Viewer Guide: Part 2
An American Story


This second episode of the series Ancestors in the Americas chronicles the arrival and experiences of Chinese immigrants on the West Coast of the United States during the 1850's Gold Rush. The indispensable contributions of Chinese laborers in building the new frontier, the well-developed communities created by the Chinese in the face of heavy restrictions and discrimination, and the importance of Chinese legal activism in broadening American laws and establishing precedents guaranteeing all people their civil rights is revealed in this program.

Chinese in the Frontier West: An American Story interweaves archival images and footage of archeological sites across the West with poetic imagery and a first-person perspective to evoke the human faces and spirit of history. Scholars Sucheng Chan, Gary Okihiro, Patricia Limerick, Judy Yung, Ling-chi Wang, and Roger Daniels guide us through this rich, complex, buried history.

A sophisticated and critical retelling of history, Chinese in the Frontier West portrays a community responding to the challenge posed by its distinctive position in America, with far-reaching consequences for all that followed.

This Viewer Guide offers a variety of approaches to working with a wide range of issues raised by the film. It draws heavily on the video and primary source materials reproduced from it.


This program asserts that the Chinese American story is quintessential American history, and at same time the story offers another lens, another perspective for examining America itself.

What in the story makes it quintessentially American?

What do we learn about America from looking at this Asian American experience?

1. Why were the Chinese invisible, not found in the stories told, although their presence was pervasive and economically pivotal?(e.g., not found in celebratory picture of completion of Transcontinental Railroad; not found in pictures of workers in archives)

2. Whose history is this? Is it only ethnic history? Is it only Chinese American history? Is it of relevance to other Asian Americans, other persons of color, other Americans? How?

If the film makes a key assertion that claims it is telling an "American story", what is the evidence, and what is the argument for this?

3. Are Asian American immigrants "just like other immigrants"? Are they like the more familiar ones from European countries- following the pattern of initial hardship and discrimination, hard work, patience mobility, and after a generation or two, success and integration into the society at large.

If Asian American immigrants are different, in what ways are they different? Can the record which recounts their contributions to the development of the California economy be considered an early example of Chinese as a "model minority"?

4. Is it true that Chinese Americans did not assimilate? Is it a main cause of their troubles? (e.g., building temples, eating Chinese food, sending bones home... )

Would they have suffered less discrimination and exclusion, if they had assimilated more, made themselves more acceptable by American norms of dress, behavior, and ideas. (e.g. cut queue, wear western clothes, attend church,etc.)

5. In terms of identity politics, is claiming "Chinese in the frontier West" as an American experience psychologically equivalent to seeking the "acceptance "of Anglo Americans? Does it cede others the power and authority to define who is /who is not American? i.e., Is framing Chinese American experiences as "American" the same as mainstreaming yourself, rather than taking a critical stance and interrogating the "mainstream"?

In this approach what is the "center" and where is the "margin"?

6. What strategies of representation are involved in telling this story? The primary question to be answered is from whose viewpoint is this story told?

The primary strategy of representation running through the whole film is to consistently construct and seek to give credible voice to the perspective and interests of the presumed Chinese characters: the attitude and words of the time traveler narrator, some ordinary worker, a woman of the period, etc.

The purpose is to make visible and compelling the presence and attitude of the Chinese laborer and Chinese women of that time and place. All of whose thoughts, feelings, words are missing from the historical records.

7. What strategies of narrative (story telling) are employed?

This film uses a "documemoir" approach as a narrative strategy which combines dramatic reenactments and fictive or composite voices with more standard historiographic means such as institutional records, newspaper, immigration dept. archives, archeological artifacts, etc.

Are there problems in mixing "facts" with "fiction" in this way? Is this a case of where filmmaking and media purposes part from historiographic purposes? Who is the film for? Where do the interests of the viewer fit in this equation? Who adjudicates?


A. Previewing Discussion: Examining Assumptions

B. Post-viewing Discussion: Reviewing Assumptions and Exploring Quotes

C. Exploring Video Themes

    • Uncovering the evidence
    • Who will have the rights of Americans?
    • What if it had been different? Chinese Families
    • Issues of Identity

D. Click here to view the Glossary.


What images come to your mind when you think of people who settled the frontier west? What did they look like? What did they wear? Where did they come from? By what routes did they arrive in the west?

