Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication Date: July 7, 2015
The smallest items can hold centuries of secrets...
Inara Erickson is exploring her deceased aunt's island estate when she finds an elaborately stitched piece of fabric hidden in the house. As she peels back layer upon layer of the secrets it holds, Inara's life becomes interwoven with that of Mei Lein, a young Chinese girl mysteriously driven from her home a century before. Through the stories Mei Lein tells in silk, Inara uncovers a tragic truth that will shake her family to its core — and force her to make an impossible choice.
Inspired by true events, Kelli Estes's brilliant and atmospheric debut serves as a poignant tale of two women determined to do the right thing, and the power of our own stories.
Guest Post From Kelli Estes:In The Girl Who Wrote in Silk I tell about a young Chinese-American woman who is driven out of Seattle along with all the other Chinese in a mob-fueled ethnic cleansing. This event was inspired by one that really did happen on February 7, 1886 and was just one of hundreds of acts of violence toward Chinese people in the last half of the 19th century in the western United States.
Chinese laborers, like most immigrants, came to the U.S. in search of wealth. They came mostly from the Toisan district of China that was experiencing great economic depression. In the U.S. they sought the gold rush legend of Gim San or “Gold Mountain.” They spread throughout the west taking jobs in mines, fish canneries, logging companies, railroads, farms, and private homes as well as starting their own businesses. With customs, language, speech and dress all so very foreign from that of the people of European descent in these communities, great distrust, fear, and suspicion grew towards the Chinese. Chief among the complaints against them was that the laborers were sending all of their wages back home to China rather than investing in the local economy. The Chinese laborers also worked very hard for half the wage that other ethnic groups earned, thus causing the complaint that they were taking away all the jobs. It wasn’t just the communities who turned on the Chinese people. The U.S. government did as well.
The Civil Rights Act and the Page Act of 1875 removed the right of Chinese immigrants to ever become citizens and banned the immigration of most Chinese women. Caucasian immigrants, such as the Irish, were allowed naturalization. Ethnic tensions grew. Stories spread through the West of communities putting into practice intimidation and segregation. Taking cues from the Black Codes of the Reconstruction South and the Ku Klux Klan, communities put into place local ordinances against Chinese immigrants leaving them with few defenses against employers who acted both inside and outside the judicial system. For example, overseers could legally whip both their Chinese and black employees. It was not uncommon for the Chinese to receive threatening anonymous letters or be the victims of violent night raids and arson.
In the spring of 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Chester A. Arthur, becoming the first immigration measure in the nation’s history to discriminate against a specific ethnic group. This act provided a 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration. Only a few non-laborers such as merchants could still immigrate, though it was very difficult for them to prove they were not laborers because the act defined those excluded as “skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining.” The act also placed new requirements on Chinese already in the U.S. If they left the country they had to obtain certifications to re-enter, which often proved difficult to obtain. State and Federal courts no longer had the right to grant citizenship to Chinese resident aliens, though they could deport them.
In 1892 when the ten years expired, Congress extended it for another ten years with the Geary Act which was then made permanent in 1902, adding the further restriction of requiring all Chinese residents to register and obtain a certificate of residence or face deportation. In 1943 Congress repealed the exclusion acts but left in place a limit of only 105 Chinese immigrants per year. Finally with the Immigration Act of 1965, the specific limits on immigrants from China was finally eased.
It was during the last half of the 19th century when communities all over the West tried to drive out the Chinese, often by force. In 1880 the California towns of Roseville, Rocklin, and Garberville drove out all Chinese residents. The Chinese section of Auburn, CA burned to the ground. In Denver, CO the Chinatown was gutted and one man died from “compression of the brain.” In 1882 a Stockton, CA woolen mill fired longtime Chinese employees and replaced them with young white girls. The Chinatowns in Diamondville and Dutch Flats, CA were torched. In 1884-85 the much-publicized expulsions of Chinese from Eureka, Arcata, and Tacoma (WA) ignited more expulsions in Riverside, Santa Cruz, Stockton, Napa, San Buenaventura, Tulare, Antioch, Wheatland, Bloomfield, Sonora, Sumner (WA), and East Portland (OR). In Rock Springs, Wyoming gangs of British and Swedish miners attacked Chinese miners, instantly killing 28 and wounding 15, some of whom later died. Hundreds more were driven into the desert. As the Chinese homes and bunkhouses were burned, the bodies of the dead and wounded were thrown into the flames. In Squak Valley (Issaquah), WA, a band of white and Native American farmworkers who were angry at the Chinese hop pickers because they earned higher wages fired into their tents and murdered three Chinese men.
The violence continued in 1886 in Seattle, Wichita, Bloomfield (CA), Carson, Petaluma, and many more towns. An entire railroad crew of 30 Chinese men working in Lincoln, CA were “spirited away” and never found. At Anderson, CA a Chinese man was beaten to death. In Olympia, WA a mob attacked Chinese residents and seized their houses. Near Stockton a Chinese fisherman was murdered in his boat and left to drift out to sea. In 1887 thirty-one Chinese miners were slaughtered in the Snake River massacre at Hell’s Canyon along Oregon’s Columbia River by a gang of white farmers and schoolboys.
The violence and hatred was widespread and horrific. Can you imagine the terror these people felt? All they were doing was trying to make a living, just like everyone else, and they were hated because of where they came from. I was shocked to learn all of this when researching for The Girl Who Wrote in Silk. I’ve lived in the West my whole life. Why wasn’t this taught in schools?
But the bigger question is this: Why don’t we as a nation, even today, remember that “all men [and women] are created equal”?