- Chinese in the Woods: Logging and Lumbering in the American West by Sue Fawn Chung
Reading Sue Fawn Chung’s Chinese in the Woods: Logging and Lumbering in the American West, I was reminded for the first time in decades of my family road trip from San Francisco to Eureka, California. In Eureka, an old logging town, I recall eating too much at the Samoa Cookhouse with its long tables and family-style meals. (In fact, I did not remember the exact name, but a quick Google search found it.) However, I cannot imagine (and do not remember) any representations of Chinese workers on the walls in this now tourist-focused cookhouse.
In her new book, Chung reinserts Chinese workers into this western landscape, and she makes a case for the importance of the nineteenth-century lumber industry, which can be overshadowed by railroads and mining. Chung argues that Chinese workers participated in every aspect of the timber industry. She also argues that compared to Chinese workers in other sectors, Chinese lumber workers could earn relatively high salaries, sometimes even equal to those of their white counterparts. She writes that “the Chinese in the woods could afford better dishware than the [Chinese] miners and railroad workers and in some cases may have had better living quarters and, contrary to popular literature were involved in all stages of lumbering” (14).
There are no written sources by Chinese workers in the lumber industry. Chung is up front about this methodological challenge, and she expresses the difficulty of writing about a subject with so few records. She starts off by saying, “Little is known about the Chinese working in the woods, a crucial but ephemeral occupation in the history of the American West, because the men and their employers wrote little or nothing about what transpired” (1). Given this dearth of sources, she draws on archeological findings to assist her in recreating the Chinese community through the material evidence left behind. Chung also mines census data, but despite its painstaking nature, this foray does not add much new analytic heft other than demonstrating that there were many Chinese workers in the industry. In the end, much of the written evidence comes from English-language California newspapers, which document the anti-Chinese movement.
The book is divided into five chapters. The first chapter is largely an overview of early Chinese migration to California, which will be familiar to US historians and Asian American specialists alike, and chapter 2 describes the conditions of a logging camp. Chapter 3 zeroes in on Truckee, California (near Lake Tahoe), and recounts the anti-Chinese “Truckee method” of excluding Chinese workers (117). Rather than the violence that was prolific in the West, the Truckee method relied on boycotting businesses that employed Chinese labor in order to purge Chinese from the logging industry at large. The final chapters examine the importance of logging in mining and in the [End Page 95] development of the railroad. The book is a bit repetitive and would have benefited from greater narrative streamlining.
One of the book’s strengths is its detailed account of the dangers specific to the logging industry. Chung writes about the multistep process from cutting cords of wood to managing the flumes, which directed the logs downriver. Chung also notes that from the 1860s through the 1880s, Chinese workers “constituted 70 to 100% of the workers in some parts of the forests of the American West,” and in Truckee, they made up 59 percent of the town’s laborers and 39 percent of the total workforce (51, 110). These numbers alone are striking.
Despite the promising topic, Chung’s book misses the mark in a few areas. First, there’s ample room for a more nuanced gender analysis. Much of the literature on nineteenth-century Asian American history, and Chinese American history in particular, looks at Chinese workers’ feminized work in restaurants and laundries and as servants. In contrast, few professions could be more publicly masculine than that of...