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“On Gold Mountain” Written by Lisa See Essay

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Updated: Jan 25th, 2022


On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family is a book written by Lisa See. The author shares with the readers her family’s history, adding accurate information about the life of Chinese people who leave their motherland for the United States. The story attracts a lot of attention and is commonly used to describe the realities of California in the 19th-20th centuries. In this review, the problem of laboring in the Golden State is raised.

Main text

Golden Mountain is the name for America in China. A part of it, California, is known to become the Golden State after the gold was found there. Many Chinese immigrants moved there to change their lives for the better. Lisa See’s great-grandfather, Fong See, was one of them. In 1871 he moved to the United States to build a new prosperous life there (See 3).

Fong See started his career by setting up a shop in Sacramento. He did not achieve an admirable success at once but experienced a moderate one, which was also good. At that time a lot of immigrants suffered a setback without tasting the sweets of success. Soon, in 1875, the law to restrict immigration was adopted, so Frog See was lucky to settle earlier (Lim 57).

The attitude towards men’s and women’s labor in See’s family differed significantly. Even little boys were supposed to come back home from school and work while women were not allowed to be engaged in something serious (See 91). The majority of female immigrants also faced difficulties in finding a job and being employed. Even Frog’s wife, Tice, who was an American, could not find a job when she needed it. As it is said in the book, Tice went “all over the city, and nobody wanted to hire her” (See 51). Many young Chinese-American women had to work in their ethnic enclaves or got some clerical work far below their qualifications, even though they had a college education (Shirley 121). However, they got a chance to find a paid working place as actresses, like Anna May Wong, a friend of See’s family, whose life story is described in its true colors in the One-Hundred-Year Odyssey. Anna Wong emphasized that educated people can gain more, even though they are not aboriginal inhabitants, and put her brothers through college for them to get good job positions (Shirley 125).

It is claimed in the book that, Asia immigrants were hired as laborers and tradesmen, they were also popular among American landowners and factory owners. It happened because they always came to their workstations on time and worked till there was nothing left of them (See 32). This information is proved by other sources. Alexander Saxton points out that Chinamen’s labor was cheap, and they had to work at the most dangerous and least skilled jobs to provide white people with various products needed in everyday life (39). For example, a new wave of working men was called to complete promptly the grading between Newcastle and Clipper Gap (Kraus 42). Chinese laborers built miles of different canals, ditches, and levees. Coal heavers, sailors, harnesses makers, coachmen, and house servants – these are some professions Asia Americans occupied at that time (Chew 14). Only a few immigrants were able to set up their businesses and open small shops or do laundry.

In principle, Chinamen did not have a particular regular job; quite the opposite, they changed a lot of positions searching for the most appropriate one. Fong See was not an exception; he tried his hand in the majority of the listed above professions. Frog worked in the potato fields, was an assistant in the laundry, washed dishes in the restaurants (See 32). Being not satisfied with this kind of life, he did his best to improve himself, his knowledge of English, the way he behaved, the mode of dressing, and continued searching for a better job. Through this process, Frong provided his family with some better-working perspectives, as eventually he reached the possible top of the society and became the richest man among the people of his expatriate community. His successors had to work as they were to take over the business or wanted to start their own (See 284).

The frog was happy to have his wife Ticie nearby as she empowered and assisted him. Tice’s command of English and her husband’s knowledge of China and its industry enforced the business, so together they were able to make more money each month (See 54). However, many ordinary Chinese Americans had to work patiently for years, earning few, saving every cent, and living poorly (Sandmeyer 29).


Thus, it may be said that labor in the Golden State for Chinese American people was connected with a range of difficulties. They had not only to adjust to a new country, its cultural sensitivities, and its citizens but also to get used to a new position in the society and employers. Moreover, only a few men were able to get a good working place while women faced underestimation of their abilities. However, those who gained prosperity would never regret moving to the Golden State.

Works Cited

Chew, William. Nameless Builders of the Transcontinental Railway: The Chinese Workers of the Central Pacific Railroad. Victoria, BC: Trafford, 2004. Print.

Lim, Shirley Jennifer. A Feeling of Belonging Asian American Women’s Public Culture, 1930-1960. New York: New York University Press, 2006. Print.

Kraus, George. “Chinese Laborers and the Construction of the Central Pacific.” Utah Historical Quarterly, 37.1 (1969): 41-57. Print.

Sandmeyer, Elmer Clarence. The Anti-Chinese Movement in California. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1973. Print.

Saxton, Alexander. The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California. Berkeley: University of California, 1971. Print.

See, Lisa. On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family, New York: Vintage Books, 1996. Print.

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