When I was scrolling through listings for summer jobs and internships, Jade Chocolates jumped out at me as I read Mindy Fong’s bio on the company’s web page. Mindy frequently cites her grandfather as essential to her success: “For me, it all starts with my grandfather. If he could immigrate here and become a successful businessman, I can become successful in anything I do.” Though her grandfather immigrated to California in 1918 and my grandparents reached American soil in 1963, they share a story, a struggle, and a success–all of which began on Old Gold Mountain.
The Chinese name for San Francisco and its surrounding counties, Old Gold Mountain or Jiu Jin Shan in Mandarin, stems from the gold rush era. Beginning with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, northern California rapidly became a mecca for fortune-seeking migrants, some coming from as far away as China. Rumors of a readily prosperous Gold Mountain reached impoverished Chinese workers. Political turmoil had destroyed the livelihoods of southern Chinese, many of whom became sojourning workers in America with hopes of returning to a life of ease in China, able to support the traditional extended family structure. Thousands sailed for America, dreaming of striking it rich in mining country. So many Chinese workers flooded northern California that a mere four years after the first nugget of gold was found, 25,000 Chinese immigrants resided in the state-comprising 10% of the non-Native American population and over 35% of the foreign-born population. However, despite dreams of gold, many of these early immigrants had their hopes dashed by the reality of a rapidly industrializing world and a deeply anti-immigrant environment.
In the beginning, mining was done by sheer individual will and labor: land to mine, dirt, water, and a pan were the only necessary tools for the industry. Poor and driven Chinese immigrants matched perfectly with this work.