In the footsteps of the Gold Rush-era Chinese who sailed across the Pacific and landed on Gam Saan (Gold Mountain in Cantonese), members of the local Chinese community recently gathered at a new hiking trail in California State Park near the site the James W. Marshall Spot of Gold discovered gold in 1948, about 36 miles up the American River from Sacramento.
Led by California State Parks, new signage at the beginning of the trail conveys the message: “News of the California gold discovery began in Coloma and spread to China.
Tens of thousands of Chinese came here to seek their fortune and started calling California “Gam Saan”. Despite facing severe racism, Chinese continue to contribute to America’s rich and diverse fabric through their resilience and ability to adapt to change. This section of the trail is called the Gam Saan Trail in honor of those seeking Gold Mountain.”
While the 2.5-mile trail is now over a year old, as early as February, members of the Davis Chapter of the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association ministered to UC Davis and Yolo County; The Locke Foundation, the Chinese Benevolent Association, and the APAPA Delta Chapter honored their ancestors with a Ching Ming festival that included visiting and sweeping ancestral tombs. Aaron Wedra, Mary Yin Liu and Alan Wei represented the Davis APAPA Chapter, which is chaired by former Mayor Ruth Asmundson and Carla Datanagan is the chapter president.
The “feng shui” landscape of Gam Saan near Coloma and Lotus leaned towards the setting sun on the American River and was idyllic for those who perished there during the gold rush era. Since it was believed that their souls would not find rest after their deaths until they received a proper burial in China, the bodies were buried in graves for later exhumation.
California State Parks created the Through Our Reexamining Our Past initiative to make some of the stories they told more inclusive and accessible, and China’s mining history was one that we felt needed a bit more understanding and interpretation required, he explains to Steve Hilton, manager of the California State Parks cultural resource program.
“We also look at the experiences of Black people, Native Americans and everyone else that isn’t in mainstream literature, especially when it comes to things like the gold rush,” Hilton said. “We feel like the world has come and we say everyone came to Marshall for gold, so we see this as an opportunity to expand on all of these stories.”
The Gam Saan Trail meanders through dense oak forests, poison oaks and blackberry bushes – natural deterrents that obscure the exact location of the exhumed graves and tempt people to stay on the trail.
Hilton said when the burial site was first identified, even archaeologists who studied it in the ’80s didn’t know exactly what it was. State parks only encountered it between 2007 and 2008. “We didn’t know exactly what we were seeing, but then we did a little more research,” he said. They were able to identify this area, which contains about 30 exhumed graves.
Before the trail was laid, state parks had three or four forensic dogs sniff out the soft tissue debris that ended up in the ground.
According to a State Parks press release on the Gam Saan Trail, research and a 1991 historical report for a property sale in the area uncovered that a Chinese miner named Toy Kee bought a few acres in the nearby project area in 1875 for a $55 gold coin. A few years later, in 1881, the Lin Hing and Man Lee companies bought more land and operated businesses, shops, a bank, and mining companies in the area from the 1870s to the early 20th century.
According to state parks, the Man Lee Building and the Wah Hop Store, once leased to a Chinese merchant of that name, are the only two remaining buildings used by the Chinese and now preserved in Marshall Gold Park, exhibits on gold mining techniques and merchandise.
In April, Douglas Hsia, president of the Locke Foundation, said the Wah Hop Store “got its first taste of a Chinese lecturer telling his story.” As the lecturer Hsia says, his opening speech is: “The real gold mine consists in selling provisions to the gold miners. You are entering the gold mine of gold mines.”
As Hsia notes from the park, there is the Monroe Ridge Trail, which connects to the Gam Saan Trail on the other side of the hill. “We will construct a continuous story from Coloma to Lotus to the American River.”
“We really appreciate the time and care shown by the Department of Culture at California State Parks,” said Mary Liu, President of Davis-based APAPA. “And we felt it was a really heartfelt and moving ceremony because our community was really struggling to find identity and recognition for our contributions.”
According to State Parks’ Marshall Gold Discovery Park brochure, about 50 Chinese miners in Coloma were “so efficient at prospecting for gold that other miners complained of a Chinese invasion.” Hostilities among miners helped trigger discriminatory taxes and laws, which were only enforced against foreign miners with a migration background.”
Hsia said the Chinese miners don’t consider themselves immigrants. “They saw themselves as people who came here for gold, so they always said they would go back to their village. So when they die, they want the remains to go back to China.”
As part of the Ching Ming ceremony, Liu said they marked the area with red lanterns. “And we brought our brooms, rakes and shovels to clean and sweep the area and just clipped the brushes without sacrificing a very natural look.” She said Marcus Marino was also present at the special gathering and Adrienne Fortini of Design M Group, who built a train carriage for this year’s Chinese New Year parade in San Francisco. The train was constructed as a scale replica of the 1869 Jupiter train built by many Chinese immigrants.
Hilton said the path was laid out in a curvilinear direction to ensure the safety of the tombs, as part of the belief system is that if the spirits don’t return to China, they could have an impact on Gam Saan residents. “We have cleaned up the trail and grounds and paid that respect, but have taken no action to reveal the actual burial sites.”
He said Chinese are coming to California with their own cutlery and bowls, some of which may have been in the graves before being exhumed. “We were aware of that. However, we didn’t find anything about it. There’s broken glass and broken pottery over there. And I don’t know if they came from the tombs, but they were near the tomb.”
Before the Ching Ming Festival, Hsia managed to correct the coordinates of Gam Saan Trail on Google Map, so those who rely on the website can now find the trail more easily.
“The idea is to do more promotion so people visit Gam Saan Trail organically. So we’re going to keep doing this (Ching Ming Festival) for another three, four or five years, not indefinitely. It’s nice for me and the Chinese to have a place to call home, so that’s the story.”
The Gam Saan Trail is located at 950 Lotus Road in Lotus.
In March, Davis recognized Mary Liu as Woman of the Year for California Assembly District 9 in honor of Women’s History Month. According to an APAPA press release, she and her husband Harris are lifelong entrepreneurs and successful franchisees in Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties. “Her parents, CC and Regina Yin, immigrants from mainland China and Taiwan, opened their first McDonald’s in Oakland. Three decades later, the family empire has expanded to three counties, including more than 21 restaurants. Her team members donate over 18,000 meals a year to local shelters that support families in need.”