What are the sources of your images and ideas (Films, textbooks, etc.)?

How many racial and ethnic groups came to mind when thinking about this question?


What images can you now add to your previous ones of peoples who settled America's western frontier?

This film uses interviews, narratives, and folk sayings to tell its story. Relate these statements to what you have learned in the film.

Folk Sayings:

"Beware you will have only an old cooking pot to keep you warm."

"When you drink water you should remember the source."

"The fallen leaf returns to its roots."

"The foot set down grows new roots."

Narrator's and scholars' comments:

"Why can't I find photo of a Chinese worker?"

"What is history when the reporter doesn't record, and the camera doesn't see?"

"We left our village, but our village never left us."

"After we stand in cold water all day, we are not too tired to build this temple."

"Chinese labor was the only game in town."

"It's not until the Chinese came...that people start eating in a way that stopped them from being sick most of the time."

"I don't say women were prostitutes, they were women who were impressed into prostitution."

"What if it had been possible for the Chinese communities to have families?"

"We had our first sit-in in California...where Chinese said...enough...and stood their ground."

"We basically extended the promise of the American dream to a wider range of human beings than the founding fathers."



1. The museum guide at the beginning of Chinese in the Frontier West, wonders why he can't find images of Chinese among his historic photos. He concludes, "it's inexplicable...actually I can only find white faces. Must be by design, huh?"

If it were true that no photos existed, what other material evidence demonstrates Chinese presence in the West?

How can these items be considered historical evidence? What can they tell you about the Chinese immigrant experience? What further areas of exploration might they suggest to you?

2. Collective memory is a new subject of interest among some scholars. Because official written history has left out the experiences of society's most subordinated groups, there is a need to rely on alternative forms of documenting the histories of those who have been forgotten.

Sources such as material evidence and personal recollections thus become witnesses from the past, preserving a "memory from below" against a "forgetting from above."

Discuss the ways in which this film attempts to preserve the "memories from below." Consider Maggie Gee's memories, the enslaved daughter's letter home, first-person voices of immigrants (read as voice-overs).

3. A Contemporary Look:

Can you think of other subordinate groups that constitute a "collective memory" whose history has been overlooked?


"The 10,000 dollar haircut."

1. This cartoon illustrates public response to the Chinese practice of men wearing a queue, a waist long, braided pigtail. In San Francisco in 1873, an ordinance was passed forcing men who were imprisoned to have their queue cut. In practice this violated the law of the imperial government of China which required men to wear a queue. A man with short hair would have trouble returning to China.

What attitudes does the cartoon convey in its symbols?

What other Chinese customs were used against them to create discriminatory legislation?

Read the wording contained in the California Supreme Court People Vs. Hall 1854. How would you argue against this law? Consider the consequences in terms of physical safety, freedom of movement, ability to earn a living, receive an education, and so on.

2. Who is an American? What characteristics comes to mind if asked to describe a hypothetical "ideal" American: refer to cultural traits, physical traits, beliefs (political, religious, lifestyle, etc.).

Is there such a thing as an "ideal" American? What effects might there be on those who do not fit the "ideal" image? On those who think they represent the "ideal" American?

3. China Mary was a generic name given to Chinese women. The lives of the three women in the film all named "China Mary" show that each led unique and individual lives. Reviewing the lives described of Mary Moulton of Oakdale California, Ah Yuen of Wyoming and Mary Bong of Sitka Alaska, rewrite the epithet on their gravestones.

4. Phrenology, a nineteenth century pseudoscience, claimed that the shape of an individual's skull could define his/her character and mental ability. Such theories were used to support the idea of racial hierarchy and racial superiority/inferiority. This belief made it easier to label those who weren’t considered "Americans" as "the other," or as aliens. How might the sense of being an "other" in America impact the perception of an immigrant as a perpetual foreigner/sojourner rather than a "settler" at "home in America"?



1. Consider these statements:

Governor Bigler's Speech to the California legislature, 1852:"While immigrants from other countries bring their families...the Chinese do not." Chinese Merchants Response to Governor Bigler's Message:"There have been several injunctions warning the people of the Flowery land (China) not to come here, which have fostered doubts; nor have our hearts found peace in regard to bringing families."

