New monument highlights landmark case that allowed Chinese to testify in U.S. courts

“I’m glad that Chinese Americans were brave enough and courageous while they were being discriminated against," a local Chinese alliance said.

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By Agnes Constante

A new monument in Albuquerque, New Mexico, commemorates a largely unknown 19th century landmark civil rights case that allowed Chinese individuals to testify in an American court for the first time.

The monument, named “View from Gold Mountain,” was installed last week and was spearheaded in 2013 by Siu Wong, a member of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance Albuquerque.

It draws attention to the case Territory of New Mexico v. Yee Shun, which occurred at a time when many western states and territories did not allow Chinese people to testify in court, John Wunder, a history professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said in an email. Wunder is also the author of the book “Gold Mountain Turned to Dust: Essays on the Legal History of the Chinese in the Nineteenth-Century American West,” which detailed the case.

Wong said that the contributions of Chinese Americans are better recognized in states such as California and New York, but she and her husband had never seen any monument that highlights what Chinese Americans have done for New Mexico or Albuquerque.

Wong noted that Chinese Americans have contributed to all aspects of American society throughout the last century, including civil rights, She said she was grateful for the opportunity to share this particular case in New Mexico and across the country through the monument.

“I’m glad that Chinese Americans were brave enough and courageous while they were being discriminated against,” Wong said. “They knew that if they were going to find justice, justice should also be applied to everybody. And I think this is what the monument speaks to: liberty, equality and justice for all. And in that fight, we truly make the United States a better and fairer country to live in.”

When she learned about the landmark case, she knew it was something significant, she said.

In 1882, Yee Shun, a recent immigrant from China, got off a train in Las Vegas, New Mexico, on his way to Albuquerque to look for a job. In Las Vegas, he went to a Chinese laundry in search of a friend.

While he was at the laundry, someone fired a gun and killed a man. Shun and others fled the scene, but he was arrested and charged with second-degree murder.

During the trial, a Chinese witness, Jo Chinaman, identified Shun as the killer. Wunder said the name Chinaman could have been an alias.

Shun was sentenced to life in prison, a decision his attorney appealed, arguing that the testimony of Chinese non-Christian witnesses — like Chinaman — was inadmissible in court. The Territory of New Mexico Supreme Court declined the appeal, saying that Chinese people did not have to be Christian to testify in court, Wunder wrote in an article for the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, a project out of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

"There was much conern over whether non-Christians could take the oath to tell the truth," Wunder said. "That was overcome in Yee Shun, but the effect was a full scale probing of Chinese cultural beliefs."

After hearing of the results of the appeal, Shun committed suicide.

“The racist underpinnings of 19th century law were profound,” Wunder said. “Yee Shun expanded Chinese legal rights but at a terrible cost.”

"There was much conern over whether non-Christians could take the oath to tell the truth," Wunder said. "That was overcome in Yee Shun, but the effect was a full scale probing of Chinese cultural beliefs."

Nearly 100 people convened at the Bernalillo County Courthouse in Albuquerque on Saturday morning for a ceremony to dedicate the monument, Wong said, followed by a seminar that highlighted the importance of the case.

The sculpture was designed by Seattle-based artists Cheryll-Leo Gwin and Stewart Wong (who is not related to Wong). It features a plumb that represents stability. The plumb is split on one side, revealing a braid that represents the queue Chinese men wore honoring their country and the strength of the United States with all its cultures woven together, Leo-Gwin said in an email. The braid unravels at the top of the plumb to support three gourds that represent the three branches of government.

Clouds on the plumb and on the wall of the courthouse represent the hopes and dreams of everyone who came to America, Leo-Gwin added.

“The takeaway is that the rule of law and the power in those three branches of government coupled with a blended multicultural society creates our democracy and when in balance there is justice for all,” she said.

Also included in the sculpture is a timeline with dates representing the laws and activities affecting current civil rights laws, and an inscription about 70 words long that describes the case.