Poems consider historic injustice in Hells Canyon

By Barbara Lloyd McMichael

For The Bellingham Herald

“Gone to Gold Mountain” by Peter Ludwin

In 2009, this column covered “Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon,” a nonfiction book by Oregon author R. Gregory Nokes that exposed a shameful 1887 incident that had been covered over and nearly forgotten.

That work had a profound impact on another writer, Kent poet Peter Ludwin, who responded with an array of poems that over the years have found their way into more than a dozen journals, including the prestigious Prairie Schooner, Floating Bridge Review, and The Comstock Review.

Now these pieces have been gathered together in one volume and published by MoonPath Press. “Gone to Gold Mountain” retells the story of Chea Po and his fellow Chinese immigrants, who came to America to try to make their fortunes, but whose dream of returning to their families in China was denied by a band of pioneer thugs.

In the book’s prologue, a poem written in the form of a letter from Chea Po to his wife back in China, he deplores his situation on a roughshod frontier run by white men (gweilo):

Despised by gweilo

who once sought our labor,

we linger like dogs

on the edge of camp, desperate

for a scrap.

The poems in the first section of this volume convey Chea Po’s hopes as he leaves his family to travel overseas to try his luck at the American Dream, or Gum Shan – Gold Mountain. But those hopes are soon dashed, and life (“… reduced to heat and cold, / labor and solitude”) becomes a bitter fight for subsistence, only partially assuaged by the opium pipe and coarse jokes cracked by Chea Po’s colleagues.

The chilling epigraph that precedes the second section of this book foretells the trauma to come. It is the remark – ironically and tragically heedless – that was made in 1885 by U.S. territorial Judge A. Heed: “There is nothing that can be said in favor of the Chinese. We must get rid of them.”

The Chinese Expulsion Act was passed by Congress in 1882, and racist sentiments like these were not uncommon. They gave rise to terrible acts of brutality throughout the West – white mobs descended upon Chinese communities in Washington, Idaho, California, Wyoming and elsewhere – attacking, robbing, and murdering the residents, and setting fire to their communities.

In May 1887, the xenophilic fury caught up with the Chinese miners in Hells Canyon, where a gang of local white men ambushed Chea Po and the rest. The victim count has never been precisely determined – may have been as many as 34 miners who were brutally killed.

Powerfully and lyrically, Ludwin’s poems consider different fragments of this travesty – from the wife’s futile wish for her husband’s return to Chea Po’s story of grinding work and dashed hopes to the machinations of a court whose operatives scuttled to provide justification, rather than justice.

“Gone to Gold Mountain” strives to weave poetic flesh onto history’s bare bones, and it serves as a reminder that now, as then, xenophobia can have terrible consequences.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.