On Gold Mountain
Lisa See’s history of her Chinese-American ancestry revolves around the powerful personality of her entrepreneurial great-grandfather Fong See, whose arrival in California in 1871 led to the founding of numerous successful businesses that ultimately enriched not only the offspring of the two families he established in the United States but also the peasants of his native Chinese village. In the process of illuminating Fong See’s life, the author sketches in the social and political histories of the two nations between which Fong See repeatedly traveled in the course of his nearly one hundred years of life.
The family’s initial foray onto “Gold Mountain,” as the Chinese termed America, began with the hiring of the herbalist Fong Dun Shung to minister to the needs of the nearly thirteen thousand Chinese laborers at work building the transcontinental railroad. Accompanied by two of his four sons, he prolonged his stay to establish a business dispensing his much-valued medical expertise. This irresponsible decision reduced his wife and youngest son to desperate straits at home, and so an offer by a wealthy patron to finance the youngest boy’s trip to America was eagerly accepted.
Building upon his father’s herbalist enterprise in Sacramento, Fong See soon proved the wisdom of abandoning traditional birth-order seniority for more modern practices of rewarding the most talented with the greatest authority. Under his leadership, the three brothers transformed their father’s business to meet a lucrative if unusual market demand for crotchless lingerie among the prostitutes of 1870’s California. Fong See demonstrated a keen desire to remake himself along Western lines, yet his hunger to be accepted among white Americans was met with a steadily growing bigotry. Caucasians ignored the contributions of these “Chinamen” in opening up the West by rail and changing the Sacramento Valley into fertile farmland, instead casting them as illegitimate competitors for jobs and resources. Fong See’s financial successes were all the more remarkable given laws and practices forbidding Chinese ownership of land, marriage to whites, and equitable access to immigration. The Exclusion Act of 1882 was mirrored by equally virulent state legislation that See explicitly compares to contemporary political campaigns against so-called illegal aliens.
In depicting the verve with which “Gold Mountain See” pursued his vision of a familial dynasty expressive of the possibilities inherent in his new home, Lisa See makes clear the parallel pioneering spirit of her great-grandmother Letticie (or “Ticie”), the sole daughter of a hard-luck family that traveled west on the Oregon Trail in 1875. Resisting the prospect of servitude among unloving relatives in unpromising farm country, Ticie daringly made her way at age eighteen to Sacramento, where she insinuated herself into the employ of Fong See. Initially baffled by her persistence, he eventually saw the wisdom in her suggestions for improving customer relations and hence sales. She became his clerk, then his bookkeeper and adviser concerning expansion of his product line. Ticie urged him to begin dealing in imported curios, which would begin to make his real fortune; similarly, her increasingly educated eye for beauty led the company into the Asian antique business, which would become the family’s lasting economic and cultural legacy.
If Fong See stands at the narrative center of this parable about the American Dream, Ticie’s story constitutes its emotional core. Ever the rebel, she allowed devotion to her employer, nineteen years her senior, to spill over into a love officially outlawed in a state that forbade miscegenation. Convinced of Fong See’s sincere desire to create a Western family with a wife who would be partner and soulmate rather than Old World servant, she entered into the nearest approximation of a legal marriage available to her: They signed a formal contract recognizing their alliance. This union produced four sons and a daughter and was blessed by expanding economic prosperity.
In 1897, aware of a newly rising wave of anti-Asian sentiment, Ticie prompted Fong See to move the family and its enterprises to Los Angeles, reputedly the most tolerant city on the West Coast. The Sees, as they became known through a classic bureaucratic error, were thus in a strategic position to benefit from Southern California’s dynamic growth throughout the century.
The rewards of her tightly knit Eurasian family were many for Ticie, allowing her to escape the stultifying division between workplace and home known as male and female...
(The entire section is 1899 words.)