Love, greed, death…gambler and saloonkeeper Charles Townsend Reed has a few problems, any one of which can kill him. The woman he loves is a captive of the Hip Yee Tong, a notorious gang that controls all Chinese prostitution across California. Reed seeks her freedom which he will gladly purchase. Can a deal be made or will Reed be forced to fight for Chan’s freedom? The tong is powerful, with many hatchet men, but Reed has friends too.
As the conflict escalates, a racist killer arrives bent on revenge. For Russell McGirt, brutal overseer of the North Bloomfield Mine, all Chinese must go, and Reed with ‘em. Can a fast draw and a gambler’s confidence keep even Reed from looking over his shoulder?
Set against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Reed moves between wealthy mine owners and the Anti-Debris Association, valley farmers ready to take up arms to end the devastating scourge of hydraulic mining. Poisonous slickens defile the land, inundating fields and orchards, causing the cities of Marysville and Sacramento to build levees higher each year. The miner’s lock on the state legislature is all powerful and it will take a federal judge to decide the fate of California. Whose rights will prevail? Where does it end and what can Charles Townsend Reed do about any of this?
Interview with Clifford Louis Gans
You’ve written The Golden Star of Shanghai. What’s it about?
It’s a western romance set against the backdrop of hydraulic mining, which is a metaphor for climate change. Many of the challenges of the 1880s are similar to what we face today.
A western that is relevant to today?
Absolutely. The devastation caused by hydraulic mining was monumental and is largely forgotten, even by the people living in the region. Almost three times the amount of earth moved in building the Panama Canal was washed down just the Yuba River alone. This mud and muck, laced with mercury, buried valley towns and farmland all the way to San Francisco Bay. Sacramento and Marysville were under constant threat of flooding. They built levees higher and higher every year as the rivers and deltas became choked with debris. It was an enormous problem that pitted the miners against the valley farmers and it took a federal judge, Lorenzo Sawyer, to save California from the miners grip on state politics. And just like the debris that washed out of the mountains, man-made particulate debris, carbon dioxide, methane, these heat-trapping gases, are dumped into the atmosphere, altering our climate through droughts, intensifying storms, sea level rise, wildfire seasons that last all year. It’s truly stunning more hasn’t been done to control greenhouse gases. The scientific consensus is ignored by an obstructionist minority, backed by powerful interests, forcing each of us to stare into the abyss. Think about it, California is all about its climate. It’s why people choose to live here. Our heritage is as an agricultural paradise, where 98% of all the crops that can be grown are grown, with a growing season that lasts all year. There is no other place like it in the world. Tragically, our birthright and that of future generations, is threatened by the continued use of fossil fuels. Like those in the 1880s, we need a new Anti-Debris Association. We need to unite and act in order to leave the world in a better place than we found it. The federal government stepped in and saved California from itself through the Sawyer Decision. Ironically, it’s now up to the states, California in particular, to lead the way. The Paris Accords are just an intermediate step. We must embrace science and clean technologies, accelerate the process, forging a new Sawyer Decision that is not only good for the planet but also for our own health. We cannot be the generation that stands idly by, doing nothing, while the world gets hotter, less sustainable and prone to weather related catastrophes. I just don’t know how we can look into the eyes of children, future generations, if we punt this down the road, when the effects will be far worse due to our inaction, saying the problem is “on you.” It’s the height of irresponsibility and speaks poorly to this generation’s stewardship of the planet. Time is running out.
Why will people want to read this?
Despite the overarching theme, the book is a fun, fast-paced western, a rip roaring tale. The fact that most of this story is true can really get the reader thinking about how history repeats itself and how we fight the same battles over and over, seemingly oblivious to our past struggles, failures and successes, and the choices and solutions people make. Through these characters, we see people who fight the good fight, who take a stand and, collectively, do the right thing.
What else does the 1880s say about today?
It was a time of virulent racism, most of it directed at the Chinese. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 echoes the current travel bans we see in the courts today, which single out a race or religion. The politics around H-1B visas, who gets into the country and who doesn’t, is similar. We see outside labor brought in at lower wages, mostly high-tech workers, supplanting native workers. It’s no different than Charles Crocker importing thousands of Chinese immigrants to build the Transcontinental Railroad and paying them half the white man’s wage. Also, we live in a new Gilded Age. It’s no secret that the rich are getting richer and the middle class is shrinking. CEO pay outstrips worker pay thousands of times over. The top 1% own 40% of everything today and they do little to distribute this wealth throughout society. Compare this to the actual Gilded Age, where tycoons and robber barons, the top 2%, owned about 33% of the wealth in the country. So the idea of economic democracy, economic justice, is challenged today as never before through unrestrained mergers and acquisitions that are the new trusts and monopolies. For example, we have just handfuls of companies that dominate entire sectors of the economy, like air travel. Four airlines control 80% of flights in the U.S. Compare this with Europe, where 10 airlines control a little over 60% of flights, so it’s no secret customer service doesn’t have to be good. You can throw people off planes, treat them badly, collude on pricing, because little competition exists.
