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On Silver Mountain

Written by: Jessica Escobar
Edited by: Ron and Susan James and Sue Fawn Chung
For Chinese and Spanish translations of this text, please contact Jessica Escobar (jescobar@tmcc.edu)

Virginia City was one of the largest communities west of the Mississippi. People settled there from all over the world, but we do not always give enough credit to each of the various groups as we form our image of the Old West. Among the people who helped build Virginia City were Chinese immigrants, arriving with the dream of improving their lives. Virginia City in its heyday had one of the largest concentrations of Chinese in Nevada, and their many crucial contributions continue to echo to this day. Without them, the Comstock would have been a very different place. This exhibit honors all of the Chinese who struggled to make a better life for themselves, leaving indelible footprints in the sands of Nevada history.

Chinese Immigration in Nevada
A Brief Overview

Chinese immigrants were a key segment of Nevada’s past economy, development and social landscape. Despite facing intense racism and hostility, people who had left their native China searched for a chance to better their lives with the new employment opportunities in the United States. Most planned to make money and return in a few years to families waiting for them back in China, but that did not always happen for various reasons.

The first waves of Chinese immigrants arrived between 1849 and 1852 during the Gold Rush in California, which they called Gum san, or “Gold Mountain.” After the 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode, large numbers of Asians began coming to Nevada, which they called Yin shan, or “Silver Mountain.”

The Chinese worked and settled throughout the Comstock Mining District, employed in various occupations including railroad workers, placer miners, mill laborers, launderers, doctors, shop owners, barbers, clerks, cooks, and boarding house managers. They provided services both to other Chinese and to Euro-Americans.

Largely because of the hostility they faced so frequently, Chinese-Americans tended to live together in neighborhoods that came to be called “Chinatowns.” These reinforced ethnic identity and way of life. Virginia City’s Chinatown had one of the largest populations of any Chinatowns in the Intermountain West.

It did not take long for anti-Chinese sentiment in Nevada to catch up to that in California. Anti-Chinese legislation such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1888 Scott Act, and the 1924 Immigration Act heavily curtailed Chinese immigration into the United States. The 1875 Page Act’s restrictions on the immigration of Chinese women reinforced an already existing gender imbalance in Nevada’s Asian population. Most Chinese bachelors who remained in remote mining camps stayed single. A small percentage of these men married women of various non-Chinese ethnic backgrounds despite Nevada’s miscegenation laws, which remained in effect until 1959.

The anti-Chinese immigration laws, the difficulty of forming traditional families, the anti-Chinese sentiment and occasional violence, and the boom-bust nature of a mining economy contributed to the rapid decline of the Chinese population in Nevada. It was not until years later, when World War II turned the tide of public sentiment against Japan and Chinese exclusion acts were repealed, that Nevada’s Chinese began to grow in numbers again. The biggest growth occurred after the 1960s and resulted in a gender balance and the growth of families.

Culture Contact on the Comstock
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Clichés and stereotypes conjure images of violent interactions between various ethnic groups and the Chinese. In fact, the Chinese did often have to endure the cold sting of racism even from other disadvantaged ethnic groups. One Virginia City newspaper advertised an anti-Chinese torchlight demonstration in 1880, and there existed several Anti-Chinese Leagues. There was also a surprising amount of coexistence, as well as non-Chinese people who spoke out in defense of the Chinese. Virginia City featured both conflict and coexistence, but ultimately the Chinese and Euro-Americans borrowed from one another and benefited from the interaction.

