How the West was built

Pro­ject seek­ing to write the history of the Chi­nese who worked on the transcon­ti­nen­tal rail­way gets a boost from Stan­ford

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Julie Maki­nen julie.maki­nen@latimes.com Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Vi­o­let Lawin Hong Kong and Ni­cole Liu of The Times’ Bei­jing bureau con­trib­uted to this re­port.

STAN­FORD — In May 1969, Con­nie Young Yu’s mother and fa­ther trav­eled to Utah from the Bay Area for cer­e­monies mark­ing the 100th an­niver­sary of the transcon­ti­nen­tal rail­way. Like thou­sands of Chi­nese Amer­i­cans, their mi­grant­la­borer fore­fa­thers had worked on the mas­sive pro­ject that cul­mi­nated in Cal­i­for­nia rail baron Le­land Stan­ford driv­ing the cel­e­brated golden spike at Promon­tory Point.

But her par­ents’ pride quickly turned to dis­may as they lis­tened to Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary John Volpe’s re­marks, which ig­nored the Chi­nese mi­grant con­tri­bu­tion.

“He gave this ora­tion say­ing, ‘ Who but Amer­i­cans could have blasted tun­nels through the Sier­ras? Who but Amer­i­cans could have built 10 miles of track in one day?’” re­called Yu, 73, a his­to­rian and au­thor who lives in the Bay Area city of Los Al­tos. “He had no clue of the history.”

In the decades since, Yu and other grass-roots history buffs have sought — with lim­ited suc­cess — to flesh out the sto­ries of these long-anony­mous Chi­nese mi­grants and win wider recog­ni­tion for their role in the build­ing of the Amer­i­can West. But now their ef­forts are get­ting a boost from a some­what un­likely quar­ter: Stan­ford Univer­sity, founded by none other than Le­land Stan­ford.

Scholars at the school have launched the Chi­nese Rail­road Work­ers in North Amer­ica Pro­ject, en­deav­or­ing to col­lect the most com­plete record of these mi­grants’ jour­ney to the Amer­i­can fron­tier and their sub­se­quent ex­pe­ri­ences. The ef­fort has grown since 2012 to in­volve more than 100 re­searchers and vol­un­teers in the United States, Canada and Asia, in fields as var­ied as an­thro­pol­ogy and ar­chi­tec­ture. To­gether, they aim to gen­er­ate ar­ti­cles, books and a dig­i­tal archive, along with cur­ric­ula and public events.

“This univer­sity wouldn’t ex­ist with­out these work­ers. Le­land Stan­ford was rich, but he be­came fab­u­lously rich be­cause of the rail­road,” said Hil­ton Oben­zinger, as­so­ciate di­rec­tor of the pro­ject. “He could cre­ate a univer­sity be­cause of the Chi­nese work­ers who built the rail­road.”

Re­mark­ably lit­tle is known of the 12,000 Chi­nese mi­grants who came to build the rail­ways in the 1860s. Many are listed in sur­viv­ing records sim­ply with monikers like “China Sam” or “China Jim.” Re­searchers have yet to find any pri­mary doc­u­ment, such as a let­ter home or a di­ary.

“We have one line of cal­lig­ra­phy in a pay­roll record from the Cen­tral Pa­cific Rail­road” by a worker, said Shel­ley Fisher Fishkin, di­rec­tor of Stan­ford’s Amer­i­can Stud­ies pro­gram. “It’s ex­cel­lent cal­lig­ra­phy, by an ed­u­cated per­son prob­a­bly with an ac­count­ing back­ground.”

Re­searchers be­lieve that many of the la­bor­ers were mer­chants, traders and black­smiths seek­ing op­por­tu­nity in the United States af­ter the Opium Wars, Taip­ing Re­bel­lion, nat­u­ral dis­as­ters and famines. Most of the mi­grants, many of them ed­u­cated men, came from the south­ern province of Guang­dong.

“They were not just strong backs,” said Gor­don Chang, di­rec­tor of Stan­ford’s Cen­ter for East Asian Stud­ies. “They were am­bi­tious peo­ple mak­ing their way. There was a va­ri­ety of iden­ti­ties; they came from dif­fer­ent strata or classes. They had dif­fer­ent skills, in­clud­ing cook­ing, ac­count­ing, car­pen­try and ma­sonry.”

In early June, about 250 peo­ple came to the Stan­ford cam­pus for a con­fer­ence on top­ics such as rail­way la­bor strikes and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal find­ings that shed light on the daily rou­tines of the work­ers. De­scen­dants of about 50 rail­way work­ers came from as far away as Hawaii and shared oral his­to­ries, a key source of in­for­ma­tion for the pro­ject.

San Fran­cisco film­maker Barre Fong has con­ducted video in­ter­views with dozens of Chi­nese Amer­i­cans, in­clud­ing prom­i­nent au­thors Max­ine Hong Kingston and Lisa See, about their rail­way-worker an­ces­tors. He is aim­ing to cre­ate an hour­long doc­u­men­tary on the sub­ject in af­fil­i­a­tion with the Stan­ford ef­fort.

“Up to now, we kind of have this im­age of name­less, face­less men with big straw hats,” said Fong, 48. “We got some pretty in­ter­est­ing de­tails about who they were, who they left be­hind and why they left China, and the legacy they left be­hind in the United States.”

