Speakers Bureau’s Rebecca Hom on Chinese Pioneers in the Western Frontier

The award-winning storyteller discusses the hardships and triumphs of early Chinese settlers in America – and what we can learn about the immigrant experience from their stories.

While working with various public-lands agencies and archaeological organizations in the 1990s, Rebecca Hom and her Chinese-American husband first saw how relics – such as pottery shards, coins, buttons and tools – were often being miscategorized. To correct this, the couple helped the academics on site connect with the community to utilize their collective knowledge to correctly identify the items.

This experience, coupled with having had the unique opportunity to absorb the stories of the early Chinese settlers through her in-laws, prompted Hom to conduct extensive research on Chinese immigrants throughout the West – a quest she has undertaken for the last 25 years.

YOU CAN GO
What: Rebecca Hom’s Climbing Gold Mountain, Gum Sahn: Chinese Pioneers in the Western Frontier [Details]
Where: Basalt Cellars Winery, 906 Port Drive, Clarkston [Directions]
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday (June 26)
Cost: Free

She shares her knowledge of these resilient people in her lecture for Humanities Washington’s 2010-12 Speakers Bureau, titled Climbing Gold Mountain, Gum Sahn: Chinese Pioneers in the Western Frontier.

As an award-winning professional storyteller, Hom weaves history and anecdote together to create a colorful picture of the challenging life that these settlers had in the new land. Her lecture has been well received throughout the state, in urban and rural areas alike.

“After I give this lecture, I often have people come up and tell me how these stories remind them of the immigration stories of their own ancestors, even those from European backgrounds. This program makes a very personal connection. It humanizes and helps get rid of divisions.”

Humanities Washington recently had a chance to talk with Hom by phone about the adaptability and resilience of immigrants, and their impact on Washington state and the United States, then and now.

Humanities Washington: What impact did the early Chinese settlers have on the development of industry and infrastructure in Washington state?

Rebecca Hom: The Chinese-American settlers were vital participants in building Washington state, and were involved in every industry from building the railroads, to logging, mining, fishing, ranching, merchandizing and more. One of the things I focus on in this lecture is that the Chinese didn’t just stay on the West Coast or in the major cities. Their work took them deep into the West where they were sometimes the majority of the community. In Walla Walla, for example, there were farming families who served the produce markets as far away as Portland, Oregon.

HW: What is one of your favorite stories of these Chinese pioneers?

Hom One story that comes to mind is about the wife of a merchant in Eastern Washington – the community called her Crazy Mary. Everyone thought she acted so strange. The residents rarely saw her leave the house, and when she did, she walked very quickly with her head down. People taunted her and laughed at her behavior. What the residents didn’t realize was that by Chinese cultural standards, the woman was behaving very properly. In Chinese culture, a woman would never talk to a stranger or be out by herself. If she had gone to China and behaved by the American standard, she would’ve been considered crazy there. This story serves as an important reminder that there are always different standards and norms across cultures, and we should all be careful not to judge others.

HW: What aspects of Chinese culture helped these early pioneers triumph over the hostility and adversity they faced in this new land?

Hom: Adaptability has got to be the first and primary trait. The Chinese had a willingness to work hard and to do whatever work was necessary to make their way. This was largely guided by their sense of family and responsibility. To many Americans, the Chinese workers were seen as coming to America to make money and then leave. But the Exclusion Act of 1882 did not allow Chinese laborer immigrants to settle here, so they did send their money home to take care of their families. The Asian immigration experience on Angel Island (in California) was much different that the process on Ellis Island. They were treated very differently.

HW: Why do you think the stories of these early immigrants remain largely untold?

Hom: We are very Euro-centric in our history, and many of the stories from other immigrant groups were not recorded. In Census records, for example, you find many people listed as simply “Chinaman”, not by their name. Also, a lot of the stories from immigrants at this time were oral, not written, and they have been lost over the years. Finally, because we are a Euro-centric culture, there is sometimes a reticence to have other cultural groups given recognition for their efforts.

HW: What can we learn about the current experience of immigrants from these past experiences?

Hom: In my personal opinion, people who immigrate are usually very adaptable. Their core is adventuresome – they give up stability to try for a better life. We need to understand where people are coming from and the unique aspects of each culture that shaped their experiences. It is important to be respectful and compassionate towards people trying to make a new way, and to be open and curious about other cultures.

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