Iron Horse Road: a Tale from Gold Mountain recounts one of the great untold epics of American history: The story of the Chinese laborers–neither truly enslaved nor truly free–who built the most rugged stretches of the Transcontinental Railroad.
More than 150 years ago, these Gold Mountain Men tunneled through mountains, dangled over cliffs, and dragged entire trains over alpine summits where other Americans feared to tread. The prosperity of the gilded age was founded on their blood, sweat and grit, but their story has long been suppressed, minimized and forgotten.
For Iron Horse Road, the father/son team behind Blood on Gold Mountain retrace the steps of these workers from the Sacramento hills to the snows of Donner Summit. Equal parts history and travelogue, Iron Horse Road uses binaural 3D audio to transport the listener to deep canyons, echoing caverns and windswept peaks–a world where adventure is always around the corner, and the past is carved in blood and stone.
I mention that Cantonese was a common language among the Railroad Chinese. This Is true, however, it is important to acknowledge that other dialects, such as Toishan, and languages, such as Hakka, were spoken by large numbers of Chinese laborers in the old west.
Importance of Transcontinental Railroads:
Union Pacific vs Central Pacific
Act One of the play Jianchi/Perseverance is based on the outbreak of bubonic plague in 1900 in San Francisco Chinatown, which led to suspicion and demonization of Chinese who were identified with the “China plague,” a term used to describe the bubonic plague.
The history of Chinese in San Francisco is a fraught affair. Drawn at first by mid-nineteenth century stories of riches to be found in “Gold Mountain” (California) just for the working, many impoverished Chinese laborers left home to escape war and famine, and to earn money to send to their starving families. Most arrived too late for the Gold Rush, so many had no choice but to become laborers for the transcontinental railroad, doing the most dangerous and least remunerative work. Little by little the survivors drifted back to cities, to try to build a life for themselves. By 1880, nearly 16% of the population of San Francisco were Chinese immigrants. They experienced daily humiliations, persecution and segregation: the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was the first act to ban legal immigration rights to a country on the basis of race.
After killing more than half the population of Europe during the Middle Ages, bubonic plague had taken a break as a pandemic, but it resurged in Asia in the mid-1800s, taking 6 million lives in India and millions more in southern China. Because of San Francisco’s position as America’s foremost Western port, Dr. Joseph J. Kinyoun, the chief quarantine officer of the Marine Hospital Service on Angel Island, anticipated that San Fransisco would be the first American city to experience plague cases before any other. Unilaterally, he instituted a new policy: all ships from Asia or Hawaii would be thoroughly inspected before disembarking in San Francisco. California’s businessmen, newspapers and politicians were derisive. They accused Kinyoun of overstepping his authority and dismissed any suggestion of a potential outbreak as a “plague fake” intended to create a panic that would boost demand for his medical services.
Since ship checks focused on finding infected people, for several months, rats and their plague carrying fleas went ashore from ships onto San Francisco’s streets, concentrating in the city’s most squalid and poverty-stricken neighborhood - Chinatown. In March 1900, the first suspected plague victim died there.
For many upper and middle-class white San Franciscans, the first sign something was wrong in Chinatown on March 7, 1900, were their empty kitchens. Switchboard operators noticed next, as lines lit up with angry callers, demanding to talk to their missing Chinese servants. From there, word began trickling out around the city: Chinatown was locked down. It was only then that white San Franciscans began to remember that they had started seeing dead rats — far more than the regular count — on the streets of Chinatown in January 1900.
“The Chinese were not the only people who had to suffer,” huffed The San Francisco Chronicle. “The white employers of the Chinese awoke to find that there was nobody on hand to prepare breakfast.”
Responding to white outrage, San Francisco Mayor James Phelan ordered a company of doctors to make a sweep of Chinatown to track down and identify every possible plague case. This provoked terror throughout the SF Chinese community, which was well aware that just a few months earlier, 4,000 homes had been burned to the ground in Honolulu’s Chinatown to eradicate a plague outbreak.
After a year of waging a campaign of denunciations and denial, California Governor Henry Gage finally allowed federal officers in to inspect, test and diagnose Chinatown residents, on condition of Dr, Kinyoun’s immediate reassignment out of state. On June 1st 1901, he declared victory over the “China plague.”
The epidemic’s official death toll is recorded as 119, but it’s likely that more cases were hidden, covered up or never discovered.
