The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad

The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad


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The completion of the transcontinental railroad in May 1869 is usually told as a story of national triumph and a key moment for American Manifest Destiny. The Railroad made it possible to cross the country in a matter of days instead of months, paved the way for new settlers to come out west, and helped speed America's entry onto the world stage as a modern nation that spanned a full continent. It also created vast wealth for its four owners, including the fortune with which Leland Stanford would found Stanford University some two decades later. But while the Transcontinental has often been celebrated in national memory, little attention has been paid to the Chinese workers who made up 90 percent of the workforce on the Western portion of the line. The Railroad could not have been built without Chinese labor, but the lives of Chinese railroad workers themselves have been little understood and largely invisible.

This landmark volume explores the experiences of Chinese railroad workers and their place in cultural memory. The Chinese and the Iron Road illuminates more fully than ever before the interconnected economies of China and the US, how immigration across the Pacific changed both nations, the dynamics of the racism the workers encountered, the conditions under which they labored, and their role in shaping both the history of the railroad and the development of the American West.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781503608290
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 04/30/2019
Series: Asian America
Pages: 560
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin are Co-Directors of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford; Hilton Obenzinger is Associate Director and Roland Hsu is Director of Research.

Table of Contents

Contents and Abstracts

Introduction Gordon H. Chang, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, and Hilton Obenzinger
chapter abstract

This chapter establishes the core narrative of the history of Chinese railroad workers on the Central Pacific, the western portion of what becomes known as the Transcontinental Railroad. It gives an overview of milestones in the construction of the line, the relationship of the company to the workers, and major contributions of the workers to the construction effort. The chapter surveys the historiography of Chinese railroad workers and the place of these workers in Chinese American history and memory. The chapter emphasizes the serious lack of attention to their history and the long overdue recognition of their contributions. It gives an overview of the chapters that follow in this transnational, interdisciplinary effort to recover this neglected chapter of the past.

1Chinese Railroad Workers and the US Transcontinental Railroad in Global Perspective Gordon H. Chang
chapter abstract

The story of the transcontinental is traditionally told as part of the grand rise of the United States in the mid 19th century. It is celebrated in scholarship and in public memory as a triumph of the nation. The international and transnational dimension of the story is omitted. This chapter places the history in a broader perspective that brings attention to the global ambition of the United States in seeking opportunities in the Pacific and East Asia; to the workforce from China that completed the western portion of the railroad; to the trans-Pacific network of people, goods, and business that linked the railroad far beyond the borders of the country, and to the global implications of the completion of the railroad.

2Chinese Labor Migrants to the Americas in the Nineteenth Century: An Inquiry into Who They Were and the World They Left Behind Evelyn Hu-DeHart
chapter abstract

This chapter examines who the Chinese labor migrants were, collectively speaking, and what the nature of the local environment or world in which they lived and worked was before migration. Close attention is paid to the labor migrants recruited to work on the sugar plantations of Cuba. This migration was contemporaneous with the movement to California to build the Central Pacific Railroad. This chapter presents a detailed portrait of those who went to Cuba as, very possibly, representative of the California railroad workers as well.

3The View from Home: Dreams of Chinese Railroad Workers Across the Pacific Zhang Guoxiong, with Roland Hsu
chapter abstract

This chapter uncovers and interprets Chinese government documents and original materials of popular culture from the hometowns, or qiaoxiang, of the Chinese migrant laborers from the era of the building of the Central Pacific Railroad. This chapter also reveals the impact of the Chinese railroad workers on their return to their home villages. This chapter develops a three-part argument: 1) the Pacific passage for those who migrated in search of gold in the United States mirrors the travel of those who went to build the Central Pacific Railroad; 2) after the railway opened to traffic, Chinese continued to build and repair railroads throughout western North America, thereby making a major contribution to the formation of the region's strategic transportation arteries; 3) the Chinese railway workers who returned home profoundly influenced their hometowns in ways that can still be detected today.

