The Chinese Coin

Ranger Dave decided to give his doctor a coin he found while poking around the desert near Bishop, California.  It held special meaning for him, because he knew the history of the Chinese people in the West, and how they helped build it.

After their visit Dave started to hand Dr. J. Chung the coin and began to explain the significance of it.  Here is his account:

The coin made its appearance in the western U.S. during the Gold Rush to California in the 1850s.  The coin was in use from 1820-1850 in China. It was primarily a good luck piece and had a Yin and Yang side.  The Yang side had to always face up when the coin was placed down.  The shape of the coin represented the union between heaven and earth (the circle is heaven and the square hole is earth).

The Chinese people were doing many occupations during the pioneer time period including farming and fishing as well as mining for gold.

As soon as the Euros exhausted all the good gold prospects, the Chinese were able to come in after them, rework the leftover tailings and still realize a profit.

Because they were so good at gold mining, the Euros quickly became jealous and began to persecute the Chinese miners.  They started harassing and threatening them, stealing their claims, imposing unfair taxes and rules, and ultimately, murdering them.

This made it extra difficult for the Chinese immigrants, who had already faced persecution in China and were in America to work hard to send money home.  The voyage over from China was costly and also filled with many hardships.

So there they were in a totally alien land being worked to death, discriminated against and unable to hide their long braid.  Without it they faced a death penalty upon return to China by decree of the emperor.

Not one of those problems deterred or slowed down the Chinese immigrants.  In fact, they gained such a good reputation for doing hard work, despite their small stature, that they were recruited to work on the Trans-Continental Railroad.

Once again they were called upon to do the most difficult and dangerous jobs building the tunnels and snow sheds that were necessary for the trains to safely cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento has a full size replica of the Chinese workers blasting and working in the snow sheds.  Many workers lost their lives during the construction in blasting accidents and snow avalanches.

Still, nothing stopped them, and they set records for laying more track in one day than anyone had done before.

After the Trans-Continental Railroad was completed, the Chinese workers went on to build many other rail lines like the Carson and Colorado. They dispersed out to all the mining camps to find whatever work they could.  They did a variety of jobs in the towns like laundry and restaurants.  Many would go out to the hills to cut wood to haul back to the towns on burros.

Sometimes they would make their own camps out in the hills of the mining and woodcutting areas. It was in these places that they would encounter the local native people and trade with them.  The proof of this was the discovery of opium bottles in Indian sites.

When the Chinese came to America, they brought herbs and opium with them.  Many opium bottles have been found in trash dumps along the railroad lines and in dumps in the towns. That was one way they got relief from the hard work in harsh environments.

In the larger towns and cities it was common for them to have opium dens that were open to everyone. Nevertheless, some people seized upon the opium trade to further dehumanize the Chinese people and capitalize on them.

The Chinese section of the towns was comprised mostly of bachelors, because few Chinese women came to America.  Of those who did, many were forced into prostitution.

Many of the Chinese immigrants returned to China, and those that remained, ebbed and flowed with the rise and fall of the mining camps. Eventually, most of them settled in the big cities like San Francisco or Central California Valley towns like Locke.

All that is left of their legacy is a few artifacts, photographs and the coins they carried with them throughout their life.  What is important about the coins is that not only were they good luck pieces, but they were one of the few possessions the Chinese people could keep in their pocket to remind them of home.

As I handed the coin to the good doctor, he said, “I can’t take that.”  I replied, “That’s okay doctor, I brought it just special for you.  I hope that every time you look at it, you will be reminded of what those who came before us went through and accomplished to help build this country.”

His eyes opened wide as he accepted the coin, and a smile came over his face.  It had come full circle and was now in his possession.   May it bring him good fortune all the days of his life.

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One Response to “The Chinese Coin”

  1. Claudia L. M. Says:

    I am so touched by this story. My husband has asked me from reading the book “Chased out” that he would love it if we could find this Chinese coin somewhere for his 60th birthday. Would there be a place you might know where I could find/buy it?
    Thank you!

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