On Friday morning, Henry Yu provided the final keynote lecture at the New Zealand Historical Association conference. Yu’s lecture title was, “The Cantonese Pacific: Anti-Asian Politics, and the Making and Unmaking of White Settler Nations.” Yu talked about the 19th century Chinese migrants specific to the social history of ideas. He explained the notion of Gum San, the namesake that Cantonese migrant gold workers gave to the places they imagined themselves eventually arriving at. Gum San signified an idea rather than a place, and they would travel to these goldfields with the psyche of making it: before we can act, we must first have an idea of action. In some cases the workers returned to their homelands, or their villages, ideally with money that allotted them control over their own destinies. In other cases they always envisioned returning, but remained in their non-homeland locales throughout New Zealand, Australia, and North America. It was great to hear Yu talk about all of this.
Yu’s work fills in large gaps in Pacific and world history, and I thought about at least four things during his talk. The first had to do with the Chinese graves that I remembered visiting a couple years ago while in Deadwood, South Dakota, this of the early Chinese gold miners and service industry workers in the Black Hills. The second has to do with the Chinese labor force that built large segments of the railroad throughout the American West. The third had to do with analogies to contemporary migrant workers entering the business of mineral extraction in western North Dakota. And the fourth had to do with how much easier it was for a migrant laborer to travel across national and imperial boundaries before the nation-state created elaborate bureaucracies to inhibit this (largely in the name of race and nation, at least by the turn of the 20th century).
But I don’t have much time to digress on all of this because I need to get over to the Settlers Museum in Dunedin.