Wyo Whiskers: Ah Say

Today’s Wyo Whiskers feature dedicated his life to improving the treatment of his fellow countrymen in his adopted country.

Ah Say was born in China around 1847. Like many of the Chinese who came to America to work on the railroad and in the mines, he never meant to stay. Many men came with the expectation that they would work for a few years, make enough money to start their lives and return to China to marry and raise their families. Very few saw Wyoming as a permanent home and fewer brought their families with them.

Ah Say arrived in Evanston from California in 1869, then moved to Rock Springs in 1892. He worked hard in the mines, becoming an effective translator and liaison between the workers and the Union Pacific. He eventually became superintendent of the Chinese UPRR workers and a recruiter of sorts, traveling to California and Omaha to recruit and escort new Chinese workers to Southeast Wyoming, contracting with both the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads. By the time of his death, the Emperor of China had also appointed him a consul. Ah Say raised his family in Rock Springs, where all of his children (at least 4) were born. He also became a naturalized citizen and assimilated into Rock Springs society, while honoring his own cultural heritage.

Ah Say in the Joss House at Evanston, 1890s. (WSA Sub Neg 11823)

Ah Say in the Joss House at Evanston, 1890s.
(WSA Sub Neg 11823)

As a pillar of the Chinese community, Ah Say had the honor of overseeing the Joss House in Evanston. The Joss House was a sacred temple and center of the Chinese cultural community in the Rocky Mountain Region. At the time, only three Joss Houses existed in the United States: one in San Francisco, one in New York City and one in Evanston, Wyoming. Ah Say purchased and imported an elaborate dragon from China for the Chinese New Year parades which he lead down the streets for many years.

The traditional dragon, imported from China by Ah Say, was the showpiece of the annual Chinese New Year celebration in Evanston for many years.  (WSA Sub Neg 5527)

The traditional dragon, imported from China by Ah Say, was the showpiece of the annual Chinese New Year celebration in Evanston for many years. The man in the dark suit in the foreground may be Ah Say himself.
(WSA Sub Neg 5527)

Following the Chinese Massacre at Rock Springs in 1885, Ah Say implored the Union Pacific to provide the workers with transportation back to China or at the very least, pay them the money owed to them so they could afford to leave the area on their own. Despite his best efforts, the company refused to help the workers flee. Ah Say continued to work with the local communities smooth out the racial tensions and rebuild the scattered and terrified Chinese community.

(WSA Sub Neg 11822, P73-58)

Chinese worker in the coal mines of southwest Wyoming.
(WSA Sub Neg 11822, P73-58)

In 1899, Ah Say died at his home in Rock Springs. He had seen the end nearing and had prepared himself in the the “old ways”, bathing and dressing in his elaborate consul robes. He then called his family and friends to his bedside and put his final affairs in order. His lavish, $600 funeral was conducted in Rock Springs then his body was shipped to China, where his wife was living, for burial in his family plot. The newspaper published a detailed description of the tradition service and procession as well as a touching eulogy, devoting nearly two whole columns and a large photograph to him as a sign of their respect. They bid him farewell saying “the world is better because he lived. We mourn his loss now that he is dead. May he rest in peace.”

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