An 1882 murder at a Chinese laundry in Las Vegas, N.M., led to a landmark court case, which, in turn, will result in the installation of a 28-foot-high Asian-American monument in Downtown Albuquerque.
“View From Gold Mountain,” conceived by Washington state artists Cheryll Leo-Gwin and Stewart Wong, is the name of the $275,000 monument, which will be installed at Fifth and Lomas, on the west side of the 2nd Judicial District Courthouse, late this year or early in 2019.
The public art project, approved last month by the Bernalillo County Commission, recognizes a New Mexico court ruling that advanced the rights of Chinese people living in this country. Artists Leo-Gwin and Wong are both Chinese-Americans.
“For both Stewart and me, this is a kind of legacy piece because our families have a long history of (suffering) racial injustice,” Leo-Gwin said during a phone interview. “We are leaving a statement that will last longer than ourselves.”
The murder victim was a Chinese man named Jim Lee. He was shot to death Feb. 24, 1882, at John Lee’s laundry on Grand Avenue in Las Vegas.
The landmark court case is Territory of New Mexico vs. Yee Shun, the Chinese man tried and convicted for the killing of Jim Lee. In response to an appeal of Yee Shun’s conviction, the New Mexico Territory Supreme Court ruled in January 1884 that Chinese people had the right to testify and have their testimony accepted in American courts.
It was a huge ruling, setting a legal precedent throughout the American West. It was also timely, coming as it did after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act had been signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur. The act prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers into this country. It also barred Chinese people already living in America from U.S. citizenship and exposed them to accelerated discrimination and violence.
Shane Flores is curator of “Phantoms of a Rail Town: The Chinese Immigrant Experience in Las Vegas, N.M., c. 1882,” an exhibit at the City of Las Vegas Museum. Flores said the New Mexico justices were not trying to make things better for Chinese people when they made their ruling.
“There definitely wasn’t any noble motive,” he said. “The ruling was a pure side effect of lawyers trying to win their case.”
Even so, Flores said the ruling gave Chinese people one thing they could use to protect themselves even as the Exclusion Act was stripping them of other safeguards.
“The (New Mexico) ruling gave Chinese a better opportunity to maneuver themselves in the courts to protect their interests and advocate for themselves,” he said.
Albuquerque optometrist Dr. Siu Wong, no relation to Stewart Wong, learned about the Yee Shun case and raised $255,000 in state money and $20,000 in city of Albuquerque money to fund the monument project.
Nan Masland, Bernalillo County public art project coordinator, said she believes Leo-Gwin and Stewart Wong’s proposal won out over the 64 others submitted because “every element of what they proposed had deep significance to the court case and to Asian-Americans.”
Siu Wong said the monument, as proposed, is a beautiful piece of art that represents liberty, equality and justice not just for Asian-Americans but for all people.
The monument’s title refers to the golden opportunity Chinese immigrants believed America offered. The main part of the installation, the 28-foot-high portion, is a metal representation of a carpenter’s plumb bob, tipped at about a 30-degree angle. Leo-Gwin said she wanted something that would represent balance but also energy.
“I thought about a gyroscope, but there was not enough money to make it spin,” she said. “A plumb sways for a time and ultimately finds balance.”
A braid, symbolizing the plait of hair worn down the back of Chinese men in past centuries, but also referencing the way Native Americans, Hispanics and others wear their hair, runs up a slice in the plumb bob. The piece is topped off by three gourds representing the three branches of U.S. government.
A stone seat, carved in a Chinese cloud pattern, invites people to sit and look at things from Yee Shun’s view. From a historical perspective, that’s a tough spot to be.
The court ruling upheld Yee Shun’s conviction. Faced with life in prison, Yee Shun, just 22, hanged himself in his prison cell in September 1884. Curator Flores does not believe he was guilty of the killing.
“Whatever his role was, it was very ambiguous,” Flores said. “But I don’t think he did the shooting. He was not there to shoot anybody.”
Territory of New Mexico vs. Yee Shun was bad news for the defendant, but, ironically, a big step forward for civil rights.