By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
It is rare that a mainstream television show dedicates an entire season to a historical part of Asian history. However, that is what AMC’s “Hell on Wheels” does as it depicts the role of Chinese workers building the transcontinental railroad in the late 1800s. One of the stars of the show, Tzi Ma, spoke to us about his role.
In its fifth season, “Hell on Wheels” is an American Western detailing the construction of the transcontinental railroad across the United States.
Ma was excited about the role and how the show allows him to provide input on his character. Ma, 53, who was born in Hong Kong, has had many roles in movies and television. Notably, Ma was in the movies “Million Dollar Arm,” “Rush Hour,” and “24: Live Another Day.” He is also currently in the USA Network television show “Satisfaction.”
“I was approached about the project [“Hell on Wheels”] March of this year,” recalled Ma. The makers of the show hired Ma based on his body of work. He praised the show for the research the show did on the Chinese experience. “The research and implementation of the research is really unprecedented.”
Ma was familiar with the history of building the transcontinental railroad as he starred in an off-Broadway depiction of playwright David Henry Hwang’s “The Dance and The Railroad.” The 1981 play depicted a strike in a railroad labor camp in 1867. The play had only two characters with Ma as one of the leads.
He believed at the outset that the characters on “Hell on Wheels” needed to be an accurate portrayal.
“They cast us, they gave us much respect and latitude,” Ma said of the show’s producers. “The producers of this show have moved mountains to tell this story in its truthful historical context.”
The producers of the show looked for assistance to ensure that the western portrayed the plight of the Chinese laborer accurately. They found a resource in Stanford history professor Gordon Chang.
Professor Chang specializes in trans-Pacific relations which is the interconnections between East Asia and America. He is also the co-director of a research project on the Chinese railroad workers. “They were interested in an accurate social and historical depiction appropriate for a dramatic program, but not a documentary, “wrote Chang in an email correspondence. Professor Chang was instrumental in assisting the show’s producers and writers a full historical, accurate picture at what is presented. At this point, Professor Chang is pleased with the depiction of the Chinese on the show. “From what I’ve seen so far, I think the historical depiction is one of the best of Chinese that’s come out of mainstream Hollywood.”
In January 1865, the discovery of silver in Nevada led many workers previously a part of the Central Pacific Railroad to leave to search for fortune. To replace the shortage of workers, the Railroad hired Chinese immigrants as labor. The Chinese were tasked with the job of hand-drilling 12 or 13 tunnels through the rocky terrain in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was a painstaking job that cost many Chinese workers their lives.
Ma’s character, Tao, comes from a village in Guangdong in Southern China, and is “head man” for a group of Chinese railroad workers on the Central Pacific. His character is highly educated and his leadership skills and knowledge of English makes him an asset for the railroad company. He also brings his daughter to work on the railroad as well. However, his daughter must pose as his son in order to work.
In addition to Ma, Asian American actors Byron Mann and A. Zhou are also regulars on the show.
This is the final season of the show with it being split into two parts. The first seven episodes will air in the summer of 2015 and the final episodes airing sometime in 2016. (end)
For more information on the show, visit www.amc.com/shows/hell-on-wheels.
Visit Ma’s web site at www.tzima.com and twitter at @tzima8.
Jason Cruz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.