Chinese immigration is deeply entwined with the development of the West. The labour of new Chinese immigrants, and the subsequent backlash which led to racially charged government mandates are the subjects of David H.T. Wong’s graphic novel Escape to Gold Mountain: A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America. The novel contains a wealth of historical information, helpful timelines and personal tales. The history and endurance of Chinese people in the face of adversity is fascinating. Unfortunately, Wong’s vision outpaces his talent as a writer and artist, and Escape to Gold Mountain falls flat.
The root of the story is centered on new Chinese immigrants who were involved in the building of American and Canadian railroads, and later the fishing industry. They had to deal with hate, forced relocation and bills of law such as the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act. The book retells this history by focusing in on multiple generations of a family, exploring the various reasons why they left China for North America (aka Gold Mountain), and their experiences here. Wong focuses not only on the community of new Chinese immigrants, but also on their interactions with white and first nations people. The book starts out promising and I could sense the passion behind the project. Wong spent 3 years researching and creating the material that culminated into this final product. His research paid off, as the book is an excellent resource for background information on political movements, wars and the migration of people. Wong also does a decent job at portraying the different obstacles Chinese immigrants had to face as they settled and as their children negotiated new identities through use of a multi-generational storyline.
The problems with Escape to Gold Mountain arise during the storytelling. Although this book seems to have been written with a younger audience in mind, this does not excuse it for its threadbare story and weak characters. Wong presents a clunky amalgamation of fact and fiction with some parts of the tale derived from the experiences of family members and friends. Racial prejudice, which drove many political actions in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, is far from simple, yet Wong’s treatment of the material is so heavy handed it reminded me of a South Park episode that had the wit and satire drained out of it. White settlers caterwaul about Chinese who are stealing their jobs and politicians are so one dimensionally evil that they may as well have been portrayed tying women to the railroad tracks and then maniacally twisting their moustaches. The very problem with treating such complex subject matter in this way is that it simply makes these issues look ridiculous.
Perhaps all of this could have been passable had I been able to forge an emotional connection with the family this book features. Sadly, the multigenerational storyline is heavy in soapy drama with flat characters that express all emotions at their full volume. Rage, joy, and despair all feature heavily within, with no room for subtlety. As for Wong’s art style, there is not too much to say. The drawings are simple, and while they convey the story, they do little to extend it. The historical significance of this material is important and interesting enough to pique any readers’ attention, yet overall, these shallow caricatures left me unable to connect emotionally to the material, and as such, it was very difficult to take this book seriously.