The Celestials
By Denise DiFulco

The strange story—in fact and fiction—of how 75 Chinese workers came to live and work in 19th century North Adams

It was a chaotic scene on the afternoon of June 13, 1870, at the North Adams train depot. Thousands of people stood at the platform awaiting the 4:15 from Troy, N.Y., an arrival that would transform the bustling manufacturing town. The incoming locomotive carried 75 Chinese workers from California, their passage paid for by local shoe manufacturer Calvin Sampson. Among the young men, only the foreman, Charlie Sing, spoke English. Unaware that they’d been hired as strikebreakers to foil the local shoemakers’ union, the workers were about to encounter a mob of agitators and curiosity seekers. It’s no exaggeration to say that the entire nation was paying attention to the arrival of the “Celestials” in Western Massachusetts.

This true story of the Celestials—a term widely used in the 19th century to describe people from the “Celestial Empire” of China—first captivated novelist Karen Shepard ’87 in 2004. During a talk by Mount Holyoke College art history professor Anthony Lee, Shepard, who is a lecturer in English at Williams, was immediately drawn to photographs of the Chinese workers that Lee was writing about for a book project.

Karen Shepard '87
Karen Shepard ’87

“I didn’t think I was going there to research a book,” recalls Shepard, who had previously published three novels. Her first book, An Empire of Women (Putnam Adult, 2000), centered on the lives of a family of women of Chinese descent.

“But as Tony spoke,” Shepard says, “I started scribbling notes on the back of my check register.”

Those notes became the beginnings of the book The Celestials, published in June by Tin House Books. The story, Shepard’s first foray into historical fiction, imagines the impact of the new workers’ arrival on the lives of her characters, many of them taken directly from the history and landscape of 19th century North Adams.

“I was fascinated with the effect on a relatively insulated, small community of the injection of a very strange thing for that community—these Chinese workers,” Shepard says.

Most major newspapers sent reporters to meet the train in North Adams and published editorials decrying the effects of the Chinese on the American labor force. “On the West Coast, the Chinese already were seen as a labor threat,” says Scott Wong, the James Phinney Baxter III Professor of History and Public Affairs at Williams, who assisted Shepard with her research. “They came in [to Sampson’s factory] to work as strike breakers, so it was bad for the Chinese as far as their reputation. But it sped the dispersal of the Chinese from the West Coast to the East Coast.”

The kitchenDuring their time in North Adams, Wong says, the 75 men, ages 14 to 22, constituted the largest concentration of Chinese living east of the Mississippi. Initially they were regarded with suspicion. Certain of a confrontation the day they came to town, Sampson, the factory owner, had boarded the locomotive at an earlier stop, reportedly with several guns on his belt and a small army of private police to fend off any attacks. But once the train arrived at its destination and its passengers disembarked, the crowd appeared more awe-struck than agitated.

Shepard describes the scene and the encounter with the striking union workers, members of the Order of the Knights of St. Crispin, in a passage partly fictionalized and partly reconstructed from newspaper accounts: “Two rocks were thrown, one landing without damage on the shoulder of the smallest boy, and the two guilty French Canadians were put in the lockup at once, nothing more to transpire from them. Although the Crispins wished all kinds of bad luck to Sampson, their hands remained in their pockets, fingering the small few coins left from their last pay, and the crowd parted, a mix of curiosity and disappointment already washing away the dangerous anticipation like river water receding from a floodplain.”

The mess hallThe novel is centrally focused on the relationship between Sampson and his wife Julia—who were childless—and the factory foreman, Charlie Sing. At a time when most married couples had children, the fact that the Sampsons had none opened up a rich vein of emotions for Shepard to tap into.

Herself the child of a Chinese mother and a white, Jewish father, Shepard says one of the most important moments in writing the book was when she decided that Julia, after several miscarriages, would give birth to a mixed-race baby.
“That’s where I began taking everything factual I had learned and building something invented out of those facts,” Shepard says. “It’s when I began to think, I’m not interested in exactly what did or didn’t happen. I’m interested in what’s most useful fictionally to explore what I’m most interested in factually.”

Before she even began writing, Shepard conducted extensive research over the course of several years, creating a solid foundation of truth upon which to build her fiction. With the help of several Williams students, she combed through the archives at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts library and the North Adams Historical Society, which had a small section on shoe manufacturing and some records of the Chinese workers. Another important primary source of information she encountered were old North Adams maps, some of which listed every street and the names and occupants of each home.

