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Tales of early Chinesae recaptured in storytelling event

By: Gloria Beverage, Gold Country News Service
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By Gloria Beverage Gold Country News Service In the children’s party game, “Telephone,” the first player whispers a phrase or sentence to the player seated next to her. Each player then whispers what he believes he heard to the next person. The last player announces the statement to the entire group. The final statement is usually quite different from the phrase uttered at the beginning. As far as Rene Yung is concerned, the game, also known as “Chinese Whispers,” is a metaphor for the oral history of early Chinese immigrants in the American West. “Between 1865 and 1869, over 15,000 Chinese worked on the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, but there is scant record about them and they have mostly been forgotten as individuals,” Yung explained. A San Francisco-based artist, designer and writer, Yung prefers to tackle the hidden and overlooked social and cultural issues. “I like to find the core of the issue – to find different layers and pieces that connect to it,” she continued. For the past couple of years, she has been doing research on those immigrants and their descendants. “It’s a project that started a few years ago,” recalled Yung. “I had been invited by a center in Idaho to do an art installation about the Chinese who had worked on the railroad and mined there.” Although Yung admits she knew nothing of the Chinese in the area, her research found an alarming lack of historical documentation. “People started telling me stories they had heard,” she said. “They were really interesting.” After the project was completed, Yung turned to the history of the Chinese in San Francisco. That’s when she learned a significant number of Chinese had been recruited to work on the Transcontinental Railroad in the Sierra, including the historic Cape Horn route through Colfax. At that point, Yung began making trips to the foothills to talk with Chinese families in the area. She was seeking folks willing to share their memories during a community storytelling event, which will be held Sunday, Aug. 16 at the Tower Theater in Roseville. “I’ve been put in touch with an amazing range of wonderful people – up as far as Alta,” she said. “It’s fascinating how people’s lives went from the railroad to agriculture to gold mining to service to people.” A native of Hong Kong, Yung has since gathered several storytellers, including Auburn resident Richard Yue, who was instrumental in recreating Auburn’s Joss House and members of the Wong Family from Loomis as well as proxy storytellers. Just like the children’s game, the stories often contradict each other. “What my project set out to do is not to prove a point,” she said. “The intent of the project is to share interesting stories in the vernacular –- to present the memories as handed down over the generations.” Yung feels strongly that the history of this community is disappearing, thus the reason for the storytelling event. “I want to share it and keep it alive,” she said. “Chinese Whispers: Sierra Stories” is being offered in cooperation with PlacerArts and was made possible in part by a grant from the California Council for the Humanities. Chinease Whispers: Sierra Stories plays on August 16th, from 2:30 to 4 at Roseville's Tower Theatre, 421 Vernon St.m Roseville. Call 885-5670 for info.