4Overseas Remittances of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Yuan Ding, with Roland Hsu
chapter abstract

This chapter reveals how Chinese migrants in North America used qiaohui, or overseas remittance, to transfer money back to China. These remittance mechanisms developed and operated on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Our sources of evidence in the banking sector date from periods somewhat later in the twentieth century. This chapter explains the development of remittance institutions in this later period and extrapolate to the origins in the period of the Chinese railroad workers and the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad.

5Chinese Railroad Workers' Remittance Networks: Insights Based on Qiaoxiang Documents Liu Jin, with Roland Hsu
chapter abstract

The most significant flow of Chinese railroad workers in North America originated from the Pearl River delta region in Guangdong Province, especially from the four counties of the Siyi region—Taishan, Kaiping, Xinhui, and Enping. This chapter develops historical detail of the flow of remittances that the workers sent to China, and the impact of these remittances on home villages, based on recently discovered qiaoxiang (hometown) documents, including work and travel contracts to cross the Pacific Ocean during the period from the discovery of gold in North America to the US Chinese Exclusion Act (1848-1882).

6Archaeological Contributions to Research on Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Barbara L. Voss
chapter abstract

Archaeological landscapes, sites, and deposits provide an important source of information about the daily lives of Chinese railroad workers. On the first transcontinental railroad, the most in-depth archaeological studies have been conducted at work camps associated with Summit Camp (Donner Pass, California) and Promontory Summit (near Ogden, Utah). Archaeologists have also studied Chinese work camps on the Southern Pacific Railroad and Northern Pacific Railroad, along with regional, local, and branch railways throughout the U.S. west. The resulting rich, descriptive accounts of work camp locations, archaeological features, and recovered artifacts provide a robust body of evidence for comparative analysis and afford an "inside-out" perspective on Chinese railroad workers' lives.

7Living between Misery and Triumph: The Material Practices of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Barbara L. Voss
chapter abstract

The artifacts found at Chinese railroad work campus reveal the everyday experiences of the workers themselves. This study reviews analyses of material culture recovered through archaeological investigations at Chinese railroad workers' camps throughout the U.S. west. By and large, macro-level material practices, such as architecture and camp organization, varied significantly from place to place. When establishing their camps, workers used local materials to address local conditions. In contrast, there was substantial continuity in the portable objects that Chinese railroad workers used. This consistency is evidence of a strong, centralized network of commodity distribution. Maintaining familiar domestic routines across a wide variety of work and living contexts may have helped Chinese railroad workers adapt quickly to new environments and situations.

8Landscapes of Change: Culture, Nature, and the Archaeological Heritage of Transcontinental Railroads in the North American West Kelly J. Dixon, with contributions by Gary Weisz, Christopher Merritt, Robert Weaver, and James Bard
chapter abstract

Material objects, together with the remains of shelters and hearths, are reminders of the human condition in a transcontinental construction camp. The Central Pacific Railroad laborers who lived in the Donner Summit camp legendarily wrought drastic changes to a landscape that had been previously viewed as a hostile and unfamiliar environment to settlers and newcomers to the region. Such transformations were among the consequences of transcontinental railroads, underscoring the significance of the laborers' role in changing the ways in which people from throughout the world perceived and accessed the landscapes of the North American West.

9The Health and Well-being of Chinese Railroad Workers J. Ryan Kennedy, Sarah Heffner, Virginia Popper, Ryan P. Harrod, and John J. Crandall
chapter abstract

This chapter combines data sets to understand the health and well-being of Chinese railroad workers who built the Central Pacific Railroad. It incorporates information from historical accounts to explore their common health concerns and the toolkit of health-related strategies they brought with them from China. It presents bioarchaeological data collected from skeletal remains of Chinese railroad workers to serve as the starting point for our archaeological inquiry into health and well-being. It explores medicine-related artifacts and archaeological plant and animal remains from campsites that provide insight into the medicinal and culinary practices of these railroad workers. This chapter argues that not only did Chinese railroad workers creatively treat their ailments, they also maintained their mental and social health through strong community bonds created by shared practices.

