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The Bittersweet Promises of Gold Rush Immigration

Gold Mountain Salted Caramel Truffles: A Bite-Sized Nod to Chinese American History

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.

Miners of the California Gold Rush

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. As gold mining developed, it became industrialized, meaning a much higher buy-in price and a need for cheap labor forces rather than independent miners. White miners quickly realized the economic power of the Chinese immigrants, willing or compelled by indentured servitude to work harder for lower wages. First counties passed taxes on foreign miners; this racially-driven taxation is credited with keeping northern California out of bankruptcy in its early years of statehood. These policies were soon followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882–the greatest restriction on free immigration this country has ever seen. Legislators relied on racialized depictions of Chinese disease, opiate use, and heathenism to justify Exclusion of this “yellow peril.”

Far from being subdued, as anti-Chinese riots and laws alike intended, many Chinese workers overcame these additional obstacles. Working in the dying mining industry, the transcontinental railroad construction (which thrived due to inhumane, slave-like conditions of Chinese workers among others), and the rapidly growing service industry, Chinese immigrants set down their roots on Old Gold Mountain. These immigrants’ lives tell stories of arriving in a foreign country with little money or shared language, of bitter struggle and hardship in the name of family well-being, of finally tasting sweet success–stories that repeat across generations of Chinese Americans.

1963–Oy Mui Chen (husband San Hon Chen taking photo) and her four children arriving by ship in San Francisco. The smallest girl is my mother.

Mindy’s grandfather arrived in Napa, California at age 16 with twenty dollars and no connections. He worked as a houseboy, filling various odd jobs before becoming an entrepreneur; over his lifetime he owned and ran two restaurants and three liquor stores. My own grandparents moved from a poor village in central China, to Hong Kong, to Houston Texas (by way of San Francisco Bay, as pictured at left). Both our families reached American soil during Exclusion, both filled the service roles allotted to Asian immigrants, and both succeeded in spite of unimaginable obstacles. By tackling Old Gold Mountain, our grandparents gave us both the opportunity to find our own success in the same city where they first began their American lives.

Fast forwarding nearly 100 years since her grandfather arrived in California, in her San Francisco shop, Mindy Fong is paying tribute to her own family as well as the countless other Chinese immigrants who struggled and thrived on Old Gold Mountain. Her carefully crafted “Gold Mountain Salted Caramel Truffles” are not only deliciously salty-sweet, but a playful nod to the deep and often solemn history of immigration that runs through this city: a big task for a small chocolate.

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