Imagine — You are Hung Wah and it’s 1880

Peter Paccone
8 min readJun 19, 2022

You’re 45-years-old, Chinese, and wondering what to do with the rest of your life a few days after unknown villians have blown up your hand-washing laundry business.

OK high school students everywhere. Here’s something for you in the event you want to learn about the history of the Chinese in the Sierra Nevada from 1880 (two years before the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act) until 1943 (the year in which the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed.)

This “learning opportunity” starts off with you needing to assume that your name is Hung Wah and that you are a 45-year-old owner of a Chinese hand-washing laundry business located in Auburn, California.

Also assume that it’s Saturday, July 31, 1880, and you are thinking about what to do with your life after a“thunderous explosion” blew up your washhouse several nights earlier.

“The explosion shook the entire town,” says Gordon Chang in his book Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, “waking sleeping residents, breaking glass, and lifting structures from the ground.”

“Not a stick of timber of any kind (was) left standing,” a newspaper at the time reported (according to Chang,) “and not a single board (was) left whole.”

Chang then goes on to claim that “unknown villians had used black powder” to blow up the washhouse

Before deciding what to do with your life, here’s some background information you might find useful.

  • 1835 — Hung Wah is born in Guangdong Province, China.
  • 1850 — Hung Wah, at age 15, arrives in San Francisco with three cousins two years after James Marshall finds flakes of gold in the American River at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Coloma, California. Within days of arriving in San Francisco, Hung Wah and his cousins (age 35, 33, and 24) walk to Auburn, California where they will search for gold in the abandoned claims of white miners. Auburn is located 18 miles from Coloma.
  • 1856: Hung Wah, stops mining as the Gold Rush comes to an end and after having achieved a fair degree of success. He then goes to work as a supplier of Chinese labor for construction projects in/around Auburn and “makes even more money?
  • 1864 — Hung Wah is hired by the Central Pacific Railroad Company as a supplier of labor, with at least some of the Chinese he hires getting a chance to work on Bloomer Cut; the first major hurdle of the transcontinental railroad. As a supplier of labor Hung Wah will make even more money, this in large part due to the fact that he can speak and write in both English and Chinese.
  • 1865 — Hung Wah hears that the Civil War has come to an end with at least fifty-eight Chinese having served in the War, most on the side of the North.
  • 1869 — Hung Wah moves back to Auburn, as America’s first transcontinental railroad is completed, and with the money he made leases acres of land, again contracts out labor, runs a grocery store carrying Chinese goods, and opens a hand-washing laundry business. His hand-washing laundy business will serve a number of nearby hotels and thus provide Hung Wah with a significant source of income.
  • 1871 — Hung Wah hears that around 500 white and Hispanic men have attacked the Chinatown located in downtown Los Angeles after a white civilian was shot to death by a Chinese man. The mob, Hung Wah is told, not only looted Chinatown but also lynched nineteen Chinese civilians, all of them male immigrants.
  • 1872 —Hung Wah reads in the newspaper that the first-ever official delegation of Chinese students has come to the United States, yet three years later, he will also read that President Ulysses S. Grant has signed the Page Act — a law prohibiting the entry of Chinese women into the US.
  • 1875 — Hung Wah is told that about 300 Chinese workers have built a 23-mile road in only four and a half months 200 miles south of Auburn high in the Sierra Nevada.
  • 1876 — Hung Wah learns that residents of Truckee, California, in what history will come to call the Trout Creek Outrage, have set fire to two cabins that housed six Chinese immigrants working as woodcutters. The cabins are located along Trout Creek, only 67 miles from Auburn. Hung Wah also learns that as the woodcutters fled the fires, several residents of Truckee shot at them, killing one and wounding another.
  • 1877 — Hung Wah hears about the San Francisco anti-Chinese riot: a three-day pogrom waged against Chinese immigrants by the city’s majority white population. The riot resulted in four deaths and the destruction of more than $100,000 worth of property belonging to the city’s Chinese immigrant population. Hung Wah also learns that sometime thereafter white gunmen shoot and kill four Chinese men in Chico and even later unsuccessfully attempted to burn the town’s Chinatown to the ground. Chico is located 97 miles from Auburn.
  • 1879 — Hung Wah reads in the newspaper that California has adopted a new Constitution which explicitly authorizes the state government to ban the Chinese from employment by corporations and state, county, or municipal governments. In the days after this new Constitution is announced, Hung Wah keeps hearing that various members of Congress are wanting to propose a law that would exclude all Chinese from coming to America, not just to California. The word is that Congress will pass this law and the president will sign it within two years.

