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A Story of Chinese immigrants in the Old American West

Baker City Chinese Cemetery
Baker City Chinese Cemetery

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Welcome to American Mosaic in VOA Special English.


I’m Mario Ritter.

Today: Some new music from the West Coast band Wavves.

A question about a colorful bridge in Northern California.

And a mystery from the Old West concerning empty graves, a faraway homeland and long-forgotten papers.


Chinese Immigrants in the Old West

MARIO RITTER: This next story is about emptied burial places and an unmet longing for home. It begins with a box of newly discovered documents about Chinese immigrants in the Old American West. Bob Doughty has more.

BOB DOUGHTY: The documents were given to a public radio station in Portland, Oregon by someone who did not want to be identified. The documents list names, dates and places. The names are of dead Chinese immigrant workers. Most died around one hundred years ago.

The information leads to a Chinese burial place in John Day, Oregon, where workers and miners were buried. Christina Sweet works at the Kam Wah Chung State Historic Site. It shows how Chinese communities developed all over the American West more than a century ago. They grew near mining areas and fish processing centers. Now, however, most signs of the towns have disappeared.

The records also lead to a Chinese cemetery in Baker City, Oregon. However, few Chinese immigrants are still buried there. Sixty-two years ago most of the remains were dug up and shipped back to China for reburial. This was so that families could visit the graves. And to honor the traditional Chinese belief that the spirits of the dead could protect the living.

Chinese groups organized the return of Chinese remains across the West. The newly recovered documents tell about two such campaigns of return. In nineteen twenty-eight, the remains of about six hundred Chinese immigrants were shipped home. After World War Two, about six hundred more were sent back.

Rebecca Liu teaches Chinese language classes for the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. That group was responsible for raising money for the returns. Ms Liu found records for the last big campaign in Portland. She says the organization would send a request to every city and Chinese community in Oregon. She says everyone would give a few dollars.

But things went wrong with the process. A wrong body was dug up. A shipping agent was accused of wrongdoing. But the biggest problem was the civil war in China. The last shipment of remains was sent to China in nineteen forty-nine.

Ivy Lin is a documentary film maker in Portland. She wanted to know what happened to the final remains. Her search turned into a movie called “Come Together Home.”

The carefully packed box of bones was sent to a hospital in Hong Kong. But Ms. Lin said the Chinese Communist Party had closed the borders. She says the bones from the nineteen forty-nine shipment remain in Hong Kong. And Chinese people outside the country stopped sending home their dead.

Golden Gate Bridge

MARIO RITTER: Several listeners have asked about the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. It is one of the world’s most beautiful bridges. It is also one of the most visited places in the world. Vehicles cross the bridge an average of forty-one million times each year. More than one billion eight hundred million vehicles have used the bridge since it opened more than seventy years ago.

The bridge has always been painted “International Orange” because that color went well with the natural surroundings. The color also is easier to see in the heavy fog that often covers the area. But the Golden Gate Bridge was not named for its orange color. It was named for the body of water that it crosses, the Golden Gate Strait.

A Story of Chinese immigrants in the Old American West
A Story of Chinese immigrants in the Old American West

The Golden Gate Strait is the entrance to the San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean. The Golden Gate Bridge links the city of San Francisco with Marin County, California.

Planning for the bridge began in the nineteen twenties when the area around San Francisco was growing. People living in the area needed another way to get to the city besides the small ferry boats.

Joseph Strauss was the chief engineer for the project. Work began in nineteen thirty-three. Mister Strauss demanded the strongest safety protections in the history of bridge building. These included the first use of “hard hats” to protect the workers’ heads and special glasses to protect their eyes.

A special safety net was suspended under the bridge. This net saved the lives of nineteen men during the construction. However,eleven other workers were killed when they fell from the bridge through the net. Still, this was a new safety record for the time.

The Golden Gate Bridge opened in nineteen thirty-seven. It extends one thousand two hundred eighty meters across the water. The total length is two thousand seven hundred thirty-seven meters. It was the largest suspension bridge in the world until nineteen sixty-four. That is when the Verrazano Narrows Bridge opened in New York City. Today, the Golden Gate Bridge is the ninth longest suspension bridge in the world.

The chief engineer, Joseph Strauss, wrote a poem called “The Mighty Task is Done” after the Golden Gate Bridge was completed. It is written on the bridge. Here is how the poem begins:

At last the mighty task is done;

Resplendent in the western sun

The Bridge looms mountain high;

Its titan piers grip ocean floor,

Its great steel arms link shore with shore,

Its towers pierce the sky.

Wavves / "King of the Beach"

MARIO RITTER: Musician Nathan Williams formed Wavves in San Diego, California in two thousand eight. He has released an album every year. But the latest recording, “King of the Beach,” is very different. Fritzi Bodenheimer has more on Wavves and the new album.

FRITZI BODENHEIMER: “King of the Beach” represents a new sound for Wavves. The guitars are quieter and the words are often understandable. This is partly because “King of the Beach” is the first Wavves album made in a real studio.

A Story of Chinese immigrants in the Old American West
A Story of Chinese immigrants in the Old American West

Nathan Williams had some concerns about this. He said he was excited but also nervous. He worried that producer Dennis Herring might have too much control over the final sound of the songs.

But Williams says the studio process just created a better song- writing environment. Here is the album’s title cut.


Wavves also sounds different because is it now a band instead of a one-man operation. Drummer Billy Hayes and bassist Stephen Pope joined last year after meeting Nathan Williams in Barcelona, Spain. Williams had had a bad show there. He had fought on stage with a drummer he toured with. Williams later apologized online. He said he was sorry for being drunk and on drugs during his performance. Here is “Idiot” from “King of the Beach.”


Wavves are performing across western Europe right now. The group returns to the United States in August and continues its “King of the Beach” tour for several more months.

We leave you with Wavves performing “Baby Say Goodbye.”



I'm Mario Ritter. Our program was written by Tom Banse and Caty Weaver who was also the producer.

You can find transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our shows at If you have a question about American life, send an e-mail to We might answer it on this show. Please remember to tell us your name and where you live.

Join us again next week for AMERICAN MOSAIC, VOA’s radio magazine in Special English.