In the nineteenth century, thousands of Chinese workers braved perilous conditions to build the transcontinental railroad that linked the east and west coasts of the United States. However, the memory of their lives and their back-breaking efforts in extreme conditions faded quickly once the rail line was completed and the Golden Spike was driven in Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869.
To fill in the historical record, acclaimed expert in Chinese American history Professor Gordon H. Chang explores this forgotten yet momentous story in his new book Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
Professor Chang vividly illuminates the journey of Chinese workers from poverty and war in China to their work building the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) from the California coast to Utah under the most extreme physical conditions imaginable as they also faced discrimination and violence in the new land. They laid rail in burning deserts and spent brutal winters digging tunnels in the treacherous Sierra Nevada Mountains. They were segregated, mocked, beaten, robbed and even murdered. Yet their tireless labor provided a foundation for the nation’s enormous industrial growth in the late nineteenth century.
As Professor Chang recounts, 20,000 Chinese railroad laborers made up 90 percent of the workforce on the western link of the transcontinental railroad, the largest workforce of any private enterprise in America to that time. More than one thousand died in the effort and many more suffered severe and often disabling injuries. Exact figures on these casualties will never be known because the railroad kept no records of these catastrophes.
Virtually no documents by the Chinese rail workers survive, so Professor Chang conducted innovative research drawing on family memories, government records, archaeological reports, and other materials to reconstruct their punishing work and their daily lives. He succeeds in bringing this forgotten history from the margins of public memory and honoring the workers who helped create modern America.
Gordon H. Chang is the Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities and Professor in the Department of History at Stanford University as well as codirector of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project and former director of the Center for East Asian Studies. He specializes in the history of America-China relations and Asian American history, and has written extensively on these topics. His other books include Among These are Friends and Enemies: The United States, China, and the Soviet Union, 1948-1972; Morning Glory, Evening Shadow: Yamato Ichihashi and His Internment Writing; Asian Americans and Politics: Perspectives, Experiences, Prospects; Chinese American Voices From the Gold Rush to the Present; Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970; and Fateful Ties: A History of America’s Preoccupation with China. Professor Chang is a fourth-generation Californian who now lives in Stanford, California.
Professor Chang generously responded by email to a series of questions on his new book.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations on your groundbreaking book on Chinese railroad workers of the nineteenth century, Ghosts of Gold Mountain. How did you come to study and write about this overlooked history?
Professor Gordon H. Chang: I am a fourth generation Californian and had heard about the Chinese railroad workers when I was growing up in the Oakland area. Substantive information about them was absent from history books and I had long wanted to address this neglect. I conducted research on them throughout my career but it wasn’t until this past decade that I was able to devote full attention to them and co-direct a project involving more than a hundred other scholars to recovering their history.
Robin Lindley: As you note in your book, there was virtually no documentary evidence from the workers themselves. What was your process in researching and writing about them?
Professor Gordon H. Chang: The absence of documentation from them because of the destruction of their archive formed a huge challenge. Many were literate but we believe their archive was destroyed because of the violence they and their relatives suffered in China and America in the 19th and 20th century.
We had to read evidence in new ways and to rely on other disciplines such as archaeology that are not dependent on textual evidence. Our published work reflects this inter-disciplinary effort.
Robin Lindley: Why did the Central Pacific Railroad decide to hire workers from far off China when other people in the country could have assumed that role?
Professor Gordon H. Chang: The Central Pacific turned to hiring Chinese out of desperation. When construction began in 1862, the company wanted only white workers, but far fewer than needed showed up to work. By 1864, the company turned to hiring Chinese, many of whom were already in the state.
Chinese began migrating to America in the 1850s. They came to seek opportunities, some going to the gold country with many others turning to wage work in mines and infrastructure projects. They were not destitute or indentured. They came because of the stories they heard about gold in California and the employment opportunities that were available.
They were part of a huge migration stream that went all around the world. Almost all came from the Pearl River delta in the Canton (Guangzhou) area, which had been hard hit with ethnic and political violence.
Robin Lindley: How many Chinese laborers were employed by the CPRR?
Professor Gordon H. Chang: We estimate that up to 20,000 Chinese workers labored on the CPRR line over five years. At their high point, about 12,000 labored but, because of turn-over, many worked for short periods of time.
Robin Lindley: What did you learn about the working conditions and effectiveness of these Chinese men?
Professor Gordon H. Chang: They completed the most difficult and arduous and dangerous work. Ninety percent of the construction work force was Chinese on the CPRR. They made themselves indispensable to the company. Because of their industry and discipline, they gained the respect of the railroad barons and developed a national reputation for themselves. After the completion of the railroad, they were hired all around the country to work on local and regional lines.
Robin Lindley: Despite their tireless work, the Chinese faced discrimination and violence.
Professor Gordon H. Chang: The good work of the Chinese turned out to be used against them, as they were seen as labor competitors. A xenophobic movement rose to drive them out of the country through violence and politics. By 1882, Congress passed the first of what is known as the Chinese Exclusion Acts.
Robin Lindley: What did you learn about the role of women in this history of Chinese workers?
Professor Gordon H. Chang: The railroad workers were all men, but they had contact with women in their lives: as mothers, sisters, wives all back in China, or with prostitutes brought as slave girls to the US. Eventually, some started families in the US that became the foundation of today’s Chinese American community.
Robin Lindley: It seems that many of these workers returned to China after the railroad project was completed.
Professor Gordon H. Chang: After the construction effort many, perhaps a third, returned to China. Many others stayed in the US to continue to work on railroads throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries or went on to work in other occupations. It is likely that the spread of Chinese restaurants in America was a result of the many cooks who served the workers and went on to open restaurants wherever the railroad could take them.
Robin Lindley: What do you hope readers take from your book on these previously ignored workers?
Professor Gordon H. Chang: Their accomplishments and suffering (some 1200 may have perished in the construction effort), needs to be remembered and honored. We’ve tried to do this in our work and urge your readers to learn about the hidden and untold story of their epic efforts one hundred and fifty years ago.
Robin Lindley: Thank you Professor Chang for your thoughtful comments, and congratulations on your groundbreaking book, Ghosts of Gold Mountain.