map of the world would look very different today. Gunpowder was finally replaced by dynamite and TNT in bombs, guns and other weapons, but it is still widely used in fireworks, firecrackers and fuses.

d. China in the 1800s

Starting in about 1400, Europe gradually became more advanced with science, while China did not. Chinese people considered their country the center of the world, superior to all other countries. They called it the "Middle Kingdom," and did not want to buy anything from the outside world. They thought that people from the West (Europe and the United States) were barbarians. The Chinese had a lot of things that the West wanted to buy from them, including porcelain dishes, silk cloth and spices, but the Chinese didn't want to trade them for anything, they just wanted to be paid in silver and gold. So the Europeans and Americans, and especially the British (people from England), started importing opium into China. Opium is a dangerous drug that is similar to crack cocaine. It gets people addicted and causes health problems. It makes people just want to keep buying more and smoking it all day.

The Chinese bought the opium, became drug addicts, and paid for it with silver. Before long, there was a lot of silver leaving China and none coming in. So the emperor of China made opium illegal. When the British brought more opium into the country anyway, the Chinese government destroyed all the foreign opium at Guangzhou. In response, the British had a war with China from 1839 to 1842 called the Opium War. The British won the war and took over Hong Kong for the next 150 years.

The British defeat of the Chinese troops showed that the emperor's army was weak. Groups of Chinese in different parts of China started to rebel against the government. The emperor's soldiers fought back, and millions of Chinese were killed in the next 10 years. Some of the best farmland in China was destroyed by the battles. The Taiping Rebellion in southern China was the most serious, and many Chinese who were affected by it wanted to leave the country.

So we see how one event in history leads to another event. If the Chinese had not invented gunpowder and the compass, the Europeans would not have been able to sail the ships to make the bombs and cannons that they used against China. Without paper, the Europeans could not have raised their level of education so that they could learn how to conquer other countries.

Life was also difficult in China in the early 1800s because the country was very crowded and there wasn't enough farmland for everyone. Some years there were droughts and other years there was too much rain, so the crops failed and families starved to death. A lot of Chinese men wanted to be able to earn a good living to help their families, but there weren't enough jobs for everyone. So they looked for the chance to go to another country, work there for a few years, save money, then return to China. Many of them had wives and children to support, and they didn't plan to go away and never come back.

Because of the problems in China, thousands of Chinese left for other countries. The province of Canton (also called Guangzhou) in southern China had a long history of sailing to other countries. A lot of men from Canton province grew up to be sailors, and knew how to sail to anywhere in the world. They were tough and strong and they knew how to work hard.


3. The California gold rush

a. How it started

The event that transformed San Francisco from a frontier settlement into a bustling town was the discovery of gold on Jan. 24, 1848, at the sawmill of John Sutter on the American River in central California, east of San Francisco. When word reached San Francisco, thousands from that city and other parts of California flocked to the region. News reached the East Coast by summer, and thousands of would-be prospectors made their way west.

Why did they call it a rush? Why wasn't it just called a discovery?

Because everyone was in a hurry. They wanted to find the gold before anyone else could. The gold rush was one of the most important events in American history because it brought so many people to the West Coast.

Before the gold rush, there were only about 11,000 Americans in all of California, mostly white people. There were also a lot of American Indians, but they were spread out and didn't have any powerful tribes, so they couldn't stop anyone from coming in.

The great rush began in 1849, the year after the discovery. California's population grew from about 14,000 in 1848 to 100,000 in 1850, to 250,000 by 1852 and to 380,000 by 1860. While most of the newcomers were from the United States, 49ers also came from China, Australia, Latin America, and all parts of Europe

If gold had been discovered almost anywhere else in the world, there would not have been a gold rush because someone would have said NO! The land would have been owned by someone, and there would have been police or an army to stop people from taking the gold. But California was almost unsettled. San Francisco was just a small town with a few hundred people. California wasn't a state yet, so there were no policemen to enforce the laws. Nobody owned the land. Anyone who came first could take the land, live on it and dig in it for gold.

The earliest miners sought the gold in the form of dust, flakes, and nuggets in streams. This supply of gold was gone quickly, and miners were forced to turn to other techniques requiring greater cooperation and expense. Eventually deep mines were dug, rock was hauled to the surface, crushed, and treated to extract the precious dust. Such work, however, required huge amounts of money, and the individual miner either went to work as a wage laborer, returned home, or wandered on to gold strikes in other states in the West.