The Chinatown in Virginia City, like other urban Chinatowns, provided services of all sorts mostly for its own residents. At the same time, many non-Chinese found the place exotic and mysterious, and they went there for food, gambling, opium, prostitutes, and medicine. Since enough Chinese merchandise arrived regularly from the Old Country, Asian ceramics, food, and other supplies gave Chinatown a visible foreign quality. This intrigued many Euro-Americans, some of whom became opium addicts, while a few married Chinese men. Not only did Euro-Americans express interest in and adopt habits of the Chinese, but the Chinese also began assimilating into the mainstream Euro-American population. Chinese immigrants lacked their homeland’s social and family structures, and eventually new arrivals became rare. This made it increasingly difficult to maintain traditional lifeways. Marriage practices became more and more Americanized over time. Public school education for children exposed young Asian-Americans and their families even more to American culture. Some Chinese women even stepped out of the traditionally subordinate role of Asian custom.

In all, even feelings of hatred and underlying tension could not hide the truth that the Chinese and non-Chinese communities came to rely on each other to a great degree, and that although Virginia City was a divided community in many ways, it was still a community in many more.

Social Order
Although the Chinese occupied a vital part of Virginia City’s society, they also formed their own community, united by common customs, history, and beliefs.

In addition to family and workplace associations, there were also tongs (literally “meeting hall”), organizations that offered their members various benefits, including community status, mutual assistance, individual protection from exploitation by other Chinese, health and death benefits, job opportunities, and social and recreational activities. The tradition of tongs dates back over two thousand years in China. Some were legitimate and some were criminal. Rivalries between the criminal tongs occasionally erupted into violence and Virginia City was no exception to this rule.

One particularly widespread tong that required no specific clan or district associations for membership was the Zhigongtang (Chee Kung Tong), also known as the Chinese Free Masons because of their similarity in rituals and beliefs to the International Free Masons. This was present in Virginia City and elsewhere in Nevada. Like other tongs, the Zhigongtang gave its members emotional and financial support. This secret fraternal organization, however, was founded for the greater political purpose of overthrowing the corrupt and iron-fisted Manchu government of China, which lasted from 1644 to 1911.

Zhigongtang meeting halls and other association buildings were known by outsiders as “Joss Houses” – from the Portuguese word for God: “Deus” – because non-Asians mistakenly thought they were Chinese temples. It is easy to understand why they would think this, given their elaborate altars. Statues of deities, particularly the black-bearded Guan Gong (the god of war who also protected his followers) and his companions, were often placed on the altars as well as I-ching (“Book of Changes”) fortune-telling sticks.

In addition, meetings often included religious rituals, such as prayers, singing, chants, and burning “joss (incense) sticks” and “joss papers.” Such rites were typical of Chinese secret societies and joss houses were no more temples than Masonic lodges are churches. Nevertheless, in the absence of an actual temple (due to lack of funds), a community’s joss house often did function as the religious meeting hall as well as the social gathering place for many sorts of events and occasions.

Occupations and Socioeconomic Status
The Chinese in Virginia City had a wide range of jobs, including: cooks, laundry workers, laborers, servants, physicians, gamblers, wood cutters, wood packers, merchants, peddlers, clerks, saloon workers, waiters, dishwashers, restaurant owners, drugstore owners, prostitutes, tea merchants, joss house keepers, teachers, rag pickers, barbers, chair repairmen, vegetable store owners, butchers, opium den owners, porters, bankers, shoemakers, carpenters, tailors, and boardinghouse operators.

For some, socioeconomic status was not very high, and accounts mention the resourcefulness of many Chinese in making the most of their environments. Sources describe Chinese using the water runoff from the Fourth Ward School to irrigate gardens, gathering stumps and roots left behind by other wood collectors, and using every bit of available land. In addition, the Chinese often flattened tin cans for roofing, and various items were similarly given a second life by being reused for other purposes. Despite scarce resources, accounts describe the generosity of the Chinese when they invited Euro-Americans to participate in their banquets and festivities.

The Family
Immigration transformed the traditional Chinese family. The extended family was a cornerstone of society, but it was usually not possible for entire families to immigrate. Many wives were left home in China with their children to fulfill duties to their husbands’ families, to provide immigrants with an incentive for returning, and to be sheltered from the dangers and discomforts of immigration. In fact, in the nineteenth century almost thirty to fifty percent of the Chinese men in Virginia City were married, but living separately from their wives and children. The 1875 Page Law and other anti-Chinese legislation made it even more difficult for men to bring wives.

