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A history built on hearsay: Tales of the early Chinese settlers

Artistic director Rene Yung (right) gives instructions to the proxy storytellers during a rehearsal of the theater and oral history project “Chinese Whispers." Photo courtesy of Chinese Whispers
Artistic director Rene Yung (right) gives instructions to the proxy storytellers during a rehearsal of the theater and oral history project “Chinese Whispers." Photo courtesy of Chinese Whispers

In the mid-1800s, the Gold Rush brought enthusiastic settlers westward, from across the United States. At the same time, another migration was flowing eastward.

Over three decades, the country’s Chinese population grew from 4,000 to over 100,000. The immigrants who landed on California’s shores followed the Transcontinental Railroad across the state, building pockets of community along the way.

A hundred fifty years later, artist Rene Yung is developing a theater production based on the stories passed on from that time. She’s traveling along the Transcontinental Railroad; and at each point along the way, she’s sharing the tales she’s gathered from that region, on stage. She calls the project “Chinese Whispers,” which is actually another name for the game of Telephone – a game in which stories change from teller to teller, often until they’re unrecognizable.

It’s that sense of mystery that Yung stumbled upon in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, where she piloted Chinese Whispers. There, Yung says, during the late nineteenth century, Chinese were not allowed to be buried with Caucasians. That we know. But descendents of the local Chinese community recall an unusual sight: queues hanging in the trees of Chinese cemeteries – something that Yung, in her years as a researcher and artist, had never heard of.

Yung’s current performance, Chinese Whispers: Golden Gate, takes place in the Bay Area. The stories she’s gathering here center on the way Chinese immigrants survived in the years after the Gold Rush. Some operated restaurants, and grocery, hardware, and herbal stores in San Francisco. Others made and sold fish fertilizer. Shrimp fishing was huge. A few enterprising individuals had side projects as well.

These are the tales that Yung shared aboard the Eureka steamboat in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf district, the site of a recent workshop performance of Chinese Whispers: Golden Gate. Six storytellers shared their own family stories – and the stories of others.

Kevin Lee, one of the workshop storytellers reading for Santa Rosa resident Jeff Lee, says that the story of the early Chinese in America is skeletal at best.

“Going through the American school system, the only thing I knew was that the Chinese came over in waves, and that’s it,” says Lee. “Nothing’s actually written, or has been shared about, the real historical piece of it: what their lives were like, how they felt, what they confronted.”

Yung says that the common thread weaving many Bay Area stories together is the Chinese Exclusion Act. Passed in 1882, it was the first of many laws aimed at ending Chinese immigration completely.

“People would tell me in their story, ‘Well because of the Exclusion Act he had to do this’ or ‘he couldn’t do that about an ancestor,’” Yung says. “Or because of the Exclusion Act, um, they lost their family, their family business.”

The law split many families on either side of the Pacific. Some purchased false papers to enter the U.S. Over time, those fake identities became their real ones. Though San Francisco resident and workshop storyteller Ford Lee uses the last name “Lee,” he says that his real family name is actually Lim, or Lum.

“My father came over on false papers, merchant papers, my grandfather bought for him. So he came over as Lee Ho, that’s why I’m Lee,” Lee explains.

Many descendants like Lee only know bits and pieces of their family histories.

“Actually there are a lot of things I don’t know about my family and I wish that I had had time to ask my mother, ask my father,” Lee says.

Even if Lee did ask, he may not have received an answer – often, Chinese parents didn’t want to share painful memories with their children. Other stories from that time period were lost because men who couldn’t bring their families over had no one to pass them on to.

“I believe the absences speak volumes and are much more powerful about telling the story of organized social amnesia than any single statement could make,” she says.

“Chinese Whispers: Golden Gate” is a practice in recognizing the value and pitfalls of a cultural story made up almost entirely of hearsay. Each tale is fragmentary. Voices come and go. Some stories are started and never finished. Truth is elusive. But each time a new person hears these stories, each one stays alive a little longer.

Music for this story was produced by Jeremiah Moore for Chinese Whispers: Golden Gate.

Rene Yung is still gathering stories for the project. If you know have a story, or know of someone who does, you can share them on the Chinese Whispers website. They might be part of a final Chinese Whispers performance at the end of the year.

Crosscurrents History
Erica Mu is a reporter and producer for the "Hear Here: A Pop-Up Radio Project" in conjunction with KALW and the Association of Independents in Radio. Mu has reported on the serious side of health and the quirky side of arts, and she's also helped KALW pioneer the digital frontier as the news team’s web strategist and editor. Mu has also organized and directed KALW’s live storytelling events.