The gold rush drew not only fortune hunters but also merchants, farmers, carpenters and other people with skills. This boom then encouraged construction of railroads, and attracted money from people who wanted to invest in the west. Gold production provided wealth for the few lucky ones who struck it rich.

Most people who came to California for the gold rush arrived by ship, around the tip of South America. They landed in San Francisco first, because it was the nearest seaport to the gold fields. It was easy to reach the gold fields by going up the Sacramento River. Francisco Bay is deep and calm, and a perfect place for ships to land. Almost everyone who came to dig gold went through San Francisco first, and the town got rich. The town of Sacramento, located in central California near the gold fields, became the state capital.

Although the newcomers brought a new prosperity to San Francisco, the town was overwhelmed by thousands of men and women who needed basic housing, sanitation, and protection that the city could not provide.

At first there were very few women. The men had arrived so that they could spend all their time working, and they couldn't bring their wives with them. They missed them, and the letters they wrote home tell us a lot about what life was like back then. For most miners, it did not turn out to be a great adventure, but a time of hardship and disappointment. Some of them stayed for years, and never earned enough money to go back East.

Gangs of hoodlums roamed the city, especially the waterfront area, committing crimes and terrorizing residents. After a particularly savage attack in 1851, an angry population formed the Vigilance Committee. This citizens' army was police force, judge, and jury all in one. It hanged several people who were found guilty of crimes, and forced many others to move elsewhere.

San Francisco's population grew from less than 35,000 in 1850 to more than 56,000 in 1860 and about 150,000 in 1870. One of the main reasons for this quick growth was the large number of Chinese who arrived.

b. Chinese in the gold rush

When news of the gold rush reached China, some Chinese sailed directly from China to California in junks, or Chinese ships. But most Chinese didn't have the money to pay their fare, so they borrowed the money and promised to pay it back from their earnings. These immigrants were eager to escape problems of overpopulation, poverty, and political unrest in their homeland. They intended to stay only long enough to acquire wealth, but most could not return because they received too little money.

Most Chinese didn't stay as miners very long because they could only work in the worst mines, when white miners didn't want them any more. They had no rights, and white people could do almost anything they wanted against the Chinese, without being punished. When California became a state in 1850, it passed a foreign miners tax which charged foreigners $20 a month for gold mining. Foreigners from other countries had to pay it too, but most of the tax was paid by the Chinese. Americans did not have to pay any taxes for working in gold mines.

At first, only a few Chinese came to California. But in 1852, after the Taiping Rebellion started, a flood of 20,000 Chinese came in a single year. Most Chinese soon gave up gold mining and became hired laborers or started their own small businesses. Most of their customers were other Chinese.

The Chinese who arrived in California had many things in common with the Latinos and blacks, who also came in much smaller numbers than the white people. They were all treated as second-class people, without the same rights as whites. They had to do the jobs that nobody else wanted. They had a hard time borrowing money from banks. The Chinese had to live in their own neighborhoods called Chinatowns. Almost every city and large town in California had a Chinatown, where Chinese people lived and worked. They lived together partly for their own protection and convenience, and partly because white people didn't want to sell them property outside of Chinatown.


4. Railroads

a. What was the transcontinental railroad?

The word "transcontinental" means "across the continent." A lot of people in the eastern part of the United States wanted to come to the West Coast, but it was very difficult and expensive because they were no roads. If they went in wagons pulled by horses, it took months and was very dangerous. They had to cross long deserts where they could die from heat and thirst, they had to go through Indian territory where they were not welcome, and they had to get through mountains that were sometimes covered with snow. Many people died on the trip, or gave up and went back. Everyone knew that the first person who built a railroad from the East Coast to the West Coast would become very rich.

b. What is a railroad?

A railroad, called railway in England, is a form of land transportation in which a permanent roadway with parallel rails provides a track for cars drawn by locomotives. It was not invented all at once, but a little bit at a time. In the 1700s, crude railways -- horse-drawn wagons with wooden wheels and rails -- were used in mining operations in England and western Europe. By the 18th century their use was improved with the introduction of iron wheels and rails. It is much easier to pull heavy loads on a metal track than on a road.

The first real railroads became possible with the invention of the steam engine. With this engine, you could make a fire by burning wood under a big pot of water. The water would turn into steam, and the steam power would make the wheels of the locomotive. The first railway in the world to be powered by a steam locomotive was built in England in 1825. The first railroads appeared in the United States during the late 1820s. For a long time, they were all in the eastern part of country.

