This episode addresses one of the most important and neglected aspects of early Chinese immigrants’ experience in California.
Relations between Chinese immigrants and their Anglo counterparts were not always hostile. Despite the fact that there were few women in California when Chinese men started arriving, sometimes relationships would form. The only references to such relationships that we have in the primary sources have to do with the Anglo establishment’s attempts to prevent them. Some examples include rhetoric associating Chinese men with drug use and debauchery.
Sources from the early 20th century show that white women who married Asian men would lose their citizenship and become social outcasts. However, prior to the Chinese exclusion act of 1882, sources are scarce. Because of this, our writer, Micah Huang, turned to popular fiction accounts from the time in order to get a sense of what these characters’ experience might have been.
The most compelling story of this kind that Micah was able to find was “Poor Ah Toy” by Mary Mote published circa 1870.
Poor Ah Toy tells the story of a Chinese man who is hired as a servant by a white woman named Fanny Siddons. Over the course of the story, it becomes clear that Ah Toy has fallen in love with Fanny. Eventually she gets engaged to a white man named Jeremiah Ward, whom Ah Toy confronts, prompting Fanny to fire him. At the end of the story, Ah Toy hangs himself. Fanny marries Ward but continues to visit Ah Toy’s grave for the rest of her life.
The events in this story are informed by the sensibilities and constraints under which white women authors at the time were operating. On the face of it, it is a cautionary tale about what happens when non-white servants forget their place. However, there are sub-textual clues to a deeper, darker meaning. First off, the use of the word “Toy” in the titular character’s name is not coincidental. While it would have been totally unacceptable for a white author (especially a woman) to explicitly refer to sexual contact between a white woman and a Chinese man, the events in the story suggest and evoke a secret or “illicit” sexual relationship between Fanny and Ah Toy.
The power dynamic between the two characters is an inversion of standard portrayals of male/female relations in American popular literature at the time; a quiet rebellion on the part of Mary Mote which is reflected in Ah Toy’s name and the fact that he is ultimately disposed of like a used plaything. His defiance and Fanny’s ultimate penitence represent a nod to the impossibility of his situation–something to which Mote’s female readers might have been able to relate in 19th century America.
When Micah encountered Mary Mote’s story during his research, he was immediately struck by the similarity between the names Ah Toy and Ah Choy. This was reinforced by the frequency with which Anglo people mispronounce Chinese names. Micah began thinking about what kind of woman would be a fitting romantic partner for a character like Ah Choy, and he arrived at an archetypal romance-on-the-edge, something along the lines of Romeo and Juliet or Bonnie and Clyde. The Wild-West setting lends itself to a particular kind of hard-bitten romance, and Micah was aware of the substantial parallels between the situations endured by Chinese men and white women in America from the 1850s to the present day.
Slowly, the story began to take shape. Micah found himself engaging with the material from “Poor Ah Toy” in a way that was equal parts re-telling and reclamation. He felt that the author Mary Mote had crossed over into forbidden territory, even if only in the realm of imagination. Here was a real woman from the time in which the story is set who on some level committed herself to this type of forbidden love, and Micah found himself reaching out, invoking her spirit, and letting it merge with his narrative voice to drive the story. As a result, the character of The Widow shares the names both of the author and of her creation, Fanny Siddons. Ah Toy became her Southern-accented mispronunciation of Ah Choy’s name. The Widow’s backstory and personality were driven by the spirit with whom Micah connected for this episode. On Micah’s end, they are a testament both to the tremendous hardships endured by women in the über-patriarchal American West and to the resilience that so many women showed in the face of that oppression. In this way, and others, Mary and Ah Choy are truly two of a kind.
In the original story, Jeremiah Ward represents Fanny’s re-entry into white society after her forbidden liaison. The Widow has no desire to follow that path. Instead, our version of Jeremiah Ward is a controlling, entitled, patriarchal figure who seeks to draw her back to Anglo society by force. As to the conclusion of the star-crossed romance? I guess you’ll just have to listen to the episode and see.
If you have questions, thoughts, your own family stories, or historical context to share, please send us a message at @bloodongoldmountain on Facebook or Instagram.