In the middle of the 19th century, when gold was discovered in California and construction of the Transcontinental Railroad provided a link across the United States, crowds of American workers heeded the advice to “Go West, young man.”
From China, thousands of men decided to travel east to the same destination, to make their fortune in a land where gold was rumored to be so easy to find that nuggets were lying in the street, just waiting for someone to pick them up.
That rough-and-tumble time is the subject of the first book by St. Louisan Ed Shew, who combines fiction with fact to tell the story of two Chinese brothers, Li Chang and Li Yu, who journey far from their home to seek their fortune.
Their golden dreams quickly collide with reality, but their innate optimism and strong character help them over the roughest patches and through the seemingly impervious mountains. Readers of “Chinese Brothers, American Sons” will travel the dangerous and sometimes deadly journey with them, learning about both Chinese culture and American history.
On the ship, Li Chang tells his brother: “’When we get to Gold Mountain, all will be better, you’ll see.’”
From the epigraph, a quote from the Chinese philosopher Confucius, Shew sets a tone of humility and brotherhood, two virtues that were not always present in the brothers’ harsh American lives:
“A man of humanity is one who, in seeking to establish himself, finds a foothold for others and who, in desiring attaining himself, helps others to attain.”
The brothers decide in 1854 to journey from their home in Kwangtung province, searching for a better life in the United States. They leave behind their mother, Li Yu’s wife and soon-to-be-born child, intending to stay for only a few years, send money home and finally return to reunite their families.
But like many assumptions the pair has made about life in America, what they experience is far different from what they had planned. First in the search for gold, then on the work gangs for the railroad, they face trials they never dreamed of. Not the least of their troubles come from strong prejudice against men seen as interlopers from across the Pacific whose only aim is to steal American jobs.
A newspaper at the time, published as the railroad gangs move eastward through unyielding terrain, puts it this way:
“Beware, the Chinese are outwardly quiet and submissive but are inwardly sinister and cunning. We’re sure the Chinese railroad workers are part of a secret plan to invade and take over the government of the United States replacing American culture with that of the Chinese. … The United States must not allow the Chinese to contaminate our society and must enact exclusionary immigration policies to keep these yellow people out.”
In telling the story of what the Chinese brothers endure, Shew has essentially combined two books. One is the novel, as Li Chang and Li Yu gradually make their way through American culture and prejudices. The other is history, first of the search for gold, then of how railroad crews — Chinese and otherwise — laid track in impossible conditions to unite America in the wake of the Civil War.
And the story is obviously very personal for Shew, a native St. Louisan with family roots in Hop Alley, the old local Chinatown that was torn down for construction of Busch Stadium downtown. He doesn’t always write with the most polished prose, but the novel shows obvious pride in his heritage, and the book is enriched by sketches done by his own brother, John Shew, a retired Post-Dispatch artist.
In the end, readers of “Chinese Brothers, American Sons” will learn, if they didn’t know it already, what Shew says was his lesson behind writing the book: that discrimination may target different groups, but the impulse behind it and the effects it has are universal.
In an afterword, he writes that “the fundamental elements of fear, ignorance and arrogance are common to all such racial tragedies. No one is better than anyone else. To rank historical struggles by one’s race is not purposeful, but respect is an absolute requirement.”
Dale Singer retired in 2017 after a 45-year career in journalism in St. Louis. He lives in west St. Louis County.
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