The California Gold Rush of 1849 attracted immigrants from China as well and, just like others crossed Death Valley, the Chinese had to tackle mortal perils during their Ocean crossing and endure a harsh life in the gold mines and transcontinental railway sites. Their brave survival and quick prosperity first reached American imagination through the tv series “Kung Fu”, which became legendary: the Californian Chinese could survive anything!
The Chinese were considered “undesirable” and “ineligible” for US citizenship. The Golden State made violence by whites against them unprosecutable by law. California submitted them to a miner’s tax which lasted 20 years, until 1870; by then, a third of the men in the Californian gold fields were Chinese. For lack of Chinese wives, they resorted to Chinese prostitutes, imported in droves. The Chinese grew in terms of demographics and economics.
Cheap labor, combined with the post-Civil War economic depression and unemployment, led whites to further attack the Chinese, and race riots ensued in San Francisco in 1877. This was followed with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, by which they became the first ethnic group officially outlawed in the United States; the law was only repealed in 1943.
The Chinese of San Francisco survived through hard honest work, as usual, but also through powerful clan allegiances: half a dozen families controlled “Chinatown”. Through the opium dens and gambling/prostitution rings, Chinese influence grew over the port city. It would link San Francisco, during the Opium Wars, to a global network of narcotraffic, of which the Americans mostly knew through the “inscrutable Fu Manchu” novels and movies.
The global Chinese network kept on growing —Shanghai-Hong Kong-Macau-San Francisco— and in the 1940s it engulfed Chiang Kai Shek, the mandarin generalissimo and Kuomintang leader of Taiwan, the US Cold War ally against Communist Mao Tse Tung. Aristocratic, tall, handsome as a terracotta warrior, he was married to one of the three Soong beauties, the millionaire sisters and Wellesley graduates. Under her influence, he adopted Christianity. He was our Cold War warrior in the Far East. By then, the US public was given a new movie image to follow: jolly Charlie Chan, the detective, and his fight against the Chinese mafia.
Hong Kong opened China to the US public with the magic of Bruce Lee’s kung fu flicks; this helped US president Richard Nixon’s historic opening to China. Massive migration followed, especially to California, and with it prosperity. Movies, Trade, Immigration: there was an immediate visibility to the success of the popular approach in California, where Lee started his film career, Nixon was born, and ex-movie star Ronald Reagan was governor.
Chinese immigration to California was cemented in the 1980s when both the aristocratic Taiwanese and the communist Chinese achieved tremendous success there. Currently, the largest Chinese community outside of China is in California’s Monterey Park, whose former mayor, Judy Chu, became a US Congresswoman. In the State Assembly there are two important Chinese members: one mainland Chinese representing the Democrats (Mike Eng), and one Taiwanese representing the Republicans (Matthew Lin). In my neighbor city of San Marino, an enclave of white wealth, Chinese now constitute more than half of the residents.
Have California’s Chinese really entered the US main stream? Or is it a passing fad, a flick that, like “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”, will become unpopular in this electoral year of economic crisis? Is Fortune favoring the bold or the prudent? How each side plays its cards will define the game at stake.