People came to this frontier to become what they could not become elsewhere - heroes and millionaires. The early, undeveloped economy caused many inconveniences. Certain common tasks required a great deal of time to complete. Many Chinese workers took advantage of this entrepreneurial opportunity by providing a service that dramatically enhanced the quality of life. Providing this service was no trivial task, but involved tedious repetition, painstaking attention to detail, and often consumed most of their waking hours in a small room in front of the same machine. Nevertheless, their hard work did pay off. Some became wealthy and soon the Chinese referred to this place as the Gold Mountain. Yet their frugal industriousness incited others, particularly the Westerners who had arrived earlier. This triggered a period of systematic abuse and humiliation targeting the Chinese. Legal constraints were created in an attempt to put these Chinese workers out of work. Individual Chinese workers were harassed and sometimes physically assaulted. Mob lynching followed.
This narrative seems incredibly familiar (see Constance’s presentation from SoP II), but the year is 1870. And I am, of course, talking about the genesis of the Chinese laundry-shops (“yi-shan-guan”) during and after the California Gold Rush (see “The Chinese in America” by Iris Chang, 2003).
During the Gold Rush, dirty laundry was routinely shipped to Hong Kong (among other Asian cities) partly because laundry was seen as demeaning domestic work that burly beardy miners should not perform. The turn-around time for this process was 4 months. By the end of the 1800s, almost 1 in every 3 Chinese workers worked in a laundry-shop. Laws were enacted in 1870 that tried to cripple Chinese laundry businesses (as well as preventing the Chinese from gaining US citizenship - which effectively barred them from voting). Documented mob lynching and pillaging of Chinatowns occurred in 1871 and 1877.
Of course, the story of prejudice against the Chinese during the 1800s is far more complex and nuanced than stemming from just the laundry workers. And, of course, the parallel that I’m trying to draw isn’t perfect. But the juxtaposition of this historical narrative with the much more recent narrative we typically tell about “Chinese” gold farmers reveals its disturbing metaphors and framings. The contemporary narrative starts to feel too much like the historical one - Chinese immigrant workers being harassed and murdered by Westerners who feel they alone can arbitrate what constitutes acceptable labor.
Yet, like many MMO players, I too have experienced the other side of this “industriousness”. Recently in WoW, I ran into an Undead Mage in Hearthglen who frost-AE farmed the non-elites (literally 10-12 at a time). As a frost mage myself (on the Alliance side), I attempted the same trick. The first time I tried, the Undead Mage pulled elites into my Blizzard range in an attempt to kill me. I escaped. The second time I tried, a stealthed Undead Rogue turned his PvP flag on as he walked into my Blizzard, thus setting off my PvP flag. Another Undead Rogue then backstabbed me. Using a variety of ice blocks, blinks, and ice barriers, I somehow managed to survive that as well.
As I recovered and pondered how to exact revenge against these 3 gold farmers, I realized that in my mind I had instinctively cast them as Chinese gold farmers. And in return, they had probably instinctively cast me as the white leisure player. And in this mesh of historical and contemporary racial narratives, I found myself pondering what it really meant to be Chinese-American … because somehow, in this land of Elves and Orcs, I suddenly felt more Chinese than I usually do in the real world.
(I’d like to thank Jerry Kang for seeding this thread in my mind at SoP II.)