#132 David Wong’s Escape to Gold Mountain: A Graphic Novel in the History Classroom?

As a librarian in a predominantly international college, I’m often tasked with the doubly challenging problem of trying to get our student body, mostly in their late teens / early twenties, to read co-curricular texts both for recreational purposes and for research to ultimately wind up in their essays. When asking them what they’re interested in for my semesterly book order, I’m typically met with blank stares – firstly, recreational reading in a language they’re just coming to terms with is challenging enough. Moreover, they’re twenty, so the idea of reading anything of length in any language is generally anathema to where they’re at in their lives.

Enter the graphic novel. I’ve recently built up our collection to include classics such as Sandman, Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns and the like (and yes, Brenna, I just bought and catalogued all six Scott Pilgrim books). Moreover, based on student recommendations I’ve purchased several manga texts, from Doraemon to Fullmetal Alchemist to Naruto, all of which have been flying off the shelves. As we’ve gone over at length on Graphixia (and as what could be considered the founding principle argument of the site), there’s something compelling about words juxtaposed with images that acts as a gateway for reading and literary analysis, making graphic narratives a useful inclusion in any academic space. I was still stuck, however, when it came to secondary research material for classroom projects and essays, until I was recommended an excellent (and locally produced by Vancouver’s own Arsenal Pulp) text by one of our History instructors, serendipitously on a topic that jibes quite well with our particular group of students.

Escape to Gold Mountain, written and drawn by David H.T. Wong, is a pseudo-historical account of several generations of a Chinese family who made their way to Canada during the nineteenth century and the trials that they faced while establishing a place in their new world – “Gold Mountain,” in Chinese Gam Saan, was their name for North America. A little like Forrest Gump, the text oscillates between relating real historical people (e.g. Sun Yat Sen, Emily Carr) and events contextualized through the emotional responses of fictional characters who lived through them, in this case literally putting faces on the travesties of exclusion, abuse, exploitation and sometimes wholesale slaughter of early Asian migrants to Canada and the United States. Throughout the narrative, we are presented with the construction of the railway, facsimiles of posters meant to engender hatred towards the Chinese, quotations from interviews and historical documents such as America’s 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (and Canada’s own 1923 Chinese Immigration Act) and genuine, cited accounts of the atrocities committed over the past two centuries. Covering information ranging from the establishment of the Head Tax (along with its particulars) all the way through to Canada’s very recent mea culpa for the blatant racism in the nation’s collective past, the text makes for a highly useful and practical summative reading of the adversity that Chinese Canadians have faced over the years – a very useful inclusion in any history class.

But such textbooks already exist, albeit in regular, words without pictures format. Why choose to offer this information as a graphic novel? What is compelling about Wong’s work is not only the emotional family story that is interwoven throughout its historical accounts, but the fact that through the detailed architecture of the cityscapes, the anguish on his character’s faces, the sheer scope of the projects undertaken by migrant workers presented visually we are far more bound to the history than simple text can allow for. It is hardly an easy text, packed with detailed information throughout, but like a good historical film the visual nature of its expression situates the past within the present and makes the characters and events accessible from both an academic as well as a personal perspective. When the destruction of Nanking in 1937 is discussed, it is framed through one of the novel’s several protagonists, Gee-Mun, who is denied the right to bring his family into Canada because of the Immigration Act. Seeing the horror in his expression, the blackened panels as he prays for their safety (and ultimately learns of their deaths), Wong takes every advantage of the medium to allow us to experience the real, ontological history of the event as expressed through the sympathy we bear for these characters. Escape to Gold Mountain is rife with these moments of history juxtaposed with personal suffering, and manifested visually, it literally draws us in to the cultural moment. As Imogene Lim notes, “this format allows the reader to visualize individuals as … your relatives, your neighbors … there are no caricatures of the slant-eyed, buck toothed, or conical hatted individuals that have been frequently used to stereotype Asians; in Wong’s drawings we see real people” (14).

The history of race relations in Canada, as it is everywhere, is already graphic in nature – it is violent, fraught with suffering and tragedy, and is typically glossed by way of apologias and modern revisions to government policies that seem to speciously negate any explorations of the troubling nature of the West’s collective past. Presenting such a controversial subject in this medium does double service to its topic in that provides an entrypoint for those new to the history (or even to those new to reading in English), while it also recontextualizes the static, sedate details of historical documents for those overly familiar with the subject already. In any other medium, Escape to Gold Mountain would be categorized as historical fiction. In comics, we don’t see many of these types of texts that straddle the academic and the personal (though Lutes’ Berlin is an excellent example of the form), so it allows for a humanizing of the subject without a typical categorization of “fiction” that would mark it as unfit for scholarly research (a nerdy librarian sidenote: its Library of Congress call number begins with FC instead of PN, placing it on the Canadian History shelf instead of beside Graphic Novels). The text is a hybrid, containing fictional characters while being well referenced and endnoted for those wishing to either validate its claims or pursue further study, and more than any other text I’ve encountered shows what the graphic novel is capable of in terms of reaching outside of the English department to complement research in other disciplines. Escape to Gold Mountain has certainly found a welcome home on my library’s shelves, and I can only hope that more graphic novels demonstrating a similar willingness to defy expectations of traditional History textbooks will follow in its wake.  

Work Cited

Wong, David H.T. Escape to Gold Mountain: A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America. Vancouver: Aresenal Pulp Press, 2012.


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