Voices from Gold Mountain

After 1910, immigrants arriving on the West Coast passed through the immigration inspection station at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. Many were detained there for weeks or months. Rage, loneliness, and joy are among the emotions reflected in these rhymes from immigrants to the United States, or “Gold Mountain.” These verses are from San Francisco’s Chinatown and were written in the early 1910s.

I am a man of heroic deeds;
I am a man with pride and dignity.
My bosom encompasses the height of Heaven
and the brilliance of Earth;
Everywhere they know me as a truly noble man.
In search of wealth—
Greed led me on the road to Gold Mountain.
Denied landing upon reaching the shore, I am filled with rage.
With no means to pass the border, what can a person do?

To chase after a pin-head gain,
I endured the separation from my mother.
Drifting on a voyage of thousands of miles,
I reached the Flowery Flag Nation to take my chances.
Sorrow is to be so far away from home.
I must burden Mother to send me clothes for my stay.
Unable to prepare the homebound whip, stranded in a foreign land,
O, when can I repay her kindness in raising me?

In a sojourn in San Francisco,
Luck and wealth grace me as spring arrives.
With trunks full of yellow eagles, it’s time to head home; *
Right away my boat ticket and visa are prepared and ready.
O, truly wonderful—
I bid farewell to all my good friends.
I am returning home with purses and bags stuffed full.
Soon, I will see my parents’ brows beaming with joy.


* “Yellow eagles” is a term used by the Chinese in America for U.S. gold coins.

Marlon K. Hom, Songs of Gold Mountain: Cantonese Rhymes from San Francisco Chinatown

©1987 Copyright/ University of California Press.



Explore the Ship

Steamships across the Pacific transported large numbers of immigrants and only modest numbers of first-class passengers. From this deck plan you can discover that hundreds of steerage passengers slept in bunks near the ship’s engine first-class, or saloon, passengers slept in cabins farther from the engine steerage travelers had no dining room or leisure spaces first-class travelers had a dining space with skylights, and two social rooms on the upper deck.


Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum

S.S. Japan, 1868–74

The Japan officially accommodated as many as 190 in 50 first-class staterooms and 908 in row after row of open bunks stacked three high in steerage. The most frequent first-class passengers were businessmen, missionaries, and government and military officials. Steerage was filled almost entirely by Chinese merchants and laborers. In the month-long Pacific crossing, steerage passengers made do with no dining or sitting rooms. The immigrant trade was so profitable that the Japan often carried hundreds of passengers beyond its legal limit. In 1873 the Japan’s captain was cited for carrying 451 passengers above the legal limit on a single voyage.


Photograph by Jack London, courtesy of The Huntington Library

Chinese crews, 1905

The Pacific Mail Steamship Company hired Chinese workers exclusively to crew its ships and run its port facilities. Only its ships’ officers were American or European. “The saving therefrom, in wages, food, &c., will be very great,” wrote the company president. But by 1915, pressure from sailors’ unions and discriminatory government labor rules had begun to force hundreds of Chinese seamen out of their jobs.

In this image Chinese crew handle mooring lines near the stern of the Pacific Mail steamer Siberia. About 227 Chinese crew worked aboard Siberia on each of its 11 roundtrip voyages between Hong Kong and San Francisco.