10Religion on the Road: How Chinese Migrants Adapted Popular Religion to an American Context Kathryn Gin Lum
chapter abstract

This chapter reconstructs the religious atmosphere in which the Chinese railroad workers who constructed the Central Pacific Railroad lived and labored by surveying the popular religious milieu in which they would have participated in China, the written evidence of white observers, and the material evidence of the temples in which they might have worshipped in the United States. This chapter pieces together a portrait of a people determined and largely able to continue and adapt popular Chinese religious practices to an often-hostile environment, and of a small but significant few who found meaning in the teachings of missionaries

11Tracking Memory: Encounters between Chinese Railroad Workers and Native Americans Hsinya Huang
chapter abstract

This chapter explains the alliance between Native Americans and Chinese laborers during and after construction of the Central Pacific Railroad. Interpretations of oral histories from tribal archives move beyond available documentation surrounding Chinese labor and trace the interactive experiences of these workers with native peoples as they entered new environments and indigenous landscapes. Chinese and Native Americans suffered similar plights in providing labor for the United States to move forward into modernity, and they indeed constitute mirror images of each other.

12Railroad Frames: Landscapes and the Chinese Railroad Worker in Photography, 18651869 Denise Khor
chapter abstract

This chapter reveals that photographs taken by Alfred A. Hart, Andrew Russell, Charles Savage, Carleton Watkins, and others function as a material record of the labor of the thousands of Chinese who built the transcontinental railroad. The images circulated in the railroad company archive and were reproduced for popular consumption to promote railway travel and the expansion of the western frontier. While their working conditions and subjection to racial violence were muted in these photographic productions, the Chinese presence underscored the power of the railroad to transform the natural landscape. The railroad photographs offered the first glimpse of a West that would soon attract many settlers from other regions and formed a significant part of the canon of western landscape photography.

13'Les fils du Ciel': European Travelers' Accounts of Chinese Railroad Workers Greg Robinson
chapter abstract

Despite their indispensable contribution in blood and toil, the surviving record on the daily living and work experience of the Chinese railroad workers remains scarce. This chapter reveals that during the period that the Chinese immigrants were employed in railroad construction in the United States, their presence and labor were attested to by a host of foreign witnesses, especially French people, who passed through the Pacific West. The letters, diaries, and travel narratives that these visitors assembled, the majority of which were originally published in French, provide vital information about the Chinese workers. What is more, these travel narratives offer a novel perspective on the unfolding debate in American circles over Chinese immigration and clearly suggest the international resonance of these issues

14The Chinese Railroad Worker in United States History Textbooks: A Historical Genealogy, 1849-1965 William Gow
chapter abstract

This essay reveals the emergence of the Chinese railroad worker in American history textbooks in the Progressive Era. The Chinese railroad worker became a staple of the nation's textbooks during a moment when large-scale immigration from southern and eastern Europe, the growth of the American empire in the Pacific and the Caribbean, and an increasingly multiethnic urban population challenged the vision many Americans had of the nation's global relationships. Between the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1924 Immigration Act, the Progressive ideology of "social betterment" became linked with notions of whiteness and civilization, creating an immigration policy rooted in quotas and exclusion. This essay argues that the cultural contradictions inherent in the Chinese railroad worker allowed the figure to simultaneously represent the hopes and the anxieties that many U.S.-born whites had about immigration in general during the Progressive Era.

15Representing Chinese Railroad Workers in North America: Chinese Historiography and Literature, 19492015 Yuan Shu
chapter abstract

This chapter analyzes Chinese historiography of the Chinese railroad workers in North America, divided into three periods since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949: the anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist period from 1949 to 1978, the reform and opening period from 1978 to 2000, and the rise of China period from 2000 to the present. In this research, the heightened profile of the railroad workers should be understood in terms of what Paul Kennedy calls "the rise and fall of great powers" and also in relation to the changes in the relationship in the twenty-first century between the United States and China.