The opioid epidemic is reminiscent of the 1880s. Opium and its derivatives were widely available and completely unregulated until the 1900s. A large number of women were addicted to laudanum – morphine suspended in alcohol. Patent medicines of all types were available, each claiming to cure almost anything from baldness to dysentery. Every Chinatown had opium dens, but alcohol was by far the most abused substance during this time, when the U.S. was truly “a nation of drunkards.”
This sounds like non-fiction, but you wrote this as historical fiction. Why?
Non-fiction accounts exist, but I wanted to tell a rip roaring tale, a western with vibrant characters and dialogue, making this story, which I think is very important, relevant and more accessible to readers today. The romance between Charles Reed and a Chinese prostitute, Chan, speaks to everyone’s desire to find a true love and a soul mate, in the face of the times, against conventional wisdom. This is something people can identify with, a love affair set against momentous events. It makes the story even more compelling. Also, I think it’s an entertaining way to learn about history.
Why did you write this book?
It’s a great tale that needs to be told. I’ve lived in northern California my entire life. I’ve walked the ground – the Malakoff Mine, stumbling through the Hiller Tunnel. I’ve hiked the Yuba River. I’ve stood beside the graves of George Cadwalader and J.C. Boggs and the more I learned, the more I began to feel like the caretaker of their stories, important stories that are largely forgotten. I’ve become their emissary. I want them to live again. I’m baffled at why the gold country towns of Auburn, Grass Valley, Nevada City, and even Sacramento, for that matter, aren’t as popular as other Old West tourist destinations like Tombstone or Dodge City. The history here is so rich and complex. Old Town Auburn is fascinating and it’s why I set The Golden Star of Shanghai in what is now a popular craft brewery, The Auburn Ale- house, and before that The Shanghai restaurant that operated for 100 years. The Holbrooke Hotel, the Empire Mine, the Northstar Mining Museum in Grass Valley are well worth visiting and Nevada City is a charming town. It even has its own water monitor at the base of Broad Street. My book seeks to rediscover this past, first with the residents of today and then sharing it with the region and beyond. If we stopped a hundred people in front of the new Sawyer Hotel in downtown Sacramento and asked them why it’s called the Sawyer, I doubt anyone could come up with an answer. Lorenzo Sawyer created modern California with his decision. It is one of the most important legal precedents in American history and we should not live our lives ignorant of it.
Who are the heroes in this book?
Charles Reed is the obvious hero, but there are a couple of others, George Cadwalader and J.C. Boggs, who have been lost to history. If Governor Jerry Brown were sitting with us right now, I would nominate George Cadwalader for induction into the California Hall of Fame. His contribution as lead attorney for the Anti-Debris Association was instrumental in ending the devastating scourge of hydraulic mining, reasserting agriculture, which remains one of the largest industries in the state today. J.C. Boggs should be as well-known as Wyatt Earp. The Gold Rush was the eighth largest migration ever and once everyone realized they were not all going to strike it rich, many turned to crime. Boggs fought these vipers and desperados during the early California years, when state institutions were weak to non-existent, with few courts, few lawmen, and crime rates higher than at any other time. How Boggs and other lawmen brought civility to this mayhem is nothing short of miraculous.
Why did you use a braided narrative, moving between 1883 and 2013?
The 2013 narrative is used to comment on the 1880s. The data is in and the modern narrative can place the earlier events, the larger story, in context, with a modern perspective and sensibility. It also allows the reader to experience the locales, where the events occurred, as they appear now and through modern eyes. And it gives me a really good ending.
Tell me about yourself. Have you always been a writer?
No, I worked almost 20 years for The McGraw-Hill Education Companies – CTB. I was a senior program manager in charge of scoring statewide assessments, reading, math, all content areas for students K-12. I worked with state departments of education, the Department of Defense Educational Agency and I was fortunate to also work on an international contract in the Middle East, Qatar and its Supreme Education Council, which provided me the opportunity to see, meet, and work with other people and cultures.
Promoting The Golden Star of Shanghai is my top priority. I have a website, cliffgans.com, where I respond to readers, blog about road tripping, hidden gem stops, craft beer and food, traveling with dogs. Cemeteries are great places to visit and I’ve documented the grave sites of many of the Golden Star’s characters, from Auburn to Oakland, the Mountain View Cemetery – Millionaire’s Row. The website is a backdrop to the book, where people can see the locales, from the Malakoff Mine to the Ferry Building to the Old San Francisco Mint. The website just adds to the experience of the book and hopefully will encourage readers to take their own road or day trip to see these sites and engage with our past. I’ve spent the last few years dedicated to researching and writing this book, so I have enough material for Book 2, to continue the Charles Townsend Reed Saga. But it’s really up to the readers of this first book. Being a writer today is something like being a garage band. You start at small venues and work your way up, building an audience. It’s what I aim to do. It’s what Charles Reed, Chan, Willis Connelly, J.C. Boggs, George Cadwalader, all my characters, would want.