Chinese in the Frontier West/ Maps

Chinese in the Frontier West is part 2 of a larger documentary titled Ancestors in the Americas. Because we will not screen part 1 we’ll miss out on some interesting history– for example the arrival of Chinese and Filipino sailors in Mexico in the 17th century. Yet there’s a wealth of information in CFW which can help us to make sense of the social topography of Machine Age America.

Recall how the film begins with the search for photographic evidence of Chinese labor, evidence which seems strangely absent. Such gaps in the archive are in their own way instructive: who is missing? Which stories do not get told? Whose experiences do we need to recover in order to establish a fuller, richer account of the past?


Most of the immigrants from China during the antebellum period came from either Guangdong or Fujian, two provinces in the south east, in particular the Pearl River Delta region. Primarily young men, they were the first non-white foreigners to arrive in the US and, as the film relates, were subject to a variety of legal provisions segregating and, indeed, oppressing them. The 1790 Naturalization Act, the Foreign Miners’ Tax, the Dred Scott decision (the precedent for People vs. Hall), the Page Law, various local regulations such as the Sidewalk Ordinance and the Cubic Air Ordinance: all of which constituted forms of legal harassment intended to specifically target Chinese. Against that official discrimination, Chinese mobilized to assert their claim to the rights of citizenship through court cases. As Suecheng Chan remarks, this strategy of challenging unjust laws on their own terms was something Chinese communities adapted to– there were no such opportunities in China.

If we’re to gain insight into the Chinese American experience it might help to re-center our view of the world. The ability to grasp history often depends on the capacity for a spatial imagination. Here’s a map of the Pacific Rim:


The Pacific Ocean functions as a kind of continent in its own right, to be crossed on the way to Jinshan (Gold Mountain). Now consider the following two representations of the world. The first version is one we’re all likely familiar with, a Mercator Projection:


Now compare with the map below, the Peters Projection:


The Peters Projection offers a truer scale for the continents. The relative area of land masses are more accurate, though it does this at the expense of outline detail. Turning a three dimensional object, a sphere, into a two-dimensional image always involves a degree of distortion. The Mercator is good at representing shape, while the Peters is good at representing size. Do you see the difference?

Finally, a map of the expansion of the United States across the North American continent:


It’s important to consider what was required to claim such a vast space– the physical forces, daily experiences, and material conditions that came into play in the project to consolidate the continent. Chapter 16 if the Norton offers a very useful account of the settlement of the “far west.” Be sure to read it.