Book Review – Voices from the Bottom of the South China Sea

March 25, 2015 — Leave a comment

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Robert Wells, a retired US Navy captain, recently released his first book, Voices from the Bottom of the South China Sea | The Untold Story of America’s Largest Chinese Emigrant Disaster, an intriguing investigation into the tragic sinking of the SS Japan in the late 19th century. Leading the reader through a wealth of primary sources and photographs, Wells pieces together the origins of Chinese emigration to the US in the mid to late 19th century. Tales of the wealth of Gum Shan (Gold Mountain, aka the United States) lured thousands of Chinese residents of Guangdong province to the California coast as laborers for farms and the infant transcontinental railway system.

Wells relates the travails a Chinese emigrant would endure from leaving his farm to boarding the vessel to finding work in Gum Shan as well as his return journey with, hopefully, a money belt full of silver coin. A notable discussion from the book is the shipping of the bones of Chinese who perished in the United States back to China for permanent burial in their native land. This practice was most recently in the news in November of last year when a documentary of the SS Ventnor aired in New Zealand. The Ventnor was carrying the bodies of 499 Chinese miners back to China when she sank in 1902.

Overall Wells has done historians and casual readers a great service by documenting a little remembered part of Sino-American history as the SS Japan was the deadliest maritime disaster of the 19th century Chinese emigrant wave. Readers will enjoy the numerous illustrations, tales of sunken treasure aboard the SS Japan and general machinations of the Chinese emigrant trade covered in Voices from the Bottom of the South China Sea | The Untold Story of America’s Largest Chinese Emigrant Disaster.

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