West Jordan • On Saturday, I attended a Chinese New Year celebration. Although the new year technically began Friday, the party took place Saturday at the Viridian Event Center in West Jordan.
Since it was the first in what planners say will be an annual recognition of this holiday in Utah, it seemed a good idea to find out what we should expect.
While watching the “Lion Dance” performed by students from Calvin Smith Elementary School, I got to thinking about the contributions China has made to the world — and Utah.
I’m already fascinated by Chinese culture for delivering two of the most important inventions that humanized us from our early primate ancestors.
First is the compass. Invented about A.D. 1100, it was humanity’s key to the world. For any species to evolve, it needs to know where the hell it’s going.
This cannot be accomplished by just wandering aimlessly. You need to know not only the direction to go for something new, but also how to document where you’ve already been.
Second is black powder, the principal ingredient in a sport some of us (mainly Sonny, a few other idiots and me) refer to as “sky bowling.” The Chinese invented this explosive substance about a thousand years ago.
We wouldn’t have fireworks without black powder, nor would we be able to move large items from one spot to another far away in a matter of seconds. It helps if you don’t care what shape the thing is in once it gets there. This greatly improved mining.
Rockets, bronze, toothbrushes, paper, movable type, the wheelbarrow and beer are all Chinese inventions that someone else would have created — eventually — but not without a lot more suffering and confusion.
All of that is nice, but what amazes me the most about Chinese contributions to history is the lack of recognition they get for their part in Utah history — known by many here as “the building up of Zion.”
The traditional concept of the early Mormon pioneers is that of a persecuted people valiantly hauling themselves across a trackless continent in wagons or handcarts. In truth, that part lasted only about 20 years.
Once the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, “early Mormon pioneers” came to Utah by train. No more dragging handcarts. The majority of our pioneer ancestors rode to Zion on rails laid by Chinese hands.
This increase in Mormon immigrants is great if you’re happy about the current ratio of Mormon to non-Mormon in Utah. Ironically, it’s also great if you’re not. With the doors of the world thrown wide open by the arrival of the railroad, that ratio immediately began to change and continues today.
The building of this railroad would have been considerably more difficult if not impossible without Chinese labor, which included forced slavery, deprivations and, routinely, violent death. If my Mormon pioneer ancestors had faced similar challenges, Zion might be somewhere in Nebraska today.
Thanks to the railroad, lots of Chinese settled in Utah, where they immediately endured the same discrimination Mormons had once run from and were now dishing out.
Because of rampant bigotry, the Chinese gathered in their own communities. Yeah, they had opium dens and forced prostitution on Plum Alley within a couple of blocks of Temple Square, but they also built businesses, farming communities, ranching operations and medical offices and educated their children in the face of outrageous bigotry.
Personally, if we’re going to celebrate Utah pioneers and their hard work in the building of Utah, I think there should be a Chinese float in the Pioneer Day parade.