Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Review: On Gold Mountain

On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family
by Lisa See (1996)
ISBN: 0-679-76852-1

I read On Gold Mountain slowly, with days between chapters to think about new ideas. On Gold Mountain was many things to me.

It was an eye-opening revelation to me of how racist our laws and immigration policies were towards the Chinese, up until our recently.

It was an amazing journey into Chinese society both in America and in China.

It was an uplifting and hopeful account of how, in spite of everything, Chinese immigrants were able to come to America, work, and prosper.

It was a heart-breaking indictment of the treatment of the Chinese by our government and big business, particularly the railroads. The suffering and death of so many people has gone too long unnoticed in our history books.

It was an amusing commentary on the foibles of human nature, and how love truly can triumph over it all, down through the generations.

It was an incredibly well-researched, well-documented and remarkably frank story of one Chinese immigrant and his numerous descendants.

In the developing field of social history, and using social history to illuminate a genealogy, On Gold Mountain is a seminal work, published five years prior to the ground-breaking "Bringing Your Family History to Life through social history" by Katherine Scott Sturdevant. As such, it is a remarkable example of the professional standards to which the social historian/genealogist may aspire.

Although the family history is rife with bi-racial marriage, multiple wives and concubines, infidelity and divorce, Lisa See presents the story in a sympathetic and factual manner, and avoids sensationalizing her family history. It is as much about the family business of importing Asian art, furniture and folk items, and other businesses the younger generations developed, as it is about the personal history of the family.

I would recommend Lisa See's book to anyone planning to write a social history; to all high school and college students in classes on U. S. Government, sociology, immigration, and capitalism. I would also recommend it to anyone who likes a good work of non-fiction about real people.

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