When thinking about what Hung Wah should do with his life following his washhouse explosion, keep in mind that Hung Wah, unlike most Chinese hand washing laundry workers, had some money in his pocket, so the chances are that he, and therefore you too (if you were Hung Wah) wouldn’t have decided to do any of the following:

  • Become a levee builder
  • Become a lumberman
  • Become an ice harvester
  • Become a domestic house servant
  • Become a hand-laundry washer
  • Become a steam-laundry worker
  • Become a gold miner
  • Become a cigar and/or cigarette maker
  • Become a boot, shoe, and/or slipper maker
  • Become a fruit picker
  • Become a weaver
  • Become a seamstress
  • Become a ready-made clothing maker
  • Become a soap maker
  • Become a candle maker
  • Become a brush maker
  • Become a broom maker
  • Become a glue maker
  • Become a brick maker
  • Become a powder maker
  • Become a whip maker
  • Become a paper bag maker
  • Become a cord word producer
  • Become a charcoal maker
  • Become a road builder
  • Become a fisherman
  • Become a cook

Only the hand washing laundry workers that Hung Wah employed would have to choose to do one of the above. They had no other choice — just not enough money in their pocket to buy land or start a small business — but not Hung Wah. The money Hung Wah had in his pocket allowed him to have higher aspirations.

So now it’s your turn to answer the question what would you have decided to do if you were Hung Wah?

After deciding, may I suggest that you read below how one of my 2022 summer school US History students, Sasha Redshaw, answered the question.

I am Hung Wah. It is 1880, I’m 45 years old, and a few days ago my laundry business was blown up, decimated even, by unknown villians.

This cowardly act has not only left me feeling enraged but also with a million thoughts going through my head as to how to strike back at the guys who did this, anti-Chinese whites probably, but since I don’t actually know if that was the case, I won’t do anything. As for going to the authorities, there’s no point. Even if they know who did it, they wouldn’t do anything about and that’s because I’m Chinese.

Yet, there’s sunlight through the rain clouds. In other words, despite the loss of the washhouse, I am left with many fortunate options because of my current wealth status.

But then none of these options are perfect. This is due to the fact that life here in Auburn is in fact hard and demanding.

To make matters worse, the Chinese tolerance in Auburn has been diminishing exponetially. I have even heard that Congress might soon pass a law prohibiting the immigration of Chinese into the United States. Indeed this possibility is formidable, yet I want to get my life sorted out before it is too late.

The truth is that I am ready to marry and settle down in Auburn. So what am I to do?

After having given it much thought, I have decided to go back to China, but only long enough to find a wife , six months at the most, I figure. Then I want to come back to Auburn.

Once back in Auburn, I will open a lumber cutting business on the same land where the washhouse used to stand.

Then, once the lumber business has had some success, I will have some kids and build a house in either Auburn’s Chinatown or in a less populated area of Auburn. In either case, I want to live as far away from anti-Chinese whites as possible.

If the lumber business fails then I would just lease the property.

I am not too worried about the future because I am resilient — dauntless even — and no matter what happens I will figure it out and succeed.

Before submitting to me what appears below, Sasha provided me and the other students in the class with several drafts. Therefore, the above should be viewed as a collective effort, with several of the students, two, in particular, deserving special credit for some wonderful wordsmithing.

Now may I suggest that you click here, after July 15 to read how another one of my summer school US History students answered the question, assuming that she had been one of the hand washing laundry workers employed by Hung Wah, as opposed to the owner of the business.

Sidenote #1

Below are three books that I have not yet read but that have been highly recommended by those who know much about the anti-Chinese sentiment that swept through the Sierra Nevada and the rest of America in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Sidenote #2

To what extent do you agree with Bill Moyers claim (found in the introduction to his Becoming American: The Chinese Experience) that “the story . . . of the Chinese in America, isn’t just a story about Chinese-Americans . . . it’s really a story about all of us.”

Sidenote #3

To what extent do you agree with the historian who in 1965 said that “the Chinese in America have been patronized, welcomed, lynched, despised, excluded, liked, and admired, but they have been rarely understood or accepted.”

Sidenote #4

To find out what Professor Chang’s Hung Wah decided to do after the washhouse explosion, see page 336 of Chang’s book Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad.

Sidenote #5

Sidenote #6

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Peter Paccone

San Marino High School social studies teacher. Also the Community Outreach Manager for Class Companion and a member of the CB's AI in AP Advisory Committee.