Being a rooter is akin to an archaeologist, searching for signs about one’s history by studying the remains, looking for clues wherever they can be found. Instead of bones and artifacts excavated out of the ground, I am digging through archival files of my ancestors who traveled between China and the U.S. On one hand, the way they were treated seems inhuman. However, on the other hand, the pages of interrogations and witness’ statements paint a picture for me of what my ancestors experienced as sojourners to the Gold Mountain (the Chinese name for the U.S.)
Pouring over the files from the National Archives feels like Louis Leaky picking through bone fragments. One piece, although incomplete, sheds light on the history of mankind, or at least several generations of my ancestors. For instance, there is a phrase indicating a business established in San Francisco in 1865, the year the Civil War ended on the other side of the country.
Then, there is the witness statement from G.T. Marsh, which when you do the math meant that he knew my great-grandfather when they were both in their twenties. Further digging showed the extent both men were affected by the 1906 earthquake. Marsh & Co., housed in the Palace Hotel on Market Street, was demolished. Fung Sang Lung & Co., located on Bush Street, near Van Ness and Post, fared somewhat better than the stores in Chinatown. By 1909, the store’s name was changed to Wah Sang Lung & Co. and relocated to the corner of Dupont (now, Grant Avenue) and Sacramento Streets.
Photos of the shop on Dupont back-in-the-day show horse drawn carriages and pig-tailed men clad in pajama-looking clothes going about their business. My great-grandfather and grandfather’s photos show their shaved foreheads and hair pulled back into queues in obeisance for the Qing emperors of their times. Letter clues (TC for Tung Chee/Tongzhi, KS for Kwong Sui/Guangxu, ST for Sun Tung/Xuantong), showed me three different emperors during generations from my great-grandfather to my father, who was born during the reign of the last emperor of China.
For the Chinese, dress codes were mandatory, whether they were in a foreign country or not, and disobedience to the two-hundred-year-old rule of Manchu hairstyle and chángshān; literally: “long shirt,” could result in execution. The high-collared silk chángshāns may have looked like pajamas to San Francisco’s Caucasians, but to the Chinese they indicated merchant class sojourners “going out” to create a better life for his families back home.
When I gleaned a list of my great-grandfather’s twelve trips between the U.S. and China from the files, I discovered that he had a cabin in 1906. It was probably the last voyage of the first SS Doric, a White Star Line steel ship, which was known for carrying a large cargo of opium as well as tea. He traveled as a Merchant, which made him exempt from discrimination by the Exclusion Act of 1882. He probably traveled in second class accommodations, which may not be as luxurious as first class, but was a far cry from the steerage conditions of so many immigrant travelers. My ancestors did not consider themselves immigrants but rather sojourners.
In spite of their strong ties to the homeland, Chinese immigrants did not establish a miniature replica of traditional Chinese society in America. They lived in an abnormal society full of young males, wandering Sojourners, whose dream was to put in a few years of hard labor and to return home wealthy and respected “Gold Mountain Guests.” This “sojourner’s mentality” had deep roots in Chinese cultural tradition. Nineteenth-century China was an unsophisticated agrarian society. The great majority of the Chinese people still embraced both Confucianism and Taoism, religious systems which, to a great extent, reflected the inspirations and aspirations of peasants.
Emigration was generally looked upon as banishment, a severe punishment next only to death. Out of these beliefs grew the concept of sojourning, an idea that stressed the temporary nature of one’s absence from home.
( The Chinese Experience in America, Shih-shan Henry Tsai, http://www.oakton.edu/useer/4/billtong/chinaclass/History/chiam.htm.)