Thursday, March 15, 2007

Yee Ah Tye (died 1896) - Inspiration for "Bury My Bones in America"

[Tye gravesite photo by Michael Colbruno]

Plot 5 NE

Yee Ah Tye came to California from China in 1852 to find the “Gold Mountain” and reap the financial rewards to take care of his family. He worked hard to learn English and became a miner and respected Chinatown merchant, although he never found that elusive “mountain of gold.” Along the way he had to overcome incredible racial prejudice and oppressive laws against the Chinese.

Despite this prejudice, Yee Ah Tye was proud to call himself “Chinese American” and, bucking Chinese tradition that his bones should be laid to rest in his native China, he insisted that be buried in America. His story became the book “Bury My Bones in America” written by his great-grandaughter Lani Ah Tye Farkas. His other great-grandaughter, Rachelle Chong, was appointed to the California Public Utilities Commission by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in January 2005 over the objection of consumer groups.

Mountain View Docent Barbara Smith found this tidbit on the PBS website under "Chinese Immigrants and the Gold Rush," which provides a different perspective on Yee Ah Tye's life:

In August 1852, the Alta California exposed a brewing court battle. San Francisco's most renowned Chinese madam planned to sue a notorious Chinese leader for extortion. The beautiful Miss Ah Toy claimed that Yee Ah Tye had demanded her Dupont Street prostitutes pay him a tax. She promptly outsmarted him by doing something she never could have done in China -- threatening to take him to court.

Plaintiff and Defendant
"Miss Atoy knows a thing or two, having lived under the folds of the Star-spangled Banner for three years and breathed the air of Republicanism, and she cannot be easily humbugged into any such measures. Besides she lives near the Police Office and knows where to seek protection, having been before the Recorder as a defendant at least fifty times herself. A-Thai had better be particular as to the powers he assumes, or he may find his dignity wiped away, he being dumped in the lock-up," wrote a gleeful reporter.

Leadership Role
A year later Yee Ah Tye was indeed dumped in the lock-up, this time for assault and grand larceny. Originally from Guangdong, the man one newspaper called a "petty despot" had sailed to San Francisco on a Chinese junk just before the gold rush, when he was approximately 20 years old. He spent the first night on the streets, huddled in a doorway. Yee Ah Tye had learned English in Hong Kong and before long he rose to a position of leadership in the powerful Sze Yup Association.

Dark Side
Sze Yup, and other such Chinese organizations, met Chinese newcomers to the gold rush at the docks, gave them a place to stay, found them jobs, or outfitted them for the mines. They provided an important service for a group of people who spoke little English. But Sze Yup had dark sides too, like the use of brute force. The San Francisco Herald alleged Yee Ah Tye "inflicted severe corporeal punishment upon many of his more humble countrymen ... cutting off their ears, flogging them and keeping them chained for hours together."

The complete article can be found at:


Anonymous said...

I first came across my great grandfather's grave around 1969 by chance a discovery I will remember the rest of my life. My cousin Lonnie Farkas Ah-Tye published a book "Bury My Bones" a good read for any Ah-Tye or even the general public. My blogs are under a pen name.

Anonymous said...

I stand to be corrected. Lonnie Ah-Tye Farkas is my cousin as published in her book "Bury My Bones".