Not surprisingly, Chinese women were relatively rare in Virginia City, making it nearly impossible for unmarried Chinese men to marry a Chinese woman. Many men remained single, while others married non-Chinese women, creating untraditional families. Even when a Chinese man did marry a Chinese woman and she survived childbirth, the resulting family was affected in diverse ways by the foreign context and could never be entirely traditional. Living in Virginia City also altered Chinese women’s traditional roles and relationship to men.

The obvious importance of food is reflected in the fact that the most common artifacts found at the site of Virginia City’s Chinatown are related to food and drink. Excavations retrieved bones and shells, as well as containers to store and serve food and drink — from so-called utility ware to fancier, decorated ceramics of Chinese, Euro-American, and even Japanese origin. Most food was apparently imported from China or grown or purchased locally by the Chinese. The presence of European and American tin cans suggests that Chinese Virginians supplemented their diet with western style foodstuffs.

Not all types of food remains survive the test of time, so the documentary record is important in trying to piece together the Chinese Virginian’s diet. This is, however, also a biased and fragmentary record and one must remember this in order not to form an imbalanced or incorrect picture of the Chinese diet. Some foods may have been mentioned more often than others, some not at all, and some were certainly portrayed inaccurately by outside observers.

As in China, rice and tea were the main staples of the Chinese diet. While the tea was always imported, some of the rice used was cultivated in the United States. It is clear that the Chinese in Virginia City also ate pork, chicken, shellfish, the prune-like kan-lan (or “Chinese olives”), nuts, vegetables, fruits and soups of various kinds. Sausages, ducks, and eggs are also mentioned as being sold in a Chinese store. They also seem to have eaten fish, although they perhaps more often sold this source of food for profit. Other food items peddled included melons, tamales, fish, watercress, radishes, lettuce, potatoes, turnips, onions, carrots, corn, fresh mint, and cabbage. Meats were more abundant in the United States than in China and one of the Chinese’s reasons for staying here.

For All Occasions
At funerals, rice, wine, and other foods were placed on graves for the departed. The joss houses often were community centers that hosted banquets for special occasions, especially Chinese New Year’s when chicken, roast ham, sweetmeats, and other delicacies were served to the Chinese members and their non-Chinese guests. Even middle to higher-end prostitutes offered their customers fruit and snacks as part of their services, as did some opium dens.

In Virginia City, a number of Chinese physicians, herbalists, drugstore operators, and even a phrenologist (one who determines character traits from natural lumps on the head) served the Asian Community. Euro-Americans also sought the services of these doctors and medicine dealers, hoping to obtain alternative treatments for ailments when traditional Western medicine had proved ineffective.

Many Chinese medicines came in traditional small glass vials often mistaken for “opium bottles.” In fact, they contained a variety of treatments in the form of powder, liquids, pills, and syrups for numerous health problems. Some of these medicines may have contained opium as an ingredient, but they were not intended for recreational use. Chinese wines also had medicinal use as rubs for aching muscles and bruises, in soups, and as a means of relieving pain.

It is probable that the Chinese did not limit themselves to traditional Chinese medicine. Euro-American medicinal bottles have also been found at the Virginia City Chinatown site and are easy to differentiate from the Chinese variety. Chinese medicine bottles were made by dipping a glass tube in molten glass, molding it, and snapping it off at the neck. Euro-American medicine bottles tended to have more rectangular shapes and usually had embossed panels.

Most of the nineteenth-century Virginia City Chinese dressed in Chinese-style clothing made in Asia or “at home.” Some, especially those in frequent contact with non-Chinese, occasionally wore Western-style garments.