In 1907, another bubonic plague outbreak recurred among white residents in Oakland and San Francisco. This time, officials jumped into action immediately, spending $2 million to trap and kill rats — the equivalent of over $55 million today. Such measures had not been taken to protect the lives of the Chinese in SF Chinatown seven years earlier. Chinese lives had not mattered except when they put white lives in jeopardy simply through proximity.
What is certain is that Chinese were blamed for endangering white lives by bringing bubonic plague to San Francisco.
Act Two of Jianchi/Perseverance is based on a true incident involving Denny Kim, a South Los Angeles resident. Knocked to the ground and berated with racial slurs and anti-Asian threats, the U.S. Air Force veteran spoke out about the assault in Los Angeles' Koreatown. Los Angeles police are now investigating this attack as a potential hate crime, investigators said.
Denny Kim, told NBC Los Angeles that he was assaulted and knocked to the ground and that his nose was broken Feb. 16 by two men who hurled racial slurs like "ching chong" and "Chinese virus."
The 27-year-old still wore a black eye and was breathing through a fractured nose a week after two men threatened to kill him and called him racial slurs, before knocking him to the ground in an unprovoked attack.
Said Kim, "Started calling me 'ching chong' ... 'Chinese virus' ... All sorts of nasty stuff. They eventually struck me on my face. I fell down to the ground."
“[It was] absolutely unprovoked. I didn’t know who these guys were,” Kim said.
His friend, Joseph Cha, says he witnessed the incident.
“When I was dropped off, I heard a bunch of screaming. I saw two suspects just beating him up,” Cha said. “So that’s when I was screaming. Cha, a community activist, said, "I was screaming, telling them to stop. Screaming, they were calling me racial slurs too… I was actually chasing them,” he explained. “They had seen my presence and they were scared.”
Cha said the men also used racist slurs and profanity against him and told him to mind his own business. “And they said ‘all f—ing Asians gotta die,'” Cha said.
“If it wasn’t for my friend that saved my life, my friend Joseph Cha, I’d probably be in a hospital right now in a coma or even possibly dead,” Kim said.
Police Detective Hee Cho confirmed that an investigation is underway and that the Feb. 16 incident is being treated as a potential hate crime.
"I was terrified for my life, as you can see the physical injuries on my face," Kim told NBC Los Angeles. "And I didn't know what to think of it. It was all just a blur. ... I was just trying to defend my life."
In a text message, Kim credited Cha with ending the assault.
"They told me they were going to kill me. That's when my friend Joseph Cha arrived and saved my life. He chased and scared the aggressors away," Kim wrote.
In a text message to NBC News, Cha said he "deescalated the situation" by chasing away the two suspects.
"I believe what Denny went through, no one should go through in any community, not just the Asian community," Cha said.
Kim, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, was initially reluctant to report the crime.
“I’m used to it. Growing up here in Los Angeles, I experienced all sorts of racist comments,” he said. “And even throughout my experience and career in the Air Force, I experienced a lot of microaggressions because of my race. I never felt like I fit in. I never felt like I belonged."
A rally was recently held in L.A.’s Chinatown to raise awareness about a number of recent hate crimes against Asian Americans. It was at the rally that Kim decided he had to speak up.
“It’s 2021. I feel like racism has gotten way too old at this point,” Kim said. “It’s just senseless. It breaks my heart because I don’t judge anybody based on their skin tone, their skin color.”
From March to October 2020, 245 incidents in L.A. County were reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a center that collects data on hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
“Not just the Asian community, but for all communities,” Cha said. “We’re all humans at the end of the day.”
According to the Los Angeles Police Department, one of the suspect’s was described as a Hispanic male, with a bald head, about 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighing approximately 170 pounds and about 30-years-old.
The second suspect was described as a Hispanic male with brown hair, about 5 feet 6 inches tall, weighing approximately 140 pounds and about 30-years-old.
The Los Angeles Police Department said Kim’s case is being investigated as a hate crime. The suspects remain outstanding and authorities are searching for surveillance video.
"I'm so glad to hear that he took the brave step of reporting it and talking about it because so many other Asian Americans are not doing that because they are scared," said Connie Chung Joe, CEO of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Los Angeles.
Kim wants his attackers caught, but he also wants the hate to stop.
"What they did was not fair and it was filled with hate, and that’s something we all need to bring awareness of," Kim said.
Community advocates say those 3,000 cases reported are just the tip of the iceberg and that very few of those are actually prosecuted.
