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Prosperity Mountain Pays Homage to the Chinese Who Helped Build the Wood River Valley
Friday, October 27, 2023


Seizing an incense stick, the Wood River Valley man lit a piece of ancestor money, wishing the Chinese that helped build the Wood River Valley 150 years ago all the best as the smoke curled into the air.

Honoring those who may not have been given the respect they deserved during their lifetime is one of the objectives of the new Prosperity Mountain Chinese American Heritage sculpture that was unveiled  Wednesday evening on the corner outside Hailey Coffee Company.

“The Chinese came here in the 1880s to work on the railroad and in the mines… This is a history that was not acknowledged for so long. This sculpture is designed to remind people that they were here,” said the sculptor Gemma Valdez Daggatt.

Daggatt is only 1/64th Chinese but it was the traditions of her Filipino family, such as putting out oranges and other treats for ancestors at their gravesites, that stuck with her as she grew up in California.

Her grandfather immigrated to Hawaii from the Philippines in the 1920s to work in the sugarcane fields. Her grandmother arrived in the Hawaiian Territories as a mail order bride. She married a stranger, then fell in love with that man’s best friend, who ended up being Daggatt’s grandfather.

“I have a picture of her with her arms around both men. They raised their kids together,” said Daggett, who studied sculpture at St. Louis School of Fine Arts and textile design at the University of California-Davis. “It is because of the hard work of my Asian grandparents that I am here living an amazing life.”

Daggatt honored her Asian roots throughout her career as a construction manager specializing in historical restoration. When she turned the home of a Chinese family in Seattle’s Chinatown into an affordable housing project, for instance, she incorporated the acupuncture signs and basketball uniforms she discovered in the 1910 home in the remodel.

When the City of Hailey put out a call for artist to design a Chinese sculpture, she jumped at the opportunity, citing her experience building local Willow Woman sculptures and art cars at Burning Man.

“Prosperity Mountain is a continuation of my passion for telling stories. And yesterday’s story is very similar to what we see today,” said Daggett, a parttime resident of Sun Valley since the 1990s. “When the Chinese were here, they made up almost a third of Idaho’s population. Today, a third of Idaho is not white, and the pressures put on the Chinese is the same that Hispanics face today.”

Daggatt created the 8-foot-tall sculpture from salvaged material, including vintage grizzly mesh used by miners to sort big rocks from smaller ones. A trellis represents the Chinese that extended from River Street to the Big Wood River and in east Hailey. The top Lu round shape signifying wealth and prosperity and the lower mountain outline are derived from ancient Chinese symbols that predate the Chinese alphabet.

“I wanted to use symbols, not characters, because most Chinese were illiterate until the Cultural Revolution,” she said. “The Chinese of the 1800s would have understood the round prosperity symbol and the mountain, and these symbols are still in use today.”

The Chinese first came to the United States in 1848 to find the so-called “Gold Mountain” during the California Gold Rush. When they didn’t find treasure in California, they moved inland.

“The railroad brought many Chinese over. They said that the Chinese had built the Great Wall so they should be able to build railroads. The Chinese were known as amazing hard workers,” Daggatt said.

Locally, Chinese worked on the Oregon Short Line and in the Bullion, Red Elephant, Triumph and other mines.

“They often took over placer mines that had been abandoned and made a living out of the leftovers,” Daggatt said. “Here, they were a big part of the service industry, working as vegetable farmers, chefs, house servants and laundrymen, picking up laundry by dog sled in winter.              

“I called my piece ‘Prosperity Mountain’ because they didn’t find Gold Mountain but they did make a living when they moved inland. “

It was not painless, though.

T. E. Picotte, who published the Wood River Times during the 1880s, wrote vehemently anti-Chinese editorials until his readers began to boycott anti-Chinese activities. When told they had to leave in the late 1800s, Chinese put an ad in the paper saying: We pay taxes. We follow laws. We have businesses here. We can’t up and leave, said Daggatt.

Daggatt found at least 120 Chinese names in the late 1800s with names like Ah Chung, Ah Dam, Ah Dong, Ah Foo, Colorado Chinaman and Spanish Joe. And one newspaper talked of there being 450 Chinese in the area.

Women were uncommon because the quotas in those days allowed only men into the country with the idea that they were sojourners—not immigrants.

Contemporary Chinese who have made their mark on the valley include Ric Lum, who worked as a chef and artist here for a 30 years until he moved to Santa Fe, and Yulan, who taught Mandarin classes for  children who were adopted from China.

Etienne Blumberg, one of the Chinese children who grew up here, returned to China a few years ago to visit the orphanage in which her mother Judy Blumberg found her. She described arriving at a ghostly building with just 10 orphans--“waiting children” who will likely never be adopted.

“I have an incredible life here with a home friends, family and opportunities…snowboarding in the winter…schools with passionate teachers…easy access to clean water and air,” said Blumberg, now a senior at the Sun Valley Community School. “I’m happy to see the Chinese acknowledged with this sculpture.”

Carol Waller, a member of the Arts and Historic Preservation Commission, concurred: “I think it’s wonderful to highlight another cultural aspect of this valley.”


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