Utah Shakespeare Festival’s ‘Gold Mountain’ Tells an Untold Story


“Gold Mountain” promo (Courtesy West Valley Center of Arts website)

By Tervela Georgieva, Arts Writer


The Utah Shakespeare Festival presented the world premiere of “Gold Mountain,” a new musical by Jason Ma, on Nov. 4 at the West Valley Performing Arts Center. Intimate and honest, “Gold Mountain” tells the stories of Chinese immigrant railroad workers frequently left out of Transcontinental Railroad histories.

Chinese immigrants made up a majority of the railroad workforce in the West to build the world’s first transcontinental railroad a feat of engineering that came as a result of inherent danger and inhumane working conditions. This is their story: a story about love, family, freedom and community. 

Social Pressures and Community

The setting of “Gold Mountain” is a hillside in the Sierra Nevada, from 1866 to 1867. It follows a small group of Chinese immigrant laborers as they navigate arduous railroad work while simultaneously facing their limited freedom as non-citizens in the United States.

The men work ceaselessly in order to send money back to their starving families in China, hoping to get themselves home to China one day too. They work in a land that treats them as less than human living in impossible conditions, working longer days than the white man and making less too. All they have is each other. 

At one point, the group organizes a strike to shorten their workdays and increase their pay. By working together they reclaim power in the face of injustice. To stand against injustice, in whatever way small or big, as one of the characters says, restores the humanity that’s been forcefully erased. That is always a victory. 

Beyond the One-Dimensional

In telling any kind of history, we always run the risk of making individuals and groups of people appear one-dimensional, perpetuating harmful stereotypes that live with us until they are challenged. The characters of “Gold Mountain” are resilient and loving, with lives fuller than their jobs as railroad workers, but also undoubtedly shaped by the harsh realities of the railroad. 

Among constant struggle and tragedy, there is love, joy and celebration. Lit (Jonny Lee Jr.) falls in love with Mei (Ali Ewoldt), a woman who sold herself to white men in order to support her family in China. Their love propels them toward infinite hope even when it seems most unimaginable.

Loong (Steven Eng), an opera teacher, and his pupil Lo (Kennedy Kanagawa) perform for the railroad camp. They keep art alive even in the harshest conditions. 

The lives of these characters are a testament to joy, resilience and the pride of achievement. “Gold Mountain” challenges narratives of shame and hatred that have accompanied stories of Chinese immigrants in America. It is far too easy to take for granted the construction of a railroad that happened over 100 years ago, to skim over stories never told in their fullness. “Gold Mountain” confronts complacency with history, creating spaces for untold stories and irreducible complexities. It is a victory. 


“Gold Mountain” runs through Nov. 20 at the West Valley Performing Arts Center. For tickets and information, visit the West Valley Performing Arts Center website.


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