In spring of 1867 the company raised their wages from $31 to $35 a month
July 7, 2019 1:49 PM   Subscribe

Chinese Railroad Workers in North America. "In order to provide food for the workers, a network of growers, and local Chinese importers established a trans-Pacific supply chain. Food included rice, preserved meats; dried fish, shrimp, and other shellfish; dried legumes; dried noodles, preserved vegetables, dried seaweeds, and teas... As the work moved through Nevada, the Central Pacific had two train cars labeled “China Store,” from which goods could be purchased... Food was so important that the Chinese cooks were paid more than unskilled workers." (Key Questions)

A multi-disciplinary team of scholars at Stanford University marked the 150th anniversary of Leland Stanford’s driving the famous “golden spike” to connect the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads by making public a collaborative project to research and compile resources (including payroll records!) on the estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Chinese railroad workers who labored for Union Pacific, the source of the wealth of the university's founder Leland Stanford.
As Leland Stanford reported to Congress in 1865, “A large majority of the white laboring class on the Pacific Coast find most profitable and congenial employment in mining and agricultural pursuits, than in railroad work. The greater portion of the laborers employed by us are Chinese, who constitute a large element of the population of California. Without them it would be impossible to complete the western portion of this great national enterprise.”
posted by spamandkimchi (9 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Thank you for posting this.
Why do we not know many of their names?

English speakers found Chinese names very difficult to understand, and they are listed in payroll records and newspaper articles in simplified forms or what could be described as nicknames, such as Ah Fong, Ah Chung and Ah Lim, with “Ah” serving as a designation less formal than “Mister.” As Gordon Chang explains in Chapter Seven of Ghosts of Gold Mountain, “The diminutive ‘Ah’ precedes an effort to spell what presumably is a Chinese surname.” Or payroll records record “John Chinaman.” Consequently, we have very few actual names, making it very difficult to track down the origins and descendants of the workers. We have been collecting names from oral history interviews of descendants and other sources, and we hope to obtain more.
I think a lot about how the oppression and dehumanization of white supremacy erases the lives of marginalized people. There are so many stories and so much human history and individual, important lives that are lost to us because white people in control just didn't (and don't) think they're important. These workers were instrumental to the expansion and prosperity of the US and the development of their home communities in China. They deserve better than what they got. I am glad there are projects like this that are trying to remember and honor them.
posted by schroedinger at 2:38 PM on July 7, 2019 [10 favorites]

Good enough to work and die for America, but not good enough to be allowed to immigrate.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:14 PM on July 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

I did a long (for me at the time) report on this in 7th or 8th grade for US History. I think it was extra-long for extra credit.

My Chinese ancestors did not participate in the transcontinental railroad, which is probably a good thing because as I understand it, a lot of them got blown up. They were thought to be good with dynamite because Chinese invented gunpowder. A lot of Chinese workers were assigned to blasting duty, to make all the cuts in all the hills and all the tunnels in the mountains from here to there. As I understand it, the work was accident prone, with poor safety and sometimes intentionally shortened fuses.

Not entirely unrelated, I went to visit the ghost-Chinatown of Locke in the Sacramento River Delta a couple of years ago. It's a museum ghost-town. I first visited it in my early teens when my Mom and her boyfriend rented a houseboat and piloted the various branches of the delta during one summer. I think the area's tourism has since gotten depressed and dried up a little in the ensuing 30 - 40 years.

But I remember a couple of things. One thing I may misremember - I've since tried to research it, including asking local historians of Chinese immigration and labor of that time, and have been unsuccessful, so it may be just oral history I heard from my Chinese uncle, Wing. But however I heard it, what I heard was horrific. It was about the queue that Chinese had to wear and keep at the time in order to be able to return to China (because of the emporer's rule that all Chinese men had to have long queues in China) but anyhow, the term "Chinese Firedrill" supposedly came from white folks lighting Chinese tenements and ghettos on fire, smoking out the Chinese, catching the Chinese who made it out, and cutting off their queues (thus effectively exiling them from China). Or, you know, burning them alive.

The other thing I know for a fact is true (in that it was in the museum at Locke, and I've confirmed it with my own research): Most of the Sacramento Delta's arable land was raised out of the delta's mud by Chinese laborers building levees out of dried mud bricks made from the delta itself. (White) legislators at the time made laws that kept these laborers who build the delta out of the mud from being able to own the land they created, which is why most of the property owners in the Sacramento Delta are not Chinese families, but white or at least non-Asian ones.

My Chinese grandfather (Dad's father) also had to resort to various difficult strategies to immigrate and make some sort of life in the US. My Chinese ancestors navigated extremely biased laws and regulations, unnecessary regulations, biased law enforcement, and other less violent, less obvious issues as they navigated life in the U.S... we actually lost our surname ("Gin") and I had to recover it later by a name change, during immigration. Really, my uncles owe their success only to the World War II draft, and to surviving their roles in that war.

The history of extremely biased and prejudiced lawmaking, regulations, process, administration, and other institutional bias against immigrants, and immigrant Asians is long and terrible, and this is just a small slice of it all.
posted by kalessin at 4:14 PM on July 7, 2019 [25 favorites]

It's also interesting to learn that the Chinese getting blown up aspect of the history was somehow debated. When I was researching this as a kid, it was pretty well established. But I guess in the interim, some technical revisionists got into the historical archives or some knowledge was lost and then recovered. Or maybe my sources were inaccurate but turned out to be right in the long run.
posted by kalessin at 5:25 PM on July 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's also interesting to learn that the Chinese getting blown up aspect of the history was somehow debated.

There's a discussion of the controversy over whether baskets were used to set charges, but I'm not seeing anything in the linked articles that questions whether Chinese railroad workers died in explosions. Let me know if I'm missing something.
posted by zamboni at 6:45 PM on July 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately it's well past my bedtime, but I think I was conflating the discussion of the baskets in Key Questions and this article under the same project, about how the numbers of deaths recorded/recovered are vastly different according to different sources. I'll have to leave this discussion, likely, until tomorrow afternoon at the earliest. Full day of classes tomorrow.
posted by kalessin at 9:45 PM on July 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

The history of extremely biased and prejudiced lawmaking, regulations, process, administration, and other institutional bias against immigrants, and immigrant Asians is long and terrible, and this is just a small slice of it all.

I've been reading a lot about the history of California (trying to rank all of the governors), and institutional racism is baked into so much of the state's history. Like, I used to to think Hiram Johnson was a decent politician, but then I read about the California Alien Land Law of 1913. I think people are speaking more about this aspect of history, like the recent renaming of the Berkeley Law School due to Boalt's anti-Chinese political work.

With the recent sesquicentennial of the Transcontinental Railroad, I've been thankful that the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America project has so many resources online, because I've been sending them to people any opportunity I get. I really hope this work makes it to the mainstream discourse soon. I was just at the California State Railroad Museum in May to view their Golden Spike exhibit and the Theodore Judah map, and was heartened to see there was a section talking about the Chinese workers but disappointed that it was quite superficial and made it seem like they were treated fairly and with respect. I complained to one of the docents (also about the portrayal of Stanford as a hero), which lead to a tense conversation that wasn't really productive.

Thank you very much for posting this.
posted by kendrak at 11:48 AM on July 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I learned about Chinese railroad workers getting blown up after the completion of the trans-continental railroad from my once-a-week-Chinese-school textbook. I think the textbook's story lacked nuance, and referred more to the difficult blasting jobs going to the Chinese men, whose lives were least valued. I was young at the time that I read this simple story, but it helped prepare me for a lot of US history that I learned after I left school.
posted by honey badger at 4:21 PM on July 8, 2019

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