No ‘celestials’ in Aspen |

No ‘celestials’ in Aspen

Forty years ago, while I was driving between California and Colorado with a college chum, our stomachs chimed “time for food.” My friend pitched stopping for Chinese, a challenge in rural Utah since Aspen’s most exotic restaurant, The House of Lum, was a culinary anomaly east of San Francisco. Even though he had not traveled the route before, my friend assured me we would find Chinese and we did. His family had come to America along with thousands of other Chinese immigrants who had been recruited to build the transcontinental railroad. He knew that immigrants had stayed along the route after the construction ended, and some of them opened restaurants.

Chinese immigrants, referred to as “celestials” in the 19th-century West, were common along railroad routes as well as in California’s gold mining communities. Towns were segregated; European ethnic groups clung together for comfort and the Chinese were often isolated by prejudice. The reception of Chinese immigrants of the 19th century in the West reads like contemporary immigrant-bashing.

Chinese laborers, competing against waves of European immigrants, banded together to eke out a living at even lower wages. Some worked as domestic servants and others filled the niche business of laundries. They operated businesses that served mostly other Chinese immigrants. As for most who came to California, gold mining beckoned. In the face of prejudice, they were forced to rework the claims that had been abandoned by others. The arrival of Chinese miners signaled that a town’s resources had already become depleted.

The California gold rush preceded Colorado’s silver mining boom and pre-poisoned the arrival of Chinese miners there. As Colorado historian Duane Smith writes, “A disgraceful thread of violence against the Chinese runs though Colorado mining history.”

Aspen blatantly banned the Chinese. One of the first incidents occurred in 1884 when the first celestial arrived. He was immediately met with intolerance and given a ticket to leave town on the next stage. Throughout the decade beginning in 1886, Aspenites were deluged with anti-Chinese commentary by local newspaper editors.

Nationally, especially in Oregon, Montana and Colorado, anti-immigrant fervor was directed mostly at the Chinese. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1892 banned their immigration for 10 years and denied citizenship for any already here. In the same year the Geary Act required Chinese to carry a resident permit; any caught without one were deported. Habeas corpus was also denied. Zealots demanded that President Cleveland be impeached for not aggressively enforcing these laws.

Fear of smallpox and use of opium, along with unions’ fears of low wages, pushed communities to violence. Miners in Butte, Mont., boycotted Chinese businesses and forced landlords to raise the rents of Chinese tenants until they fled. Chinese homes and businesses were frequently set afire in western towns.

You would have thought that all of the 150,000 Chinese in the country at the time were descending on Aspen, had you read the rantings of Aspen Times editor B. Clark Wheeler. Frequently he suggested they go somewhere other than the West, “Why would it not be a good scheme to induce the Chinese to move into the southern states? People down there do not object to cheap labor, and the Chinese would take the place of the emigrating darkies.”

Aspen’s zany period of xenophobia screams from the newspapers of a century ago. The anonymous stories of those who were banned from Aspen are as historically and morally noteworthy as the stories of those who settled our city.

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