By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
May 10, 1869 is an important date in Chinese American history, but not many know about it despite the huge impact it made on America’s history.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in Utah, where it all began. The completion was marked by the “Golden Spike Ceremony,” when the railroads built by the Central Pacific from the west and the Union Pacific from the east were joined at the Promontory Summit in Utah.
There will be a huge celebration at the Golden Spike National Historic Site.
From the West Coast
Chinese American Citizens Alliance secretary Kevin Lee said that going to Utah to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad is a great way for him to learn about the history of Chinese Americans.
The main celebration is being organized by Margaret Yee and the activities are sponsored by the descendants of the Chinese railroad workers. There will be performances, storytelling, historical reenactments, train demonstrations, and more. They will also recreate the historic photo of where the two trains met, as the original photo had no Chinese people in it.
“The original Chinese were left out of history, they weren’t invited to take part in the historic picture,” he said.
To Lee, the events will help people understand what the Chinese went through — all the hardships and struggles they endured when building the railroad.
“The Chinese built half of the railroad, but the half they built was the more difficult route,” he said.
Seattle-based Lee will also be taking a train ride from Utah to California to see some of the routes that the Chinese laid tracks for. The trip will take about a day and a half, but he’s excited to see the Promontory Point and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Lee will be attending the event with other members of the Yee Fong Toy Family Association from Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York.
From the East Coast
Eric Lin is an American-born Chinese. His parents came to the United States in the early 1960s for school. He was born and raised on the East Coast, and didn’t find out about the true story of the Transcontinental Railroad until college.
Lin, vice president of chapter development of OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates based in Washington, D.C. and former chair of the Virginia Asian Advisory Board, will also be attending the Utah event.
“This upcoming anniversary and reenactment is due for the Chinese and Asian communities because it recognizes that this American achievement was made by victims of racism as well as demonization. It’s important for this celebration to carry the undertone that there is recognition that this wasn’t America’s finest moment, even though it was a defining moment in American history. That’s why this celebration is important to me,” he said.
Lin explained that he wanted to see where the events took place, what happened there, and see the conditions in which his ancestors actually lived in and died for to connect the west and east coasts of the United States.
“I can see pictures of the reenactment before that Corky Lee had done. But for me, it’s very important for me to be there, just to see the other people who are also there looking for the same type of sense of experiencing it in our way, the camaraderie to experience this event,” he added.
“As an American-born Chinese, I’m very disconnected from my Asian identity.
All throughout my youth and up until college, I didn’t have a lot of Asians to be around. Now, being a leader in the community, I’m trying to help others in our community to go to the Department of Education to include Asians in our standards of learning curriculum. It’s important for me to experience this first hand, to learn about how these Chinese ancestors came, the sacrifices they made, how they lived and interacted with others during the 1882 Exclusion Act.
The time they lived in was incredibly difficult and I think experiencing that and developing that conviction can only be learned through experiencing the celebration in person,” he said.
“In our public schools, there was no mention of the contributions the Chinese made towards the railroad, celebration itself is really important, the achievement of the completion is amazing, considering that it happened after the Civil War. Here we have this monumental task of connecting the west and east coasts of the country, to have our entire race cut out of it, when you look at the iconic photo of the Golden Spike, all the Chinese were asked to step outside, and they were left out,” he said.
One of his main goals is to leverage the experience from the event to help him convey to the Department of Education that it’s important to include Chinese American history into the curriculum, for students to learn about it at the appropriate age and grade.
“These stories need to be told in a larger way and it’s the responsibility of the leaders in the Asian community to seek out stories to really educate ourselves.
It’s important for us to understand the attitudes that were in place towards those who have different religions, races, and beliefs. We’re still fighting some of the same battles, but it’s important for us to understand where we’ve been and where we need to go,” he explained.
“I’m really glad the folks in Utah are doing this and I expect a lot of people across the country to be there to share in the experience,” he said.
For almost 30 years, principal lecturer and OCA Seattle Vice President Connie So has been teaching American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington (UW). Naturally, community members asked if she had plans to commemorate the upcoming 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Rather than giving a lecture, So and her students decided that they wanted to retell the story of the Chinese railroad workers by producing a movie.
So explained that the Science Digest reported that the Chinese didn’t just lay down the railroad tracks. The Chinese made innovations and improvements to the way it was being constructed. This is why many people at the time, including white observers, said that the Chinese were so much better than others.
“To constantly be treated as unwanted immigrants is distressing. Sometimes new Chinese in America always put down the old Chinese, but these railroad workers underwent one of the most difficult tasks of the U.S. Despite all the hostile treatment, they were still able to build for the U.S. and for the world,” she said.
Not a lot of people are aware of what the Chinese accomplished, but once they learn about it, many people are proud of what the Chinese were able to accomplish.
“If the Chinese don’t automatically know this, then you can’t expect other Asians to know, unless you take more claim for this, people wouldn’t be aware of their ancestral accomplishments,” So said.
“What I enjoy seeing is the students’ interpretation of history, I can give them my academic thoughts of how it went and how we can improve upon it,” she said.
So said that they want for this part of American history to become everyday knowledge so people can share it with their friends, grandchildren, and beyond.
So’s students really pushed to do something to celebrate the 150th anniversary, and the student-made film was the result of that. The students were really interested and invested in the project. The script was written in about five hours and the whole thing came together in three weeks.
About 30 students were involved in the production, including So’s son Han Eckelberg, who directed the production.
Leyi Lei, a UW sophomore studying psychology and law, societies and justice, said she wouldn’t have known about this history if she hadn’t taken So’s classes.
Lei and her family moved to Seattle from Guangzhou, China when she was 5 years old.
“My parents remember it being a very harsh time. We were just living in the aftermath of all that, there was never really proper acknowledgment and addressing of that issue. This is really important in understanding our history and culture. It tied together U.S. and China,” she said.
“It’s really important to see that this thing was made by students. No matter what your age, you can make an impact. We’re not established actors, we’re just students who want to recreate this story to show other people that we care about these issues,” she explained.
It was Lei’s first time writing a grant. So said the grant was approved in about a week despite the usual response time being four weeks from the City of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods.
The Chinese railroad workers weren’t recognized for their efforts and they went through challenging times to come to the United States. Lei said that the film incorporates a bunch of stories to help audiences understand why the Chinese left China, the lives they led, and how they lived their lives afterwards.
The film “Celebrating the Chinese Gam Saan Haak that Built the Transcontinental Railroad” will be shown on May 10 at the UW Ethnic Cultural Center from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. and on May 11 at the Wing Luke Museum from 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. The events are free.
CACA is also commemorating the anniversary with featured guest speaker, prominent photographer Corky Lee on May 19 at its annual banquet.
Nina Huang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.