Fortune Cookie

There is scarcely a town on the planet that does not possess a Chinese restaurant: Ojai is no exception. Introduced to the world in the middle of the nineteenth century they represent, perhaps, the most ubiquitous cultural export from the east. The Golden Moon, firmly established on the corner of Park and E. Ojai Avenue has survived for twenty three years, weathering both the close oversight of Ventura County health inspectors (and numerous citations for unsanitary conditions) and the recent, decidedly mixed reviews on Yelp. It represents a local link to the Taishanese who first arrived on our western shores over a century and a half ago.

Taishan is an area in the Pearl River Delta in the southeastern province of Guangdong. By the mid nineteenth century, isolated by the rise of Shanghai as southern China's pre-eminent commercial center, and with an agricultural economy battered by successive droughts, Taishan's population of unemployed coolies, warehousemen, porters, money changers and subsistence farmers were desperate for economic relief: whatever financial security they achieved was daily challenged by the depredations of roaming Red Turban bandits and Taiping rebels. When word reached China that Gum Saan, (the Gold Mountain) had been discovered across the Pacific, salvation appeared to be at hand. Taishan's proximity to Hong Kong, Macau and the 'treaty ports' of Amoy and Shantou, provided the means by which dreams of migration to Gum Saan (the synecdoche by which America became known) could be achieved.

That other latter-day signifier of this migration, the Chinese Laundry, existed in Ojai at least until the 1920's - operated by Wah Lee on Ojai Avenue just to the east of the lumber yard. Chinese were also employed, at that time, in wood cutting or as domestics. Others sold vegetables from horse drawn carts. They were also responsible for the first stone walls in the east end (Early Stories of Ojai, Howard Bald, Ojai Museum).

There have been successive waves of migration into California and each has contributed to its current incarnation as a highly urbanized, technologically sophisticated and largely prosperous first world territory. It is ironic, however, that the people of the earliest migration into California, who arrived some 10-13,000 years ago, were close to extinction (achieved through the homicidal agency of Spanish, Mexican and American colonists) at the precise moment of this second Asian influx. While the earliest migrants from southern Siberia had drifted down the kelp road along the Pacific fringe and entered California when mega-fauna still roamed the grasslands to the east of the Sierra Nevada, the Taishanese arrived, a millennium or so later, to mine gold to the west.

The gold gave out even more quickly than the woolly mammoths. The boom years quickly turned into a bust. Many Chinese were then employed to lay the railroads that opened up the west to tens of thousands of east coast laborers - who blamed the 'Heathen Chinee' for the tough economic conditions they found here. The Chinese, once welcomed for their work ethic, were blamed for lowering wages and monopolizing employment opportunities. Long-held racial, cultural, and religious prejudices were unleashed and organized labor began to advocate for restrictions on the Chinese and changes in the immigration laws, culminating in the passage of The Chinese Exclusion Act by Congress in 1880. Initially enacted for a ten year period, it was amended to run in perpetuity in 1904 but was finally rescinded in 1943, just one year after FDR's Executive Order called for the internment of the 110,000 Japanese who lived along the Pacific coast.

As a political entity, California is a very recent invention. Until 1847, it was but an under-populated northern extension of Mexico. The territory fell into that country's maw following the expulsion of their erstwhile colonial overlords - the Spanish - in 1821 when on August 24, representatives of the Spanish crown and Colonel Agustin de Iturbide signed the Treaty of Cordoba, which recognized Mexican independence.

After the secularization of the missions in 1834, and the distribution of their lands as political spoils, the system of ranchos was established and California lapsed into a golden age (for some). Still under Mexican sovereignty, but in reality controlled by a network of land-rich Dons, it was a a time of "prodigal existence, generous and unheeding" ......where, "Everyone was connected by blood or baptismal relationships...families met for three meals a day, and there were mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks..and no child went uncared for" (California, A History, Kevin Starr, 2005). Upon the existence of this 1% was established that enduring Californian mythology, the 'Romance of the Ranchos'.

The eventual American conquest of California unfolded in a series of events that would play well as Opera Bouffe. It was ultimately effected in 1847 when, almost independently of the wider Mexican American War of 1846 - 1848 it fell, like a ripe peach onto ground which had been pre-ordained as American by such acts of philosophical sophistry as 'Manifest Destiny' (propounded by Senator Thomas Hart Benton) and Lyman Beecher's Plea for the West (1835). Lightly defended by Mexico, and populated by Californios favorably inclined towards the United States, the territory was inevitably ceded to an imperial power intent on becoming a continental nation, from sea to shining sea.

The discovery of gold the following year at Sutters Mill enfolded this geographically remote region into relations with the rest of the world. While it was to be expected that covered wagons would trek overland from the east in ever increasing numbers to share in the natural bounty of the state, it was gold that opened it up to Asia. The Spanish quest for El Dorado had been Americanized.

Yet America was never more than the sum of its immigrants: California, even before it achieved statehood in 1850, established itself as home to Mexicans, Central and South Americans, Europeans, Asians and anglo-Americans and over time, despite egregious lapses in the consistent application of civil liberties it now shines its golden light on both the 99 billionaires who claim residence here and, not coincidentally, a higher proportion of immigrants than any other state. 90% of its immigrants are from Latin America (55%) or Asia (35%) and the State (where the modern fortune cookie was invented in 1908) continues to be, despite a difficult economy, the leading destination for immigrants into the United States.

Our Gold Mountain is now a reputation as the global epicenter of high-tech, entertainment and entrepreneurial hutzpah.