Escape to Gold Mountain chronicles an aspect of North American history that is rarely discussed in mainstream culture: the treatment of Chinese immigrants and their descendants in the western U.S. and Canada across several centuries. Spoiler alert: bad things happen.
The book follows the Wong family from the immigration of Wong Ah Gin in 1845 to the present day. In the framing story, elderly Emily Wong explains the family’s history to her grandchildren. Though the Wong family is fictional, some incidents in their story are based on real events and the author takes artistic license in his depiction of their interactions with real historical figures.
Since the Wong family immigrated to North America, they and their Chinese co-workers, neighbors, and friends suffered insults, segregation, violence, legalized discrimination, and other forms of racism. But North America—then referred to as Gam Saan, or Gold Mountain—was not the only place they faced trouble. Nineteenth century China had been rocked by two opium wars and its economy was strained under the burden of reparations, with more wars and violent rebellions yet to come. Little wonder that Wong Ah Gin and many others left to search for work in the U.S. and Canada.
Despite the outrageous treatment they received, many Chinese immigrants remained in North America. They worked on railroads and in factories, created communities and built families, and even contributed heavily to American and Canadian war efforts; in short, they acted as model citizens despite the fact that they were not allowed citizenship. Eventually, the U.S. and Canada stripped their racist laws from the books, issued formal apologies, and recognized the citizenship of Americans and Canadians of Chinese descent.
In addition to its seldom-publicized historical topic, this book adopts an atypical perspective: it follows the history of a people rather than a region. The Wongs travel back and forth across the U.S.-Canadian border, even spending some time in Hawaii. They interact with white Americans and Canadians, but also native Hawaiians and other First Nations people. Occasionally, members of the family or their friends travel back to China, giving the reader a glimpse of the situation there. A timeline at the front of the book tracks historical events, which is helpful because their order can be a bit unclear as the story jumps between members of the Wong family in different eras.
The book’s black-and-white line art is more expressive than it is realistic: postures can be stiff and expressions exaggerated. With so many characters who age and change in appearance as the decades roll by, it can sometimes be a little hard to keep them all straight, but that’s not a major problem. There is considerable violence and tragedy, but it’s shown with sadness, not sensationalism.
I found this volume’s historic and linguistic information fascinating. Several Chinese-language phrases are included and explained, and we also see antiquated phrases and terms with which I was unfamiliar. For example, Americans used to call the Chinese “celestials,” because China was sometimes called the Celestial Kingdom. However, the text can be repetitive when trying to emphasize a point and some of the dialog is a little stilted, even when characters are speaking their first languages. Multiple introductions at the start of the book are provided by relevant experts who illustrate the author’s credentials, including the founder of the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia – readers must get through several pages of text before starting the graphic novel. There are also thoughtful endnotes that provide context and explain some of the author’s research.
Escape to Gold Mountain has a lot to teach its readers, yet it remains an engaging and entertaining story. It would be good support for a middle or high school history curriculum, whose students possess the attention span required to take on its long and complicated story.
Escape to Gold Mountain: A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America
by David H. T. Wong
Arsenal Pump Press, 2012