Photo caption: Above left: David H.T. Wong. Above right: “Escape to Gold Mountain: A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America.”
Published last Fall by Arsenal Pulp Press, “Escape to Gold Mountain: A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America” represents David H.T. Wong’s first foray into the literary arts. A LEED-certified architect and urban ecologist, Wong has an international reputation as a designer of sustainable communities. His new graphic novel tells the story of Chinese immigration to North America through following the fictional Wong family over an epic span of more than 150 years of history.
Wong’s motivation to write “Escape to Gold Mountain” grew out of his observations of new Chinese immigrant populations in Vancouver.
“There’s a lot of pride and heritage in the first, second and third generations — what’s been accomplished through the sweat and hard work of earlier generations, says Wong. “Some of the new people who come, it’s not so much that they don’t care. They just don’t know. Because of this lack of knowledge, there is a schism between these two groups.” Gearing his book towards the new wave of immigrants and their children, Wong sees his project as a way to reach out to newcomers and share the story of the Chinese in North America to highlight their collective contributions to society.
Based loosely on his own family stories and the oral histories of numerous Chinese-American elders, Wong’s project weaves together the voices of immigrants that toiled in canneries and on railroad crews, encountering indignity, violence, discrimination and separation from loved ones in their quest to establish themselves in “Gold Mountain,” or North America. Wong interviewed elders from the Ming Sun Benevolent Society in half-day recording sessions and gathered wartime stories from the Chinese Canadian Military Museum Society to uncover stories of the Chinese who served during World War II.
Supplementing his interviews with library and Internet reading, Wong devoted nearly a year and a half to research. He took another year to write the story, working through 30 different drafts. “The greatest challenge I had was how do you weave a story through time that’s continuous?” he shares. “I had to create a fictional family and generations to fit along the timeline. It’s based on real incidents in time, like lynchings and killings. There’s no single family that probably experienced all of this. That was a challenge to pick and choose which to run with.”
Told through the voice of Grandma Emily, who is modeled after the Wong’s own grandmother, the author traces the history of the Wong family’s hardship in their adopted homeland to create a poignant immigrant’s legacy for their sons and daughters. Emily is cast as the heroine, who grows up in a male-dominated society to overcome the odds and become a medical doctor. “My grandmother didn’t have the opportunities that people do today. She would have become a doctor — a really good one — so I made Emily a doctor,” says Wong. “I tried my best to give her what was denied to her in life.”
But other depictions of women in Wong’s book are more dissatisfying. Jade Chow joins the Wong family through arranged marriage and is little more than a historical footnote. Jade endures years of separation from her husband Gee-Mun Wong and raises their three children in Toisan, while her partner labors to save the money to pay for the Chinese Head Tax. When the Chinese Immigrant Act bans new Chinese immigrants from entering Canada, Jade and her children are stranded in China and are later killed during the Japanese raid on Nanking. On depictions of women in his book, the author comments: “They used to marry someone and left them behind, and they were lost during the war. Their names were lost to history. No photographs or anything. As insignificant as they seem, it’s a sad reality. It’s not a fair story, I know it.”
While “Escape to Gold Mountain” is ambitious, there is a sense that the author tried to accomplish too much in one book. In choosing to write through the lens of a fictional family and flattening multiple histories into one, a new master narrative is created, albeit one in which the Chinese have a more significant role in nation-building. When weighed against more personal graphic novels like Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” and G.B. Tran’s “Vietnamerica,” the visual storytelling seems underdeveloped. The facial expressions of Wong’s characters lack emotion and depth at times, while his backdrops lack detail and texture. Characters switch in and out of contemporary and period-specific speech, disrupting the narrative. While historical figures like Emily Carr, Mark Twain and Sun Yat Sen function as historical markers, they add little to the Wong family story. Finally, the introductory statements in the book from community members and scholars seem self-conscious, but offer credence through personal testimony. Despite its shortcomings, “Escape to Gold Mountain” may be of likely interest to those readers seeking a general introduction to the history of the Chinese in North America.