Search through the video and Viewer Guide material for evidence that supports or contradicts these two statements. What do your findings show about the Chinese. Were they settlers? Sojourners? Both?

"40% of the residents of Point Alones in Pacific Grove were women."

"For more than 100 years, American laws and popular opinion worked to interfere with the formation of families. It created a bachelor society."

Point Alones family, Monterey, CA

All male communities

Family tree of Maggie Gee


2. The Page Law of 1875:

Congress passed a law forbidding the entry of "Oriental" contract laborers, prostitutes, and criminals. It followed an earlier California act preventing "any Mongolian, Chinese or Japanese females....[admission] without first presenting to the Commissioner of Immigration evidence satisfactory to him that such a female desires voluntarily to come into this State, and is a person of correct habits and good character."

Any woman who wanted to enter the US was screened stringently in Hong Kong. This not only reduced the number of prostitutes, but also the overall number of Chinese immigrant women.


Year Ratio Females to Males
1860 18:1
1870 13:1
1875 The Page Law
1880 21:1
1890 27:1

Consider the impact of legislation like the Page Act of 1875 on the formation of families. Discuss what kind of Chinese communities could have been formed if the Page Act had not been enforced.

What kinds circumstances would have promoted the formation of Chinese families and communities?

In recent years there has been a gender imbalance among people coming into North America to look for work. For example, more women than men have come from the Caribbean; and more men than women have come from Central America.

Consider the impact on the family member who has come alone to the US to find a job. Are there any special hardships? Are there some adaptation strategies he/she may use to survive? Are there difficulties might exist in forming permanent ties to the host country? Etc.

3. A Contemporary Look:

  • How are Asians sometimes depicted stereotypically in the media?
  • Does the China Mary syndrome still survive? Discuss these examples:

a. The failure to differentiate between people who come from different parts of Asia.

b. The assumption that all Asian-Americans are immigrants or foreigners.

Do you have a personal story to illustrate these examples?


    1. Contributions to the Land

Between 1860 -1890, Chinese workers were primarily responsible for the development of California's agriculture. In 1870, three fourths of California's agricultural workers were Chinese. Based on the following comments and images, discuss the lasting agricultural contributions of the Chinese.

"It's not until the Chinese came....that people starting eating in a way that stopped them from being sick most of the time."
- Professor Patricia Limrick.

"The availability of the Chinese laborer gave the fruit growers is difficult to see how our annual fruit crop could be harvested and prepared for market without the Chinaman".
-Pacific Rural Press, 1893

"The fruits and vegetable, raspberries and strawberries, under the care of Chinese gardeners grow to a fabulous size...I have seen heads of cabbages four times the size of European heads, and pumpkins the size of our washtubs".
- Polish tourist, 1870s.

2. Lasting Imprint on the Land

The Chinese brought to America their communal approach to accomplishing tasks. Note how it served the Chinese in their work in building the railroads, agriculture, and mining.

3. Changing Patterns of Work in Industry

By the 1870s the Chinese could be considered the first industrial workforce in the American West. In San Francisco, for example, the cigar industry employed more Chinese than any other ethnic group. In 1873, one half of all California's leather goods were 'made by Chinese workers'. By the 1880s, the Chinese themselves owned some of the firms.

In the following chart, however, note the declining numbers of Chinese employed in cigar and shoe/boot industries.

Percentages of Chinese Mainly in San Francisco Cigar and Shoe/Boot Industries

Time Period
Cigar Workers
Shoe/Boot Workers

Consider this quote: "Seven decades of rapid economic change, anti-Chinese discrimination, and finally Chinese exclusion - rather than any inherent racial or cultural characteristics - had made the Chinese in the United States into an urban mercantile and servile population by the early twentieth century." How might the following national events have contributed to this changing pattern of work?

1861: The Civil War

1869: Completion of the transcontinental railroad.

1876: National economic depression.

1882: Exclusion Acts

1880-90s: Anti-Chinese riots, white boycotts of Chinese goods.

4. A Contemporary Look:

Search the media for reports on the economic niches filled by immigrants today. Compare their survival strategies, receptivity of the larger society to their work, and their economic contributions with those from the program.

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