Poet Laureate of Lake County, Carolyn Wing Greenlee spoke of the hardships the Chinese endured while migrating to America in the 1900s and of the way that her own family was affected by problems and hostility.
Greenlee began her presentation by asking her audience if they knew anything about the Chinese experience in America. More specifically, she asked if anyone knew about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. After acknowledging that one person did in fact know about this, she said she wasn’t surprised. Not many people in her scholastic years had spoken about the Chinese American experience. She was glad however, that people were beginning to take an interest in such a big part of American history.
“The Chinese were considered very strange in the United States,” Greenlee said. “They started coming over in the early 1840s because of the Gold Rush.” “And at first they were welcome because there was so much gold,” she said. “They came because they were poor.”
According to Greenlee, however, that soon changed. Once the gold diminished, the Chinese were hired as laborers to “join the ends of the United States” through the Transcontinental Railroad.
“They needed cheap labor and workers and they found out the Chinese could work very hard,” Greenlee said. Greenlee compared the hard work mentality of the Chinese to the Mexican stoop laborers who do the things that nobody else wants to do.
“They climb up in the trees and pick pears all day long with 200 lb. baskets hanging down them,” Greenlee said. “Is that something that you would like to do,” she asked the audience. “Of course not, that’s why you’re going to college.”
After the Chinese were being solicited to come over towards the end of the Civil War, soldiers came home to find their jobs being taken over by Chinese people and others that were willing to do them for less. “It created strife,” Greenlee continued. “While other immigrants blended in, the Chinese looked strange.”
Greenlee obtained her vast knowledge of the Chinese experience through research and by asking her parents questions about her ancestry. She learned that her grandfather had come to California known then to the Chinese as the “Mountain of Gold” in the 1870s to help build railroads. When the task was finished and he was about to be shipped back home, he ran away because he had not yet made enough money to send back home to China. Greenlee’s grandfather was a paper child. This meant that he had to adopt the identity of an actual Chinese-American child that was born on American soil. As Chinese children were investigated to make sure they were in the country legally, the paper child had to learn everything there was to know about the other child. Among these, personal questions such as the amount of rooms in a house or a neighbors name were vital information.
Greenlee reflected on the endurance and hardships the Chinese endured to provide a better life for their families.
“Why would anyone leave a culture that was so well-developed, where they had respect and honor to come to a country where everyone was so hostile to the Chinese,” she asked.
“Wouldn’t you come to a place where at least you could get food,” she asked. “In China there wasn’t any.”
By that time, the Chinese knew of the Exclusion Act and of the way the Chinese were treated in America. According to Greenlee, they knew that they could be killed, but they decided to come to America in order to make some money, because there just wasn’t any in China.
According to Greenlee, the Chinese Expulsion Act had laws against the Chinese that gave them minimal rights. The Act ended in 1943, only an astonishing four years before the birth of Greenlee.
“Some were killed for having better land than someone else and no one would prosecute the murder if your were the Chinese dead person and there was a white person who killed you,” Greenlee said.
Greenlee continued to say that because the Chinese were so different from other immigrants that “blended in” with American culture, the Chinese looked drastically different and held different beliefs and ways about them. “[The Chinese] did things that the white people just didn’t understand,” Greenlee said.
Because the Chinese were very good at growing citrus, they developed the wealth of citrus produce that exists currently in Southern California simply from grafting two trees that were already available.
According to Greenlee, however, not everyone was hostile towards the Chinese. In Riverside, they soon had places named after them and they had a water system. The growers loved them and they had a wonderful, congenial relationship. Whenever you look at history in the big stroke, remember that you can make a difference she said. You can make up your own mind. You don’t have to do the group hate thing; you can treat people as individuals.
Greenlee wrapped up her presentation by handing out slips of red paper with Chinese lettering spelling the word crisis. This word was made up of the words danger and opportunity. My people went through a lot of crisis, but they found opportunity in the danger.
“God designed you special, he picked your parents, he picked your racial mix, you have something wonderful to contribute,” she ended.
Greenlee has published nine books, two, Son of Mountain and Dust, and Wildflowers in the Snow, are about her parents and their experience as Chinese Americans.