American Wizards

In H. W. Brand’s excellent book American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900he retells this story from Lee Chew, “The Life Story of a Chinaman” (in the collection The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans, as Told by Themselves, pp. 178-179). The moral of the story is that technology matters, and differences in per capita income matter.   

Even more compelling than letters were the actions of emigrants who returned home. Lee Chew grew up on a farm near Canton during the 1860s. Some of the neighbors had left for California, but Lee Chew’s father wished to keep him home and so told him stories of what “foreign devils” the Americans were. They were powerful, with great fire-belching ships and a kind of sorcery that allowed them to light the darkest night and communicate over long distances, but they lacked anything that passed for civilization. Their language was barbaric, they practiced all manner of violence, and they disrespected their ancestors. No correct-thinking Chinese should wish to go to America. Lee Chew had little reason to doubt his father, and he resigned himself to life as a Chinese farmer–until new evidence surfaced.

I was about sixteen years of age when a man of our tribe came back from America and took ground as large as four city blocks and made paradise of it. He put a large stone wall around and led some streams through and built a palace and summer house and about twenty other structures, with beautiful bridges over the streams and walks and roads. Trees and flowers, singing birds, water fowl and curious animals were within the walls. … When his palace and grounds were completed he gave a dinner to all the people, who assembled to be his guests. One hundred pigs roasted whole were served on the tables, with chickens, ducks, geese and such an abundance of dainties that our villagers even now lick their fingers when they think of it. He had the best actors from Hong Kong performing, and every musician for miles around was playing and singing. At night the blaze of lanterns could be seen for miles.

The lesson was lost on no one there, least of all Chew.

The man had gone away from our village a poor boy. Now he returned with unlimited wealth, which he had obtained in the country of the American wizards. … The wealth of this man filled my mind with the idea that I, too, would like to go to the country of the wizards and gain some of their wealth.