A Pound of Pork and a Pinch of Puffer : Subsistence Strategies in a Chinese Work Camp

This study investigates the subsistence strategies revealed by the faunal remains from Yema-po (CA-Ala-423H). The site, which is situated in rural surroundings near San Leandro, California, was occupied by Chinese workers building the Lake Chabot dam. Construction of the dam is known to have started in 1874. The historical background of the site and that of the Overseas Chinese workers is considered, and some southern Chinese food preferences are reviewed. The faunal assemblage from the excavations in 1980 and 1981 is analyzed. This analysis is designed to determine several factors. Firstly, the qualification and quantification of the taxa present establishes which fauna are probable food items; and, of these, which are domestic, which local wild fauna, and which imported--and in what relative proportions. Secondly, the analysis reveals to what extent these taxa represent traditional southern Chinese food and to what, if any, degree local (Anglo-American) food habits have been adopted. Thirdly, the performance of a butchery analysis on the identified beef and pork remains establishes the extent to which Anglo-American type primal and/or retail cuts of meat were being purchased on the local market and determines the quality of these cuts. Finally, the spatial patterning of the lower levels of the excavation units is considered, to determine if they are, as is believed, an undisturbed primary deposit. Francis Hsu's (1970, 1981, 1983) hypothesis positing "situation-centeredness" as a basic Chinese characteristic, and the possible use by the workers of a "minimax" game-plan for survival . (e.g., Anderson and Anderson 1977:381) are both tested against the findings of the faunal analysis. The presence is confirmed of a range of taxa that represent traditional Chinese meats and seafood. The pig is predominant among the mammals, while chicken and duck comprise most of the avifauna. A diversity of seafood is present, as well as local pond turtle, and a soft-shell turtle not previously reported from Overseas Chinese sites in the western United States. A small quantity of beef is apparently the only meat purchased as retail cuts. The lower levels of the site are found to contain the same taxa, in roughly the same percentages, but in much smaller quantities, as the highly disturbed upper levels. The presence of marker taxa indicates that the bulk of the faunal remains were probably deposited from the late 1870s onward. It is less likely that these remains belong to the first period of construction (1874-1875)--a supposition borne out by the dating of the Anglo-American bottles retrieved from the site (Miller 1983:14). The southern Chinese community at Yema-po is seen as one keeping to a highly traditional diet, and conforming to a minimax strategy through minimal change in life style as well as in food selection, preparation, and cooking. In order to achieve this, the workers are believed to have deviated from any situation-centered pattern that is designed to "fit in or harmonize with what exists . ."and that encourages compromise {Hsu 1983:52), leaning instead toward one that they believed would maximize their chance of survival.