16History Lessons: Remembering Chinese Railroad Workers in Dragon's Gate and Donald Duk Pin-chia Feng
chapter abstract

In response to the persistent racialized practice of Asian alienation, and to make present the contributions of nineteenth-century Chinese railroad workers in the United States, Chinese American writers have long engaged in various writing projects to right this wrong. This chapter focuses on the plots of two Chinese American novels featuring teenage characters: Laurence Yep's Dragon's Gate (1993) and Frank Chin's Donald Duk (1991). Narrating stories of formation about different generations of Chinese America and in different narrative modes—realistic for Dragon's Gate and fantastic for Donald Duk—these two novels clearly present a common desire to make up for the absence of the Chinese railroad labor force in the American national imagination.

17The Chinese as Railroad Builders after Promontory Shelley Fisher Fishkin
chapter abstract

This chapter documents for the first time the role Chinese workers played in building the rail infrastructure of the US during the two decades after the Transcontinental Railroad was completed—a time when the railroad mileage of the US tripled, transforming the nation's economy and social fabric. The Chinese played a key role in this frenzy of railroad construction not only in the West, the Northwest, and the Southwest (as well as Canada), but also in the South, the Midwest, and even the Northeast. This chapter documents what they did and where; what they did when the terms of their contract were violated; what hazardous conditions they were exposed to; what forms of hostility they encountered; and what they accomplished.

18The Construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Transpacific Chinese Diaspora, 18801885 Zhongping Chen
chapter abstract

This essay uses sources relating to the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) to examine how its Chinese labor contractors led the large-scale laborer migration from China to Canada and the United States in the early 1880s despite the racist attempts to halt Asian immigration. It also reveals how both Chinese labor contractors and laborers for the CPR created organizations to develop new transpacific relations with their homeland, mainstream Canadian society, and their compatriots throughout North America. Thus, this study distinguishes itself from previous scholarship on the subject with a broad focus on the contributions of these railroad builders to the transpacific Chinese diaspora.

19Beyond Railroad Work: Chinese Contributions to the Development of Winnemucca and Elko, Nevada Sue Fawn Chung
chapter abstract

The important role of the Chinese railroad workers in contributing to the development of railroad towns in the American West is exemplified in two Nevada towns: Winnemucca and Elko. In both towns the former Chinese railroad workers and their American-born descendants had a significant impact on the development of the American West. Unlike many ephemeral rail line settlements, both have endured and remain important towns along the first transcontinental route between Sacramento and Salt Lake City. As in many western rural communities, while the first generation tried to maintain their cultural heritage by celebrating major traditional holidays like New Year's and Qingming and maintaining contact with their birth villages, the children who were born in the United States and educated in the public school system became more Americanized.

20The Remarkable Life of a Sometimes Railroad Worker: Chin Gee Hee, 18441929 Beth Lew-Williams
chapter abstract

Based on available immigration files, court records, newspapers, diplomatic correspondence, appeals to the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (known as the Six Companies), private letters, a personal account book, photographs, and family lore,this chapter examines one particular voice amongthe thousands of Chinese migrants who worked on the transcontinental railroads – Chin Gee Hee (also known as Chen Yi Xi).Chin became a labor contractor, supplier, ticket agent, and railroad financier and developer in Toishan (Taishan) China. Chin's story cannot stand in for all Chinese railroad workers, but this chapter considers how his life was typical and atypical of Chinese railroad workers. Through examining Chin's work as a labor contractor, the chapter also sheds light on the workers in his employ.His effortsto protect as well as exploit his countrymen provide insight into the precarious existence of Chinese railroad workers.

21The Chinese and the Stanfords: Nineteenth-Century America's Fraught Relationship with the China Men Gordon H. Chang
chapter abstract

The Stanfords were the most influential people over the lives of 19th century Chinese in America. They employed directly or indirectly thousands of Chinese who worked on the transcontinental railroad, on their many huge estates, farms, and enterprises. Hundreds worked in their homes and on their "farm" that became the campus of Stanford University. Leland Stanford frequently voiced opinions about Chinese which ranged from the grossly prejudiced to complimentary and supportive. The relationship between the Chinese and the Stanfords is emblematic of the complicated and complex history of Chinese in America.

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