Charlie Sing“That was extremely helpful, visually,” Shepard says. Some of the maps were redrawn almost every year, so she could tell if someone had moved, if a street name had changed or if a house had burned down.

Shepard roamed the neighborhoods of North Adams, trying to associate the two-dimensional maps with real, physical spaces to recreate where her characters lived and how they moved about their lives. She also made extensive use of the photographs she first encountered at Lee’s lecture—one of the few physical remnants of the 10 years the Chinese spent in North Adams. Sampson had commissioned a group photograph of the men outside the factory when they first arrived and in subsequent years. But over time the workers also had individual portraits done in one of the three photography studios in town.

Some men chose to be photographed as Mandarin intellectuals in traditional garb. Others wore Western suits. The photos were sent home to China or used as calling cards that were given to the local church volunteers who tutored them in English. Some of the prints had the men’s names written on the back; all of them helped bring the workers to life.
“What I try to do and what Karen tries to do is to suggest the emotional affects of the sitters,” says Lee, a former fellow at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. The group and individual photographs were the basis of his 2008 nonfiction book A Shoemaker’s Story: Being Chiefly about French Canadian Immigrants, Enterprising Photographers, Rascal Yankees and Chinese Cobblers in a Nineteenth-Century Factory Town.

Ida WilburnSeeing the photographs, Shepard says, “gave me a sense of what the men wanted. And when you’re writing fiction, a basic place that you’re starting from and going back to all the time is: What do my characters want, and what are they willing to do to get it?”

The Chinese workers were hardly the first immigrants to land in North Adams. As Shepard writes in the opening pages of The Celestials, “One-third of the town’s inhabitants were foreigners—largely Irish, French Canadian and Welsh—at work in the textile mills and tanneries, the paper factories and on the formidable Hoosac Tunnel. … Five languages were preached from the town’s pulpits. And now another headed toward town: Cantonese, the language of the 75 Chinese male workers, most of whom had barely attained their majority, on the late train from Troy, and Omaha before that, and all the way back to their start, 13 days prior, in Oakland, California. The Celestials were coming.”

But unlike their immigrant predecessors, the Chinese lived in North Adams for only 10 years. Though it’s not known for certain what happened when their contracts expired, Wong says, some probably returned to California, while others flocked to Chinatowns in Boston and New York.

Meanwhile, countless attempts were being made to prevent the Chinese from working legally in the U.S. In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur finally signed into law the Chinese Exclusion Act, which restricted Chinese immigration to the U.S. and prevented Chinese from becoming citizens. It remained in effect until 1943.

Of the 75 workers, only two remained in North Adams. One was Lue Gim Gong, who was adopted by Fannie Burlingame, daughter of a wealthy merchant and farmer. He tended the family’s gardens in Massachusetts and Florida. His life was recounted in the novel Wooden Fish Songs by Ruthanne Lum McCunn and the biography Gift of the Unicorn: The Story of Lue Gim Gong, Florida’s Citrus Wizard, by Virginia Aronson.

The playgroundThe other who stayed in town for a time was Sing, who later married Ida Wilburn, a Virginia native. Ida is a character in The Celestials, though Shepard changed the details of how she and Sing met.

Late in the writing process, Shepard located two of Sing’s relatives and spoke with them—a risky proposition, she says. For one, it turned out that in some ways she knew more about Sing’s past than they did. Plus she’d had some reservations about fictionalizing aspects of his life. Ultimately, she says, it was a necessary, even worthwhile risk.
“It’s like if you wrote a memoir about your mom and let her read it,” she says. “Of course you’re not trying to make your mom suffer, but you are trying to tell a story. I guess the guiding principle in retrospect was I hoped every reader would read this book and feel I had treated all of the characters, fictional or not, the way we would all like to be treated: with a little bit of briskness and a lot of honesty and generosity.”

Other Books by Karen Shepard

Don’t I Know You? (2006) A psychological drama weaving together three separate but interconnected narratives surrounding a woman’s murder in 1976.

The Bad Boy’s Wife (2004) The story of a relationship and marriage told in reverse, from its fateful end to its beginning.

An Empire of Women (2000) A portrayal of the prickly bond between three generations of women with a rich family history.


Denise DiFulco is a freelance writer based in Cranford, N.J. She currently is writing a 20th-century historical novel and is a member of the Historical Novel Society.

Image credit: First photo courtesy of North Adams Public Library; Karen Shepard ’87 by Roman Iwasiwka; illustrations by Theodore Davis from Harper’s Weekly; photos of Charlie Sing and Ida Wilburn courtesy of Erica Mae Peterson and Barbara Lane.