On the Chinese Heritage Tour of the American West, from July 20 – 26, we were able to explore various stereotypes, histories and mythologies surrounding early Chinese pioneers in the West. Since the mid 1800’s, Chinese Americans and newly immigrated Chinese have had conflict with the Caucasian population. Chinese Americans faced oppression from local citizens, and ran into complications with the government. Chinese were also often discriminated against under pretenses of being “mysterious” and not following traditional American customs. Over a hundred years later, has the overall attitude towards Chinese Americans changed?
We encountered our first lessons in stereotypes in Baker City, Oregon, where we learned about the existence of “Chinese Tunnels” on our tour of eastern Oregon’s Geiser Grand Hotel. Supposedly, the tunnels were used by the Chinese to get around town to avoid anti-Chinese sentiment. Along with the tunnels in Baker City, a fellow tour member, Maxine Chan, a food anthropologist and cultural specialist, informed me there were other Chinese tunnels, specifically those in Pendleton, Oregon. The posters for the tunnels in Pendleton, depicted “normal” Caucasians, posed next to an exaggerated drawing of a Chinese man. As Maxine described her reaction to it, “They depict us like rats, scurrying around in these tunnels.”
Dr. Priscilla Wegars, founder and volunteer curator of the University of Idaho’s Asian American Comparative Collection, was able to elaborate on the stereotypes surrounding the Chinese Tunnels. Dr. Wegars explained that these tunnels were most likely used for movement of goods by both Chinese and Caucasians, not as a place where only Chinese “scurried around like rats” as it was marketed. So if the Chinese Tunnels haven’t been confirmed as being used by only Chinese to escape from persecution, then why do some people still market them as such today for tours such as ours?
Along with the lessons on stereotypes, we discovered several misinterpretations surrounding Chinese Americans. Chan informed me of small medicine bottles that supposedly contained opium. These bottles could fit into the palm of my hand and were barely larger than one of my fingers. She informed me that opium is a very viscous liquid, and in these small bottles, it would have been almost impossible to pour the opium into or out of the bottles. Maxine also mentioned an experience at an archaeological dig, where the archaeologists found copious amounts of whiskey and bottles of Chinese wine. If a normal person was chosen to analyze this site, anyone would most likely assume that the Chinese drank the liquor. However, Maxine theorized that the whiskey was not necessarily used for drinking, but mostly for creating a Chinese medicine. This kind of misinterpretation is what creates the underlying stereotypes that surround Chinese Americans.
There is a growing trend however, with people that have become more concerned with stereotypes around the Chinese Americans. We met professionals like Sarah Crump, archaeologist at the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, and Susie Osgood, the forest archaeologist at the Boise National Forest in Idaho who administers the Hong Lee Placer mine, where we learned about how the Chinese worked the mines that the Caucasians had already finished mining; and Fred Frampton, who manages heritage sites at the Humboldt-Toiyable National Forest in Nevada and California. People like Crump, Osgood and Frampton have taken the forefront of confronting these misconceptions and stereotypes around Chinese Americans and our history.
This tour has brought a lot of issues surrounding Chinese Americans to the surface. We learned about various stereotypes and misconceptions, but we also learned the truth, or rather, mistruths about all of them. This experience allowed us to understand more about ourselves as a people. But has the world changed along with our understanding, or is the world still ignorant to all of us?