On Gold Mountain Opera

LISTEN: NPR’S STORY of the On Gold Mountain opera

Voices of California, a project of the Los Angeles Opera, launched in June 2000 with the world premiere of ON GOLD MOUNTAIN, a Chinese immigrant’s life story.

Based on the memoir by Lisa See, this new opera features an entirely Chinese-American creative team, including compose Nathan Wang, librettist Lisa See, director Andrew Tsao and conductor Leland Sun.  ON GOLD MOUNTAIN is the true story of Fong See, a pioneer of Los Angeles’ Chinatown, who immigrated to America to work on the railroad and find his fortune.

Along the way he overcame many obstacles, finding both love and hardship, but most importantly discovering himself. In the opera, we not only relive the experiences of Fong See, his white wife Ticie and other Chinese pioneers, but also realize the ways in which memory and experience influence our sense of who we are.

The operas premiered in the Voices of California series are specifically commissioned to include the participation of non-professional community choruses and orchestras, with Los Angeles professional singers and musicians performing the lead roles. These choruses and orchestras will be drawn from the communities surrounding each venue participating in the Voices of California tour.

In the spirit of community that the opera celebrates, the Los Angeles run of ON GOLD MOUNTAIN featured approximately 20 players: 10 professionals and 10 community musicians who were mentored by the professionals and doubled the main instruments. An ethnically diverse cast of nationally-acclaimed opera singers sang the opera’s principal roles throughout the tour of ON GOLD MOUNTAIN. They were accompanied by a chorus of 30-50 members that were drawn form each theater’s local community and thus changed from venue to venue. 

Note from Lisa See

As a child, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents at our family store in Chinatown. In the late afternoons my grandmother and great aunt would tell stories about my great-grandfather, Fong See. How he came alone to “Gold Mountain” as a boy. How he had two wives, twelve children, five stores. How he was the first Chinese in America to own an automobile. How he died in 1957 at the remarkable age of one hundred years old, having witnessed extraordinary changes not only in Los Angeles Chinatown but in his adopted country and his homeland as well.

Eleven years ago I began interviewing my great-aunt Sissee for what would eventually become the book On Gold Mountain . On our first day together I learned things I’d never heard before. Fong See wasn’t the first person in our family to come to the U.S. It was actually my great-great-grandfather Fong Dun Shung, who came to work on the transcontinental railroad as an herbalist. Unlike most sojourners, he didn’t send money home. As a result, his wife was so poor that she carried people on her back from village to village to earn money to support her children. Aunt Sissee also told me that Fong See didn’t have two wives; he had four! (For the opera we have reduced the number to three.)

When Fong See arrived in America, he did many of the jobs that immigrants do even today, he washed dishes in restaurants, he swept up in factories, he worked in the fields. He survived the period of the “Driving Out,” when Chinese were literally driven out of their homes and out of the country. He persisted even after the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred the immigration of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. and led to many other harsh and unfair laws on the local and state levels. Despite all of this, by the time Fong See was thirty, he had a factory that manufactured and sold what our family euphemistically called “fancy underwear for fancy ladies.” This classified him as a “merchant,” which was one of the four categories of Chinese allowed in this country after the Exclusion Act.

One day into his shop walked a young woman whom I think of as quintessentially American. Letticie Pruett’s family had come west in a prairie schooner on the Oregon Trail. Ticie’s mother died when she was a baby; her father died when she was seven. At eighteen, she left Oregon and eventually found her way into Fong See’s shop where she begged him for a job. One thing led to another and they decided to get “married.”

I put that word in quotes because it was against the law in California for Chinese to marry whites until 1948. (It was against the law in 28 states, with the last state finally overturning its miscegenation law in 1965.) It was against the law for Chinese to own property in California also until 1948. And at the federal level it was against the law for Chinese to become naturalized citizens until 1943. To be “married” in California, Fong See and Ticie Pruett had a lawyer draw up a contract between two people.

I was extremely excited when Los Angeles Opera approached me about turning On Gold Mountain into an opera. What I love about this artistic form is the way that it tells a story through the pure emotion of music. Composer Nathan Wang and director Andrew Tsao were as committed to being true to the essence of the story (with some artistic license) as to our shared Chinese-American heritage. In the score, Nathan has melded Eastern and Western traditionsówith elements from Chinese opera, Western waltzes, ragtime, and big bandówhile I have utilized elements from Eastern literary tradition, as well as used a stylized Greek chorus that comments on the action. Together, I hope we have created a truly Chinese-American opera that speaks to anyone who loves music and theater.

Finally, as I was writing both the book and libretto for On Gold Mountain what interested me was how my family members had moved through history. In almost all of our family trees we have someone who was brave enough — sometimes crazy enough — to leave his or her home country to come to this land of dreams. For us to be listening to this work today there had to be people before us who struggled, endured, failed, succeeded, triumphed. I hope as you follow my family story you will be reminded of your family’s journey to this country and how they became Americans.

An old man, Fong See, surrounded by his wife, Ngon Hong, and their family, reflects on his life. “Who am I?” he asks of his great-grandson. “What has my life meant?”

Journeying backwards through time with his great-grandson, Fong See observes himself as a boy leaving his village in China to find his father, who is lost on Gold Mountain (The United States). Young Fong See comforts his mother, Shue-ying. “Mama, put your cares asideÖI will find Father and send him home to you. I will stay on the Gold Mountain to make my fortune.

