The Journal of Wong Ming-Chung Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
To the Discussion Leader
Newbery Honor author Laurence Yep brings his fine writing talents and pride in his Chinese heritage to his first My Name Is America book, The Journal of Wong Ming-Chung: A Chinese Miner. Young Wong Ming-Chung is a reluctant voyager from China to California in 1852 where he joins his Uncle Stone during the California Gold Rush.
Yep tells readers a story about greed and racism but also about the importance of home, courage, and dreams. About this dual nature of the gold rush Yep says, "When I was young, I thought of the gold rush as a glorious, fun-filled treasure hunt. However, when I grew older and learned more, I realized that the gold rush was an even bigger story. It drew dreamers from around the world. So the story is not just about the dreams of one person or of one group but the entire world."
The gold rush also had a serious, dangerous side. The miners brought not only their dreams but their prejudices, too. And greed sharpened those prejudices so that they had a deadly, violent edge. Because of that, the gold rush is not only a story of dreams but of shadowy, frightening nightmares.
What does it mean to be a "Guest on Golden Mountain"? To Wong Ming-Chung it means riches, adventure, danger, honor, and above all, a chance to shed his nickname, Runt. When Wong Ming-Chung begins his journal in October, 1851, he, his clan, and most of the people in his village are hungry and poor. Only the families who have Guests on the Golden Mountain — miners in California who send money to their relatives in China — have food enough to fend off hunger and money to provide a few comforts. "My brother and I are growing thin. So are all the other boys in school. Piggy, though, is round as ever. All the guest boys are. It's the magic of the Golden Mountain. It's a spell that protects them and their families."
When Precious Stone, Runt's uncle, finds work on the Golden Mountain, the clan rejoices, not just because of the riches he will send home, but more importantly, because he has survived the perilous journey between China and San Francisco. The jubilation is short-lived, however, when Runt reads his uncle's letter to the family. Uncle has requested that his eldest nephew, 15-year-old Blessing, join him on Golden Mountain. After days of hearing his parents arguing, Wong Ming-Chung discovers they will send him — not his elder brother — to America. Not even Blessing's arguments that Runt is too small, weak, and "always [has] his nose buried in a book" are enough to change his parents' plan.
Each step of the way is a perilous adventure for Runt, who has never traveled beyond his clan's holdings. The sea-voyage is a nightmare of sickness, poor food, inhumane conditions, degradation at the hands of the sailors, and death. On May 24th, Runt writes, "Illness has swept through the hold. Every day we put corpses on the stairs and the sailors take them away. The bodies are dumped into the ocean." Wong Ming-Chung is one of the fortunate Chinese who manages to live through the terrible ocean voyage.
After landing in San Francisco, Runt wends his way to the mountains where his uncle has earned a distinguished position because of his woodworking skills. Likewise, Runt discovers that even though he is small and young, his skills — reading, writing, and calculating — are highly valued. Soon, he is sending his own money back to the family in China. Even though the gold seems to be dwindling, Runt and his uncle continue working the claims. But violence, which lurks around every bend, sneaks into their lives in the form of government sanctioned taxes and miners who blame and distrust all immigrants, without ever knowing them as individuals. When the other Chinese miners desert their claims to avoid violence, Wong Ming-Chung and his Uncle Stone use their cunning to discover gold in the most unlikely places.
Through Wong Ming-Chung's journal, author Laurence Yep allows readers to participate in the life of an immigrant miner during the waning days of the California Gold Rush. In the end, both uncle and nephew understand that they will remain in America as Guests of the Golden Mountain. Even though he loves and misses his family, Runt realizes he must always return to California. "Swans have two homes. Why can't I? I can't help it if the Golden Mountain has gotten into my blood."
Thinking About the Book
- On August 1st, 1852, Runt compares the dangers that surround the Chinese workers in California to an old story of the beautiful flower that hides a poisonous snake. "When you're drawn to the loveliness, the snake strikes, killing you." What does this mean?
- One of the things Wong Ming-Chung discovers on his adventure is that being able to read and write "has its own power." What are some of the incidents in the journal that teach Wong Ming-Chung the "power" of being able to read and write?
- If you had to choose one of the following words that you think best describes what this book is about, would you chose dreams, home, or courage? Why?
- What did you learn about the California Gold Rush that surprised you most?
- After he leaves the safety of Tiger Rock, Runt writes, "When someone has a hand cut off, what does that hand think? Does it miss belonging to the body? That's how I feel. Like I've been cut off from something bigger. And now I've been tossed on the trash heap" (April 11, 1852). Discuss the meaning of this passage. Have you ever felt that way? Do you think Uncle Stone feels like a hand cut off from the arm now that he's on the Golden Mountain?
- What does Wong Ming-Chung mean in this journal entry of July 28th? "The Golden Mountain is like some food from a fairy tale. It fills you up wonderfully, but it always leaves you wanting more."
- Runt experiences many different emotions when his father tells him that they plan to send him to Golden Mountain. He asks his journal, "How could he be so kind and yet send me away?" Write a letter from Runt to his parents explaining how he feels and why he thinks it would be better for his brother to go to Golden Mountain.
- In his journal, Runt uses many similes that make his writing more interesting and easier to understand. For example, on August 5, 1852 he writes, "The water chains have been set up in a row like insect soldiers." Make a list of the best similes from Wong Ming-Chung's journal then share your favorite simile with your discussion group. Illustrate each simile and combine them into a book of Great Writing to share with other students.
- Ask each member of your discussion group to pick one of the following names or terms and write a short description of its importance to the California Gold Rush period. Share this information with the whole discussion group.
Foreign Miners' Tax
Yerba Buena Cove
- Sometimes sudden wealth causes prices to rise or inflate rapidly. If you were a miner during the California gold rush, how much would you pay for a glass of water or a cup of coffee? How much for a pound of bacon? Compare today's prices to those paid by adventurers during the gold rush of 1849.
- For information on the Chinese who participated in the Gold Rush, visit the San Francisco Museum website .
- Read Allen Say's Caldecott Award winning book, Grandfather's Journey . How are these two books similar? How are they different?
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.