Mountain of Gold: The Story of the Chinese in America
(1967), a non-fiction book by American author and activist Betty Lee Sung, details the history of Chinese-Americans in an effort to challenge what she views as a prevailing notion that Chinese immigrants are "unassimilable aliens." According to The Journal of American History
, "The contributions of the book lie in the author's compassion for her subject and in observations (enriched by her personal experience) on recent developments in the Chinese community."
Historians believe that between 1565 and 1815, a very small number of Chinese individuals immigrated into California—a Mexican-owned territory until 1848—during the period of Spanish colonial rule of the Philippines. Aside from that, however, virtually no one of Chinese descent lived in North America before 1815. However, as the United States began to conduct maritime trade with China, it saw its first significant wave of Chinese immigrants, most of them sailors. In fact, it wasn't until 1834 that the first Chinese woman—Afong Moy—was recorded to have arrived as an immigrant, brought to the US to be exhibited by traveling traders as "The Chinese lady."
Between 1848 and 1852, the number of Chinese Americans soared from 325 to 25,000. By 1880, there were more than 300,000. The author identifies a number of factors driving these increases. Many Chinese Americans immigrated to participate in the California Gold Rush, though they soon discovered that only a very small minority of miners, of any origin, secured fortunes in this manner. Others sought employment working to build the First Transcontinental Railroad, constructed between 1863 and 1869. Work was also readily available on Southern plantations in need of cheap labor after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Still others were war refugees fleeing the Taiping Rebellion, which between 1850 and 1864 killed between 10 and 30 million across China.
During every part of this wave, Chinese Americans faced widespread racism and distrust directed toward them by European-Americans. In towns and cities across America, the Chinese were forcibly segregated into so-called Chinatowns. Physically separated and deprived of many of the shared benefits enjoyed by their white counterparts in these communities, Chinese Americans found it even more challenging to assimilate. Elsewhere, the Chinese were massacred by angry mobs. In Los Angeles in 1871, a group of 500 white and mestizo rioters descended on that city's Chinatown, attacking and robbing the residents there. Between 17 and 20 Chinese immigrants were hanged in a matter of hours, many of whom had already been shot dead by rioters. And in 1885, white coal miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming massacred their Chinese counterparts because they were willing to work for lower wages. Between 7:00 a.m. and midnight, rioters murdered 28 Chinese Americans, injured 15 more, and destroyed the homes of 78.
Chinese Americans were also targeted by state and federal governments. As early as 1850, California passed the Foreign Miners' Tax that imposed a prohibitively expensive $20 a month tax on immigrant miners, most of whom came from China and Mexico. In 1879, California once again targeted its Chinese residents, who by then made up one-sixth of the state's population. To discourage the Chinese from settling or staying there, California adopted a new Constitution prohibiting Chinese Americans from working for corporations or municipal and state government offices. Three years later, President Chester A. Arthur signed into law the Chinese Exclusion Act suspending all Chinese immigration for ten years. The ban on Chinese immigration was made permanent in 1902 with the passage of the Geary Act, which would not be repealed until 1943.
During this so-called Exclusion Era, Chinese communities clustered ever more closely in Chinatowns across the United States. Parts of these communities, particularly in the largest US cities, became host to illicit activities like opium and prostitution. The prevalence of opium dens and bordellos, however, was largely exaggerated, sometimes by the Chinese themselves who would frequently offer "slum tours" to white Americans featuring fake opium dens populated by Chinese actors. Less exaggerated was the prevalence of gambling-houses which served at least as many white customers as Chinese. The reputations of these communities were also harmed by reports of prostitution and sex slavery rings.
In 1943, the Magnuson Act lifted the ban on Chinese immigration to the US for the first time since 1882 by allowing 105 Chinese immigrants to enter the country each year. Just as importantly, the law made it possible for existing Chinese Americans to become naturalized citizens, something that hadn't been offered to any Asian Americans since 1790. Immigration from China remained slow until 1965, when the US passed the Immigration of Nationality Act lifting quotas based on nation-of-origin. This expected influx of new Chinese immigrants is one of the chief reasons Sung wrote her book.
In telling the story of Chinese Americans, Sung hopes that "the experiences of this group, one hated and persecuted, may serve as a guide to dealing with present-day minority problems and peoples."