In this necessary historical text, Stanford University history professor Gordon H. Chang explores and interrogates the largely forgotten yet crucial American history of the Railroad Chinese—the large group of Chinese workers who, from 1864 to 1869, built the western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad in the United States. Through the perilous conditions of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the deserts of Utah, these workers connected east and west for the first time and modernized our transportation system, and society, in the process.
Though no firsthand accounts of the Railroad Chinese have survived the decades since, Chang artfully reconstructs the lives of these industrious migrants—from the Pearl River Delta in southern China all the way to their lives to California and beyond—by citing census data, folk songs, newspapers, letters, payroll documents and historical photographs. Through these sources, we experience their daily lives and dangerous work struggles and learn about the integral contributions Chinese workers made to the construction of the United States.
Chang also highlights the striking parallels to our modern-day fight against racism and bigotry. At the end of the 19th century, Chinese workers in the United States dealt with violence from Americans, feelings of being unwelcome, brutal work conditions, unfair pay practices, being portrayed as an inferior race in the media, lack of citizenship (it was illegal to grant citizenship to non-whites), lack of representation and ugly statements from elected officials like California governor Leland Stanford: “Asia, with her numberless millions, sends to our shores the dregs of her population.”
Through his careful scholarship, Chang serves as a passionate advocate for Chinese workers on the Central Pacific Railroad who were not wanted, but were needed. He explores workers’ strikes, and he shows how the Railroad Chinese found their agency as they worked west to east and recognized their own contributions to our modern American landscape. With this text, Chang sheds light on a forgotten history and honors the lives of the Railroad Chinese and their vital contributions to the nation.