Railroads were important because they could move people and freight from one place to another very quickly and cheaply. If someone had things to sell, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, he could get it to the buyers by railroad. Because could work at jobs farther away, or could get into cities much more easily. The railroad had so many uses. At the time, there were no cars, buses, or airplanes, so everyone who wanted to travel long distances had to go by railroad or ship. It wasn't until about 100 years later, in the 1920s, that cars replaced railroads as the easiest way to get around.

To build a railroad, you need three things: the rails, which must be put on very solid ground because they carry so much weight; a locomotive to pull everything; and the railroad cars for the passengers and freight. The locomotive and railroads cars can be built in a factory, but there's no easy way to lay down the track. It's brutally hard work. Probably the hardest part is preparing the ground to hold the track. To choose the shortest route, you often need to build bridges over rivers and tunnels through mountains. Sometimes the track can be straight, and other times it must be curved. After deciding the route, the workers have to put down big wooden beams called railroad ties, then put the metal rails on top, fit them together, and use a hammer and a spike -- like a big nail -- to keep them together. Once that is done, you need to put down crushed rock to keep it solid. If just one rail is loose, the whole train can come off the tracks.

To build a railroad across the United States was especially difficult because of the mountains in the West. There are two big mountain ranges, the Sierras and the Rockies. In 1861, four businessmen from Sacramento, who were called the Big Four, decided to try to build a transcontinental railroad. Their names were Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker and Collis Huntington.

Have you heard the names of these four men before? Are their names on any places in San Francisco? There's a famous hotel called the Mark Hopkins. Leland Stanford founded Stanford University. Charles Crocker has a bank and a plaza named after him.

The Big Four formed the Central Pacific railroad company and raised money to start work. But they couldn't get any white laborers to do the work; it was too hard. Then in 1865, they got the idea of hiring Chinese workers. Once the first Chinese workers started, the railroad owners were so impressed by their reliability and good work that they started hiring more and more Chinese from the mining camps, and later directly from China.

Between 12,000 and 14,000 Chinese were hired to build the railroad. They were paid $26 to $35 a month, and had to pay for their own food. The white workers were paid $35 a month plus food. The Chinese workers didn't need to speak English, because they took their directions from a Chinese boss who spoke their language. They were very well organized, and skilled at boring tunnels and blasting the sides of mountains with gunpowder explosives so that a track could be put down. To blast a roadbed in the side of a cliff, they thought of the idea of weaving baskets, getting in them, and being lowered down from the top of cliff to put explosives in the mountainside. After once they lit the fuse, they were pulled back to the top before the explosion.

The transcontinental railroad went for almost 1800 miles, from Omaha, Nebraska in the middle of the United States to Sacramento. It didn't need to go all the way to San Francisco because you could easily get from Sacramento to San Francisco by ship. The longer part of the railroad was built by workers from Ireland. The more difficult part, through the mountains, was built by the Chinese. The two rails were built at the same time so that they could meet and become one long track.

On May 10, 1869, the railroad was completed when the Chinese and Irish workers met at the town of Promontory, Utah. There was a big ceremony, and Leland Stanford drove a gold spike into the last railroad tie. As he did, telegraph messages were sent to the East Coast and West Coast to announce that the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were now connected by rail.




The Seven Chinese Brothers (tells about the Great Wall and first Chinese emperor

Pie-Biter by Ruthanne Lum McCunn (about fictional Chinese pioneer in the Old West)

Gold Fever! (good children's book about gold rush)

Chinese Americans Past and Present. The teachers go through the books with the children, read the stories with them, and ask them questions about what they have learned.

Maps: distribute maps of China, California, United States, North and South America, Europe. Copy the maps and learn some important features, including distances, directions of north, south, east, west, and the names of countries, cities, rivers that are mentioned in the history lesson, gold fields, mountain ranges, route of transcontinental railroad.

Compass: Bring in a compass and demonstrate how to use it.

Models: make a salt and flour map (described on bottom on page 16 of Chinese Americans Past and Present). After it's dry, paint it and put in the important features.

Songs: Sing songs about the gold rush and building of the railroads.

Chronology: Write down some important historical events on 3x5 cards, and have the children practice putting them in order. They don't necessarily need to memorize the exact dates.