From 1864 to 1869, approximately 20,000 Chinese laborers worked on the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad that linked the U.S. east and west coasts. Most of the workers came to California in the 1850s from Guangdong province to participate in the gold rush. They faced discrimination and even violence from the white population, which accelerated in the years following the completion of the railroad. Very little is known about their individual experiences and identities. Chang (history, Stanford Univ.; Fateful Ties: A History of America's Preoccupation with China) endeavors to address this lack of knowledge, which proves a challenging task, as no writing by a Chinese railroad worker has ever been found. Primary sources available, such as pay schedules and newspaper articles, offer scant information. Thus the author pieces the story together though the accounts of contemporaneous Chinese immigrants; archeological evidence from work sites; Chinese language poetry and songs; and stories passed down in Chinese American families across the generations. VERDICT Successfully shedding light on the fascinating lives of the workers who completed a monumental task in the mountainous west, this is an essential read for anyone interested in the history of Chinese Americans, the American West, or the Transcontinental Railroad.—Joshua Wallace, Tarleton State Univ. Lib. Stephenville, TX
In this ambitious saga, Chang (Fateful Ties), a professor of American history, burrows deep into the margins of history, attempting to reveal the experiences of the Chinese men who labored on the Central Pacific Railroad. He follows them from China’s Pearl River Delta to California, through the treacherous Sierra Nevada Mountains and into Nevada and Utah, pausing to examine the workers’ strike of 1867, brothels, violence against the Chinese, and other aspects of their lives. A lack of primary sources detailing the lives of the men who built one half of the transcontinental railroad—not a single diary and only a few letters—means Chang is forced to rely on payroll documents, inventory lists, folk songs, and other such sources to piece together his story. His writing is vibrant and passionate; he has searched as widely as he can to try to render his subjects as “vital, living, and feeling human beings who made history,” and this account clarifies that the Chinese railroad workers had far more agency than popularly believed. But the sparseness of the historical record means that he has to spend far too long on extrapolation. Readers hoping for a well-sourced account of what it was like to work on the railroads won’t find one here, though Chang’s history does shed more light on this facet of American history. Agent: Melissa Chinchillo, Fletcher and Company. (May)
WINNER OF THE ASIAN/PACIFIC AMERICAN LIBRARIANS AWARD FOR LITERATURE WINNER OF THE CHINESE AMERICAN LIBRARIANS ASSOCIATION BEST BOOK AWARD “Gripping . . . Chang has accomplished the seemingly impossible . . . He has written a remarkably rich, human, and compelling story of the railroad Chinese.” — Peter Cozzens, Wall Street Journal “The lived experience of the Railroad Chinese has long been elusive . . . Chang’s book is a moving effort to recover their stories and honor their indispensable contribution to the building of modern America.” — New York Times “A valuable contribution to the history of the Chinese in North America.” — Kirkus Reviews “Ambitious . . . [Chang’s] writing is vibrant and passionate.” — Publishers Weekly “This epic account will stand as the definitive history of how Chinese laborers, including members of my own family, did monumental work under some of the most difficult physical circumstances imaginable on a project that would eventually transform our country. Fascinating and heartbreaking, Ghosts of Gold Mountain is a must-read.” — Lisa See, New York Times best-selling author of On Gold Mountain and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan “Under Gordon Chang’s inspired pen, the unheralded contribution of Chinese laborers in building America’s first transcontinental railroad bursts into daylight like a mighty locomotive rushing from a mountain tunnel. These ‘Railroad Chinese’ left a rich legacy of herculean construction throughout the American West, and by ably sifting through frequently elusive sources, Dr. Chang brings their individual stories and culture into illuminating focus.” — Walter R. Borneman, author of Iron Horses: America’s Race to Bring the Railroads West “America is forever indebted to the roughly twenty thousand Chinese workers who built the western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Yet their momentous journeys, their dreams and travails, the racism that they endured, and their ultimate triumphs and tragedies have remained only dimly understood and recognized until now. Gordon Chang has finally told their story in a vivid, insightful, and deeply human way.” — Andrés Reséndez, author of The Other Slavery “Ghosts of Gold Mountain is a treasure trove of stories, and of exciting scholarship that answers questions many of us have asked for decades. In this profound and inspiring book, Chang reveals at last how the West was truly won: by Railroad Chinese who literally united these American states.” — David Henry Hwang, author of the Tony Award-winning play M. Butterfly “Gordon Chang leaves no boulder unturned, nor tunnel unexplored, as he brings vital detail to the lives of the Chinese railroad workers: ‘ghosts’ who are no longer missing in history, thanks to his meticulous research. After a hundred and fifty years, this book sets the record straight.” — Helen Zia, author of Last Boat out of Shanghai
A well-researched history of the "Railroad Chinese," those who traveled to the United States to build the transcontinental railway system but were thereafter mostly forgotten.
As Chang (History/Stanford Univ.; Fateful Ties: A History of America's Preoccupation with China, 2015) notes, the lives and fates of the Chinese railroad workers who labored to build steel lines across mountains and deserts are not well-documented; much is an argument from silence, barring the discovery of "that elusive prize, the diary of a Railroad Chinese." What is certain is that many thousands arrived, traveling freelance or having been recruited from villages and cities in China. Drawing on family memories, government records, archaeological reports, and other materials, Chang reconstructs their difficult work and the social organization that underlay it, with young workers led by somewhat older foremen and labor brokers. Some arrived during the various gold rushes of 19th-century California, where they "frequently worked in teams on claims abandoned by white miners" and learned skills that would prove essential in later railroad work. Praised as "very good working hands," they were also subject to racism at every level of American society and were often the victims of violence—e.g., the case of "a Chinaman," as the court record calls a man named Ling Sing, who was repeatedly shot by a white man who escaped punishment thanks to laws that forbade nonwhites from testifying against whites. "Where Ling Sing is buried is not known," writes the author. The identities and pasts of so many others who died in construction accidents are similarly unknown, and although Railroad Chinese participated in strikes and asserted their rights, most disappeared after the lines were built, some to return to China, others to find work as farmers and laborers in places like New Orleans and California's Central Valley.
A valuable contribution to the history of the Chinese in North America, allowing the formerly nameless to emerge "as real historical actors."