Traditional Chinese clothes were made of cotton and/or silk. The typical outfit for the men consisted of loose-fitting straight-legged pants, a long tunic with small slits at the sides, soft-soled slipper-type shoes or Western boots (often purchased immediately upon arrival in San Francisco), and a cap or sometimes an umbrella-shaped work hat. Prior to 1911, men’s heads were generally shaven with a long braid of hair hanging down their backs or wrapped around their heads, a hairstyle dictated by the alien Manchu rulers of China.

Photographs, illustrations, and accounts show women wearing similar clothing to the men, but more decorated and with Chinese buttons on the side instead of the front. Their hairstyles were also different from the men’s and were tied back in a bun or arranged on the top of the head. A few historic photographs of women in “special occasion” clothes show that they also wore jewelry such as golden hoop earrings, bracelets, and rings, and shoes with toes that curled upwards. Archaeological finds indicate that gold and jade jewelry were common in locations with women residents.


The Chinese who lived in Virginia City during the late 1800s had a band of six to eight musicians who played during special events such as New Year’s festivities and in the funeral processions of prominent members of their community. As in so many cultures, music is valued for its beauty, but in China it is also a key ingredient in social and ceremonial life. Chinese music traditionally served to express emotions, to aid in the exercise of spirituality, and to accompany dance, drama, festivals, funerals, weddings, banquets, and harvest celebrations.

Ancient Chinese cosmology divides the universe into eight essential materials, which became the eight instrument families of traditional Chinese music (the Ba Yin, or “eight sounds”). These are: metal, stone, silk (strings), bamboo, gourd, earth (clay), leather, and wood. The various instruments in these categories are supposed to imitate the voices of humans and sounds of animals. Despite regional differences in both instrumentation and musical style, some of the same instruments are often used in various parts of China.

Games and Gambling

Gambling and the lottery were extremely popular among the Chinese in Virginia City. Many played fantan, throwing a number of gaming pieces on a table and placing bets as to how many would remain after systematically removing pieces in groups of a certain number. Different sorts of pieces were used for bets of different values. Ten-cent bets were made with coins (usually Chinese), one-dollar bets with white gaming pieces, five-dollar bets with black gaming pieces, ten-dollar bets with chessmen, and fifty-dollar bets with dominoes, by one account.

Chinese gamblers also used some of the fantan pieces to play Weiqi, also known by its more popular Japanese name, Go (Igo). It is played by placing black and white pieces at the intersections of lines on a quad-ruled board. This complex game with deceptively simple rules is still widely played today, with international tournaments and societies.

Dominoes were another popular form of entertainment – so much that Chinese prostitutes of different levels were variously nicknamed after certain dominoes. Archaeologists have also recovered checkers.

One popular game that spread to the larger community was the game known today as keno. Consisting of an eighty-square board in which each square contained a Chinese character (the complete set of characters quoted a well-known essay), several of these squares were selected and if they matched the ones drawn during the game, the person could win anywhere from twenty-five cents to fifty dollars.

By introducing games still played today and by running gaming halls, or casinos, the Chinese contributed to the development of the gaming industry in the Nevada we know today.


The smoking of tobacco was a popular pastime for many Virginia City Chinese. Additionally, the Chinese drank and sold (to non-Asian clients as well as Asian) various kinds of alcohol, including champagne, gin, “Chinese brandy,” and wine. The stimulant tea was also a staple among Chinese beverages.

The substance that brought the Chinese the most notoriety, however, was opium. This drug was originally legal in the nineteenth century, but it began to trouble authorities when Euro-Americans became addicts in greater numbers. Opium dens were usually dark with no windows, consisting of rows of mattresses with small lamps where customers smoked the substance.

After the Great Fire of 1875, opium dens were some of the first structures to be rebuilt, and they were often difficult to distinguish from other buildings from the outside. In spite of opium den raids, opium smoking continued; however, it did so largely as an underground operation in back rooms and cellars, and through merchants making house calls to addicts.