Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sacramento – an Invisible Reality

Over the Memorial long weekend, we had a reunion party with three of my long time best friends and their spouses at Sacramento, California where two of them now reside.  Our friendships and bonds have lasted for almost four decades since I first met them at my early teens when we attended the same secondary school in Taichung, Taiwan.  As we crossed paths few times later in college, I am grateful that we have been able to stay connected despite our distinct career trajectories independent moves to different parts of U.S. with physical distances measured in thousands of miles. 

Sacramento is approximately 90 miles northeast of San Francisco and is the state capital of California.  It is located at the confluence of American River and the 450 miles long Sacramento River which continues south and enters the San Francisco Bay at its north end.  With a population of about half a million, it seems unable to sustain the media attention although it has been one of the top ranked best city in U.S. to live, work and play and has its unique places in American history.  Sacramento’s name originated from the word “sacrament” when Gabriel Moraga, a Spanish explorer who named the valley for the Holy Sacrament, a Christian religious rite that St. Augustine defined as "a visible sign of an invisible reality."  It has had nicknames like Suttertown (for John Sutter, a pioneering settler and entrepreneur of the region), Big Tomato (sorry, just doesn’t sound cool compared to Big Apple), River City (um, there are many other bigger rivers and bigger cities along them) and so on, but none of them seems to stick.

While San Francisco has been associated with gold by most (its Chinese name means literally “Old Gold Mountain”), you really need to travel to Sacramento to appreciate the history of the 1849 California Gold Rush where it all began.   On January 24, 1848, James Marshall, a foreman who worked for Sutter’s lumber mill on American River in Coloma, 50 miles east of Sacramento, found gold in the channel out of the water wheel.  By 1849, waves of fortune seekers from all over the world arrived through Sacramento River via San Francisco. 

On Memorial Day, we visited the Empire Mine State Historic Park in Grass Valley, 60 miles northeast of Sacramento and 40 miles north of Coloma.  Empire Mine, a rock gold mine, was one of the oldest and richest gold mines in California.  It has produced nearly 6 million ounces of gold (or $6 billion dollars worth in today’s gold market price) in its lifetime (1850-1956) with its massive 367 miles of underground passages and Cornish miners (Cornish is a Celtic ethic group of Cornwall, the most south-westerly part of England).   Here is a photo of the entry to the main shaft.  To get a sense of the wealth of the Empire Mine owner William Bourn, you can pay a visit to Filoli, a country house built by his son in Woodside (25 miles south of San Francisco) with a 16 acres of gardens on a 654 acres of estate that rivals and exceeds the Gilded Age mansions of Newport (see my March 20th 2009 blog).

Traveling west From Grass Valley along HWY 20 and turning north onto Pleasant Valley Road, one comes to another historical site – the South Yuba River State Park.  Two wooden structures stood out: the beautiful Bridgeport Covered Bridge is one of only 10 covered bridges remaining in California.  Built in 1862, at 251 feet, it is the longest single span covered bridge in the United States (see photos below).  South of the Covered Bridge, there is a historic Dutch style barn built in 1860s that now houses exhibits of various types of wagons and farm equip including hay press.  Strolling along the river and through covered bridge, it is hard to imagine in those days, with the bustling traffic resulting from mining, they are a part of the Virginia Turnpike Company toll road.

Every time when visiting Sacramento, I can’t help but recall the often-ignored Chinese American history prior to the repeal of the 60 years old Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 by the 1943 Magnuson Act (that was a result of the new alliance with China after America declared war against Japan on December 8th, 1941, the day after the Pearl Harbor attack).  The Magnuson Act permitted Chinese nationals who were already residing in the country, for the first time, to become naturalized citizens, and allowed immigration of Chinese for up to 105 visas per year as determined by the formula of the Immigration Act of 1924.  It wasn’t until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 that a larger and more equitable scale (for up to 20,000 visas per year) of Chinese immigration became possible.  The discrimination, lynching, and persecution had its root at the 1849 California Gold Rush with the arrivals of over 40,000 Chinese individual miners in 1850s.  Countless attempts and maneuvers through political and legal systems were made successfully to eliminate or reduce competitions from Chinese immigrants in mining and other businesses with the dwindling opportunity in gold mining.

The implementation of the First Transcontinental Railroad from 1863-1869 (between Omaha, Nebraska and Sacramento, California), initiated and supported by the Federal government, provided a temporary job opportunity and in fact started the second major wave of Chinese immigration.  The Central Pacific led by Leland Stanford laid 690 miles of track of the western section of the First Transcontinental Railroad through and difficult and deadly terrains with a large number of Chinese laborers.  With the completion of the railroad construction in 1869, the efforts in pushing out Chinese Americans became only more intense that eventually cumulated to the passage of Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that banned immigration from China all together.

For a more detailed and exhaustive account of Chinese-American history, one can refer to the 2003 book The Chinese in America: A Narrative History by late Iris Chang.  Another important reference on my to-read list is the award winning 2007 book Driven Out: The Forgotten War against Chinese Americans by professor Jean Pfaelzer that focuses on the purging of Chinese immigrants in the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain region between 1850 and 1906.  When in Sacramento, don’t miss the wonderful California State Railroad Museum.    Another fascinating historical site in the region is the town of Locke 樂居 which is located approximately 30 miles south of Sacramento.   It is the last standing authentic Chinese rural town in U.S.  It was built in 1915, completed with shops, brothels and Chinese school, by and for local Chinese immigrants and is still in exactly the same structures as 90 years ago although only 10% residents are Chinese-Americans now.

I had a great time in Sacramento, seeing and chatting with old friends.  I will surely be back for more of its natural beauty and less visible parts of its history and reality.  Talk to you soon!

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