The Mercury News
Historian’s book shines light on Chinese workers in California
They helped complete the American dream of conquering the West ... then they were told to leave
Using only picks and shovels, wheelbarrows, carts and horses, thousands of Chinese laborers cleared the dense brush and conifer thickets of the Sierra Nevada mountains. They chiseled and blasted their way through solid rock, filled riverbeds and graded the foundation for what would become the most significant infrastructure project in U.S. history at the time: the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad.
Stretching 1,912 miles from Omaha, Nebraska, where it linked to a network of railroads on the East Coast, to its terminus in the burgeoning city of Oakland, the railroad was more than a boon for businessmen and entrepreneurial spirits seeking fortunes; it united a country still reeling from the Civil War, symbolized the taming of the rugged West and became a physical representation of Manifest Destiny.
Some 10,000 to 15,000 Chinese workers toiled along the line between 1863 and the railroad’s completion on May 10, 1869, comprising 90% of the workforce along the Central Pacific Railroad’s line, which ran through California, Ne- vada and Utah. Many of those workers gave their lives in their perilous jobs. But, despite their significant contributions to this early American dream, their stories were often overlooked by journalists at the time and by historians for decades after the railroad was built.
Now, in preparation for the 150th anniversary of the completion of the historic railroad, a new book by Stanford profes- sor Gordon H. Chang called “Ghosts of Gold Mountain” takes one of the most comprehensive looks to date at Chinese railroad workers’ lives during that time, pulling from extensive public and private archives, oral histories and other sources. This news organization sat down with Chang to talk about the book. The conversation has been edited for clarity and
QAfter the race-motivated “Chinese must Go” campaigns of the 1870s and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, records from many Chinese immigrants in the United States were often lost. Without much correspondence, diaries or other primary source material to rely on, how did you go about patching together this history?
AThe first thing I do as a historian is to go look for repositories of documentation. That means archives, libraries at universities, national archives, and sending the word out to see if we can identify private archives held by families. We contacted universities in China and elsewhere and also libraries in the small towns of the foothills of
the Sierras. But then we knew there were other sources we had to tap, and that included archaeology, and it also includes the internet.
QLooking at the project as a whole, what stood out to you as something you didn’t know going in, or didn’t expect to find?
AWell, we knew the outlines of the story, but we didn’t know the details, such as the number who worked, the number who died, the relationship they had with the railroad company, what food they ate, how they lived while working on the railroad, the difficulty tunneling, specifically through the Sierras, which was astounding stuff to learn about. That was all new information. Nobody had really talked about the lived experience before.
QLet’s talk about that lived experience, starting with the work itself.
What was that like for these laborers?
AYou know, it’s pretty rugged terrain. You get up there in the high Sierras and there are dense stands of conifers, there are ravines, there are major rivers, there are challenging weather conditions, and the weather conditions change fast. The building season could be cut short with early snow or heavy rains. And, then there is just surviving and living outdoors in tents, having to cook one’s food and get the food up there. You can really appreciate the difficulty of this ambition to build a line through dense forest and mountains through winter and summer.
QWhat was life like in those camps? And what did workers do for fun?
AWell, we know just a little bit because we don’t have anything from the workers themselves
and only from the artifacts they left behind. But they ate a good quantity of Chinese food ingredients, including soy sauce, wine, rice imported from China. And they ate vegetables and meat grown in California, possibly from Chinese farmers. Many worked in gangs or teams. They lived right along the rail line in labor camps. The living quarters were probably pretty crude, and most were temporary locations
where they lived for a few weeks or months, and then they had to move on.
They engaged in gaming activities that were probably pretty popular. Certainly they drank rice wine and whiskey. They smoked opium. In the towns, there were Chinese prostitutes.
So, it was a rough and tumble existence for these men. And they were all young men. So, you can only imagine what kind of mischief they would get into.
QThe Chinese workers were paid less than half that of their white counterparts, and they knew it. In 1867, you wrote about what must have seemed to the railroad executives at the time, at least, an audacious labor strike. Some 3,000 workers walked off the job at the same time along 30 miles of tracks. How did those executives take it?
AThey were shocked. They had no inkling it was going to happen. There was no buildup to the strike they knew of, and all the organizing among the Chinese was done without their knowledge. And privately they were really worried. It was such an important moment because it would determine who would control the railroad. And that’s why they took a really hard line on the strike.