Chin Lin Sou, a flu­ent English speaker, went on to be­comea prom­i­nent Den­ver busi­ness­man. HungLai Woh came over as a teenager and built sheds to pro­tect the rail tracks from heavy snow­fall. He later ran a cigar busi­ness in San Fran­cisco.

See’s great-great grand­fa­ther — whom she de­scribed as an il­lit­er­ate “snake oil sales­man” — was hired to serve as an herbal­ist for the la­bor­ers.

Another de­scen­dant, Sandy Lee, told re­searchers that her great-grand­fa­ther’s work team was ac­costed by an In­dian tribe and that the chief, who had re­cently lost his son, “adopted” the young Chi­nese man for two years. Af­ter he was freed, he went back to China, mar­ried, then joined his brother in Mary­land and took up farm­ing.

Many Chi­nese who built the rail­roads were not ea­ger to re­count their ex­pe­ri­ences. Film­maker Fong him­self had a great-grand­par­ent who served as a cook on the rail­road, but rarely dis­cussed it.

“It was not a proud time in his life, so itwas only men­tioned in pass­ing, never in de­tail,” Fong said. “I’ve asked all my rel­a­tives, and they say he never talked about it.”

But in re­cent years, Chang said, many Chi­nese Amer­i­cans have come to re­gard this pe­riod with honor.

“These work­ers were the an­ces­tors of many Chi­nese Amer­i­cans to­day. Oth­ers see them as their fore­bears even if they’re not re­lated to them,” Chang said. “There’s a ro­man­ti­cism and a hero­ism around them now.”

The Stan­ford ef­fort co­in­cides with a bur­geon­ing in­ter­est among some Chi­nese main­lan­ders in ex­plor­ing 19th cen­tury Chi­nese mi­gra­tion. Li Ju, a Bei­jing-based am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­pher, has spent months in the United States, trac­ing the route fol­lowed by the rail­way work­ers and tak­ing pic­tures of sites doc­u­mented by the Cen­tral Pa­cific Rail­road’s of­fi­cial pho­tog­ra­pher.

Last year, Li helped re­porters from a Chi­nese news­pa­per visit some of the sites; a book of his pho­to­graphs will be pub­lished this sum­mer in China.

“I’m an ed­u­cated per­son, I went to col­lege, but un­til I vis­ited the U.S. in 2010, I my­self had never heard about this history,” said Li, 56.

His­to­ri­ans in Guang­dong, mean­while, are in the midst of an eight-year pro­ject to trace mi­gra­tion from the province.

Selia Tan, an ar­chi­tec­tural his­to­rian at Wuyi Univer­sity in Guang­dong, who is part of the Stan­ford pro­ject, said many doc­u­ments in China were de­stroyed dur­ing the up­heaval of Mao’s 1966-76 Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion. And what­ever per­sonal letters that sur­vived the purges might not serve as re­li­able his­tor­i­cal records, she said, be­cause mi­grants of­ten “tried to keep the harsh re­al­i­ties from their fam­ily and re­ported only the good news in their letters home.”

Still, Chang says mod­ern tech­nol­ogy is help­ing re­searchers piece to­gether in­for­ma­tion in ways that would have been im­pos­si­ble a few years ago. “Dig­i­ti­za­tion of news­pa­per ar­chives and other records, email and other tools make it pos­si­ble to col­lab­o­rate across borders in ways that pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of scholars couldn’t.”

While work­ing on the Amer­i­can rail­roads, Chi­nese la­bor­ers faced sys­tem­atic dis­crim­i­na­tion. They re­ceived less pay than Ir­ish men and had to pro­vide their own food and ac­com­mo­da­tions. Later, the Chi­nese Ex­clu­sion Act of 1882 barred the immigration of Chi­nese la­bor­ers; other leg­is­la­tion re­stricted school­ing and prop­erty own­er­ship.

Some per­cent­age of the mi­grants— it’s not clear how many— even­tu­ally re­turned to China; one from the Seat­tle area, Chin Gee Hee, was a driv­ing force be­hind the Sun­ning Rail­road in the Pearl River Delta, the first rail­road in that re­gion.

The Stan­ford re­searchers have trav­eled to the an­ces­tral vil­lages of some work­ers but have yet to make con­tact with any di­rect de­scen­dants. Fong says many Chi­nese to­day— even those who have mi­grated to the United States in re­cent decades— don’t see any con­nec­tion be­tween them­selves and the rail­road work­ers.

“They say, ‘Oh, I’m not in­ter­ested in the past, I’m in­ter­ested in the fu­ture.’ My feel­ing is yes, you­can take an air­plane over from China now, and with enough money you can buy a home any­where you want, you can send your child to Stan­ford or UCLA, you can start a busi­ness any­where. But­that was not the case even in my life­time,” said Fong, 48.

“For peo­ple who think it was al­ways like this in Amer­ica, it’s mis­guided. The way was paved by sev­eral gen­er­a­tions that re­ally suf­fered and worked very hard un­der sys­tem­atic op­pres­sion. … I hope projects like this help the newly ar­rived see this.”

South­ern Pa­cific His­tor­i­cal Col­lec­tion

IN THE SIERRA NE­VADA, Cen­tral Pa­cific’s Se­cret Town Trestle near Colfax, in Placer County, was built by hun­dreds of Chi­nese work­ers in the 1860s.

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