I have been intrigued by the life of pioneering Chinese-American immigrant Seid Back ever since I first was “introduced” to him in The Oregonian archives. Here was a fascinating man who straddled multiple realms of identity in Oregon’s early history, who protected his community in the face of virulent persecution, who made a fortune in the demimonde, who was a valued leader to overseas Chinese.
I was astounded to find how little had been published about this individual. Other than the exemplary work done by Marie Rose Wong in her superlative “Sweet Cakes Long Journey” this figure was an all-too intriguing absence in the historical record.
The perceived role of the Chinese in Oregon’s early history is all-too-often that of a footnote or of a passive subject. Seid Back was very much the opposite: an active and committed individual who fought for his community and made himself wealthy in the process.
It was a genuine honor to research and write this entry for the Oregon Encyclopedia. Helping restore Seid Back to deserved prominence is the kind of writing that I truly love; a chance to enshrine the forgotten in the “official” history of the state.
“Mankind is not a circle with a single center but an ellipse with two focal points of which facts are one and ideas the other.”—Victor Hugo
Last week I climbed higher than the Sears Tower in a near-fugue state, brought on by a Netflix series. “The Circle” is a surreal distillation of our zeitgeist, one that is eminently satisfying on a limbic level. It has the uneasy sensation of a deepfake, of a show entirely designed and cast by a neural net trained on all our contemporary anxieties: “We forced an AI with generalized anxiety disorder to view ten billion Instagram interactions and here’s what it made!”