Here is a list of resources like financial and legal help for victims:
OCA Asian Pacific American Advocates Hate Incident Reporting: aapihatecrimes.org
Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center: www.a3pcon.org/stopaapihate
Asian Americans Advancing Justice's Stand Against Hatred: www.standagainsthatred.org/
ADL Hate Tracker: www.adl.org/reportincident
Los Angeles vs. Hate: lavshate.org
State Assembly member Miguel Santiago of Los Angeles condemned the incident in a statement posted to Twitter.
"Enough is enough and we cannot be bystanders," Santiago wrote. "We must step up to support our AAPI neighbors!"
Jianchi/ Perseverance features the voices of Carin Chea as Hoi-Ting Yip and Hwei Ru Yao, Micah Huang as Ah Yip and Al Yao, Sarah Mass as Mabel, Officer Daniela Carter, and Esperanza Huertes, Gloria Tsai as Donaldina Cameron and Donnie Chau, Robert Van Reil as Narrator and TV Announcer. Directed, produced, and engineered by Micah Huang. Music by Micah Huang and Emma Gies. Written by Hao Huang.
Jianchi/ Perseverance is brought to you by The Marian and Charles Holmes Performing Arts Fund, The Burger Institute at Claremont McKenna College, The Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College, The Intercollegiate Department of Asian American Studies at The Claremont Colleges, The Asian American Resource Center, The Pomona College American Studies Program, The Intercollegiate Media Studies Program, and The Center for Asian Pacific American Students at Pitzer College.
In this episode, we are introduced to Christianity through the eyes of Yut-Ho’s Gwailo marriage to Lee Yong in a Christian church. Can you imagine being married in the holy place of a foreign religion without having any context for the iconography all around you? Understandably, Yut Ho is horrified by the sight of Jesus nailed to the cross, “his head hanging down in an attitude of infinite pain and weariness.” She understands the pendant cross hanging from his neck as the Chinese symbol for the number ten. And in Mother Mary, she sees Guan Yin, goddess of mercy and serenity. By this connection, she is deeply comforted and feels protected to continue with the marriage. For further reading on the connection between Guan Yin and Mary, read The Bodhisattva Guanyin and Virgin Mary.
In late 1800s California, only Gwailo court-sanctioned marriages were seen as legitimate in the eyes of the law. Chinese “ritual” marriages were not readily acknowledged, and this was the very loop-hole that Yo-Hing used against Sam Yuen to lawfully kidnap Yut-Ho.
After their escape, Yut Ho and Lee Yong take refuge at the residence of Dr. Tong and his wife Tong You. Yut Ho is shocked to see Tong You’s bound feet, or as she calls them, her Lotus feet.
Foot binding originated in China during the 10th century and continued through the start of The People’s Republic of China in 1949 (Footbinding, Encyclopedia Britannica). It served as a right of passage for young women and conveyed status.
In Western culture, foot-binding is understood as an oppressive practice, which confined Chinese women to lives of immobility and great suffering. We hear stories of young girls being forced to bind their feet, just as they are forced into being subservient to men. Wang Ping’s eye-opening book, “Aching for Beauty,” paints a much more complex picture. She describes her own childhood desire to bind her feet as being intricately tied to her close female relationships. She explores the connection between pain and beauty that resurfaces in myriad ways across many cultures.
After all, it is socially celebrated for Western women to cut their bodies for breast implants, genital reconstructive surgery, and nose jobs, just to name a few. While the ideal of beauty changes, the insistence on painfully altering the female form to fit a more perfect image of beauty resurfaces again and again.
In our story, Yut Ho learns that Tong You bound her feet by choice, to gain social status. Born into a low class family, Tong You was mesmerized by the luxuries of the upper class. Binding her feet brought her a path to a more luxurious existence, and for her, it was worth the sacrifice.
Blood on Gold Mountain is brought to you by The Holmes Performing Arts Fund of The Claremont Colleges, The Pacific Basin Institute of Pomona College, The Office of Public Events and Community Programs at Scripps College, The Scripps College Music Department, The Entrepreneurial Musicianship Department at The New England Conservatory, and our Patreon patrons.
Blood on Gold Mountain is written and produced by Yan-Jie Micah Huang, narrated by Hao Huang, introduced by Emma Gies, and features music composed by Micah Huang and performed by Micah Huang and Emma Gies. A special thanks to Chi Wei Lo, Jonah Huang, and Muqi Li for their musical contributions, Kusuma Tri Saputro for the amazing artwork, Sheila Kolesaire for her critical PR guidance, Shayna Krizan for her Instagram wizardry, Rachel Huang for her editing prowess, and Evo Terra from Simpler Media Productions for his immense expertise and support.
More details at bloodongoldmountain.com