Gold Mountain dream continues

Photo courtesy of Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Vancouver

Photo courtesy of Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Vancouver

Gold Mountain is very much alive today, says a historian who specializes in Chinese history. The Chinese people who crossed the Pacific Ocean in hopes of finding wealth at Gold Mountain, contrary to popular belief, did not leave simply because of war-torn conditions. Henry Yu notes that people who were dislocated by war didn’t travel very far, meaning they went to the nearby country.

Is it California? Is it British Columbia? Is it Australia? They’re all called Gold Mountain. Gold Mountain is not a specific location,” says Yu, a history professor and the principal at St. John’s Graduate College.

The term is about the dream of being able to make it rich and have a good life.

“(Gold Mountain) is where you’re going. And that place represents the larger goals that you have of making it rich enough to have a family, to buy a house back at home, to raise your kids, and maybe have your son join you later,” says Yu.

Photo courtesy of Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Vancouver

Photo courtesy of Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Vancouver

Planting the dream

Most of them didn’t make it rich, but older generations planted the dream.

“The reason why that dream is there is because someone − your uncle or your father or someone else − came back to the village, all dressed up, handing out gifts and stuff to everyone,” says Yu. “And that’s what triggers the dreaming.”

Yu points out that the Chinese migration started as early as the 16th century to southeast Asia; eight counties (clustered in China’s Guangdong province) generated the majority of people who migrated (as early as the 18th century) to North America, Central America and Australia.

Counties from Zhong San, where Yu’s mother’s family came from, started to go through Macau (the Portuguese port of Macao) in the 16th century.

When gold was discovered in the Fraser Canyon in the 1850s, the Chinese were attracted to British Columbia.

“The name Gold Mountain is not just about gold mining. It’s [about] looking to leave, as a young man, to make it rich,” he says. “That’s why the term stuck after the gold rush was over.”

Yu says this pattern was recurring generation after generation: a system of young men working overseas, getting married, and leaving their wife and children at home.

Young men, who saw the older generations coming back from Gold Mountain bearing chests of gifts, aspired to be like them. The young men wanted to go and get rich so they could come back to marry the prettiest girl in the village. Meanwhile, the village girls wanted to marry these men going out to Gold Mountain because of the lifestyle they and their children could have.

“What kind of things did you bring back? A Singer sewing machine – that was the top. If you came back in 1920 and gave your wife a Singer sewing machine, you were like a god,” says Yu.

Back then, sewing was done by hand so the new machines meant better quality work as a seamstress.

If a poor farmer wants to go to Gold Mountain, often someone of the older generation provided the loan or bought the ticket to go overseas. They also helped the younger generation find employment overseas.

The Gold Mountain dream lives on, but in reverse. Now people make their living in China and send their families to live overseas and have their children educated in North America.

“It’s much harder to get your kids into a good school in Hong Kong or Shanghai or Beijing. You see this ease of getting your kids into a good school on this side, where you get more out of your money by getting your kids into a North American school where they learn English,” he says.

Gold Mountain Dream! is an exhibit in Vancouver, created by the Royal BC Museum, and is also in Ottawa because of the collaboration with the Canadian Museum of History. It has records and exhibits documenting the Gold Rush Mountain. It tells the stories of Chinese migrants in the 1850s who search for gold on British Columbia shores.

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