A trip through Chinese American history

ESCAPE TO GOLD MOUNTAIN: A GRAPHIC HISTORY OF THE CHINESE IN NORTH AMERICA

ESCAPE TO GOLD MOUNTAIN: A GRAPHIC HISTORY OF THE CHINESE IN NORTH AMERICA

ESCAPE TO GOLD MOUNTAIN: A GRAPHIC HISTORY OF THE CHINESE IN NORTH AMERICA
By David H.T. Wong (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012, 256 pp., $19.95, paperback)

The Chinese American experience goes back nearly two centuries in history. They faced many instances of racial discrimination, most notably blatant racist laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act. David Wong, a noted architect and activist from Vancouver, illustrates the upward battle many Chinese Americans and Chinese Canadians faced in his latest foray into the medium of comics.

Wong’s comic is an ambitious attempt to illustrate more than 170 years of history. Not only does he tell the story of why Chinese men left for America, but also the following history of both Chinese Americans and Chinese Canadians. At 250 pages, Wong develops a fast pace to highlight racial injustices ethnic Chinese faced, such as labor, lynch mobs and political representation.

The story mostly follows the Wong family — starting with Wong Ah Gin, a man who stows away on a merchant ship destined for San Francisco prior to the gold rush. Ah Gin later meets his adopted son Sam Wong while working on the First Transcontinental Railroad, and they both leave for Canada. The story continues to follow the Wongs through Canada’s own racist immigration laws and the service of ethnic Chinese in World War II. The story culminates in their empowerment through election in political office and the Civil Rights Movement. Notably, in offering a view of the Chinese Canadian experience, readers are also shown the distinct differences in the two nations’ institutional racism.

Wong tells these stories while also telling the story of a family gradually building their own success from the hills of “Gam Saan” (Gold Mountain) to becoming a small business owner in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

The comic, however, is not without its flaws. With such a wide berth of history to be told, Wong comes off as flippant more often than not in illustrating the racism Chinese Americans faced. At times the story’s characters read one-dimensionally, perhaps in an attempt to “get to the point.” Most Caucasians are characterized as brash racists and, save for the Wong family, the characters in the comic go in and out through a revolving door.

For a medium that is built on “showing” the action, “Escape to Gold Mountain” unfortunately does most of it through the “telling” of names, places and events. A single page in Wong’s comic could be expanded into a book of its own at times, and it is too bad that some characters are never heard from again.

The storytelling style is reminiscent of Carlos Bulosan’s “America Is in the Heart.” A collective history of racial struggles rolled into the life of a few central characters. However, unlike Bulosan’s case, “Gold Mountain” spans more than five generations of history. The story is further condensed through the inclusion of the “big picture,” where the story shifts to meeting rooms full of rich white people deciding to profit or discriminate against the Chinese.

Nevertheless, Wong’s comic is a noble effort and is worthy of note. The comic has its moments and is a good condensation of the Chinese American experience thus far. The book is well researched and full of history, even if a little brusque in its story telling style.

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