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 (6 comments total) 27 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 [8 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]

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

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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