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Searching for the Gold Mountain

In the 1840s, the news circled the globe: There was gold in California, and fortunes could be made by anyone who seized the opportunity. Within weeks, dreamers from all over the globe came streaming into America's port cities, hoping to stake a claim and strike it rich. China was not immune to this new gold fever. Word of a mountain of gold across the ocean arrived in Hong Kong in 1849, and quickly spread throughout the Chinese provinces. By 1851, 25,000 Chinese immigrants had left their homes and moved to California, a land some came to call gam saan, or "gold mountain".

Historically, the Chinese had never been strangers to emigration. For long centuries, Chinese travelers had crisscrossed the world and made new homes for themselves in faraway lands. Colonies of Chinese merchants, bankers, miners, and artists established themselves in countries from Polynesia to Peru, bringing their families with them and building thriving communities. In America, though, things would turn out differently.

Once the Chinese immigrants arrived in California, they found that the gold mountain was an illusion. Mining was uncertain work, and the gold fields were littered with disappointed prospectors and hostile locals. Work could be scarce, and new arrivals sometimes found it difficult to earn enough to eat, let alone to strike it rich. Even worse, they soon discovered that they were cut off from their families: With no source of money, the immigrants could not pay for their wives and children to make the long voyage from China, and could not go back home themselves. As the dream of gold faded, these men found themselves stranded in a strange new land far from home. It was a land that did not welcome them, a land that afforded them few means of survival, and a land in which they were very much alone.

What affect do you think this isolation had on the Chinese immigrants? What kind of community could they make for themselves?

For more about the gold rush in California, visit The Chinese in California, 1850-1925: California and Westward Expansion.

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