Leaving his mother and child bride, Yong, Young Fong See joins the other travelers aboard the ship that will take them to Gold Mountain. The villagers send them off with encouragement.

In California, life is difficult for Chinese immigrants. Proud of their hard work building the railroad and feeling as if they are helping to create a new world, they are nonetheless the brunt of the fear and loathing of white workers. “They are not human,” shout the bullies. “Exceptional work demands exceptional men. White men.”

Fearful of losing their jobs, the Chinese workers ignore the taunts. In the evening, they gather together for relaxation, drink and gambling. Watched by his son, Fong Dun Shung loses his wages. “All is lost,” he cries. Young Fong See approaches his father and convinces him to return home to his wife and family. With “bamboo in his chest,” Young Fong See works his way from the railroad camp south through California, taking any job that comes his way.

He grows from a young boy full of adventure to a young man full of ambition. As Fong See arrives in Los Angeles, so does another traveler, a young woman, Ticie Pruett, who has also journeyed far and alone. Unlike Fong See, she is well educated, yet she cannot find work. As Fong See exuberantly embraces his successes, Ticie is continuously rejected

.In Chinatown, Fong See opens his first shop as Ticie observes from outside. Fancy Underwear for Fancy Ladies is an immediate success. The local madam, Matilde, arrives with her girls and confuses Fong See with her innuendoes about his product. Taking advantage of his bewilderment, Ticie steps in and closes the sale. Ticie urges Fong See to hire her. He admonishes that, as a Chinese, just to look at her could get him killed. Nonetheless, he is smitten by her courage and beauty. “Marry me!” he begs. She agrees and they sing, “Destiny is strange and wondrous! Together we will shine an eternal light.”

A lawyer and a matchmaker arrive, both annoyed that they have not been consulted, and warn Fong See and Ticie of the danger, foolishness, and illegality of their union. Just as the lawyer and the matchmaker begin to soften, bullies step in, full of scathing prejudice. Fong See and Ticie become even more resolved to pursue a life together.

For the next several years, with Ticie’s business mind and Fong See’s enterprise, their fortune grows. Their family also increases to four sons and a daughter. Fong See, full of love, compares Ticie to a beautiful garden.

Wealthy and happy, the See family returns to China. Aboard ship, while the third-class laborer watch, Fong See fulfills yet another dream by waltzing with his wife as a first-class passenger. 

Fong See’s return to his home village is triumphant. Ticie watches as he reunites with his mother, father, and Yong, his child bride. Ticie is confused; she knows nothing of Yong. The villagers explain. “This is a common Chinese custom. They were married so he would never forget his home and return to us one day.” Ticie realizes that Fong See has planned all along to return to live in China. He dismisses her. “Don’t you know who I am? I am a Chinese man. You’re my wife. You must obey me, and I say our destiny is here.”

Ticie and the children return to Los Angeles. Fong See reports in letters all of his successes in China: a new hotel, factories, and a new wife, whom he plans to bring to America. The children are stunned, but Ticie is resigned and comforting. “It is a common Chinese custom. We should not worry. He will return to us one day.” Ticie gathers the children to her and speaks of the new life they will have, moving to an empty store across the street and starting their own business. After they are settled, Ticie observes Fong See and his new wife, Ngon Hong, arriving back from China to the old store with their new child.

In the 1940’s, Fong See’s young daughter teases her father about his old-fashioned ways and declares her independence. Ngon Hong, ever traditional, joins with Ticie across the street and Yong in China in lamenting, “Women live in sorrow.”

The scene shifts back to the present, where Fong See sits in his store. “I have everything I dreamed of, but my heart is not at peace.” He looks sadly across at Ticie’s shop. “I crossed an ocean to find my dreams, but now I’m afraid to cross the street.” He finds the courage to visit Ticie. She’s weak and ill but full of joy at seeing him again. Ticie reminds him of his devotion to his new family and admits that the separation, while difficult, has made her strong. Apart, they fulfilled their destinies. With the past forgiven, they move outside, where a New Year’s celebration is beginning. Joining with their extended family, Fong See and Ticie envision the future. As the celebration recedes, Fong See’s great-grandson steps forward to begin his own journey. 

The Orange County Register 

“Öan engaging one-piece actÖtakes off like a rocketÖslows down for conflict and consideration, before tacking on a feel-good, full-ensemble finale.” 

Los Angeles Times 

“Öcombining the talents of professional and community performers, both onstage and in the orchestra pit, this true story comes to life beautifully.” 

Santa Monica Mirror 

“Lisa See has done a credible job refashioning the early part of her book into a libretto that stands well on its own.” 

Irvine World News 

“On Gold Mountain reminded me of my parents’ story of coming to America. There must be a thousand and one adventures like the opera. ÖMy family and I are still haunted by those melodies, and find ourselves singing them around the house.” 

Mr. Eddie Ip Office Pro Furniture 

“To see this opera again would be a pleasure and a privilege. Lisa See’s story is unique and Nathan Wang’s music is a treat for any opera-goer.” 

Scott Tang Berkeley, CA 

“On Gold Mountain was fabulous and I liked the message that everyone can change.” 

Lester Bourage, Grade 11 

“Thank you for the astonishingly special cultural, aesthetic, and educational experience you gave my students on June 8th at the Japan American Theatre. It was wonderful from first to last.” 

Lucy Fried, English teacher