By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
There are ghosts among us. Ghosts that, if left unrecognized, haunt the living, whether or not we are aware of it. This is part of the message of “Ghosts of Gold Mountain” by Gordon H. Chang, a well-researched work of documentary nonfiction that traces the lives and deaths of the Chinese immigrants who worked on the transcontinental railroad.
The book is timely, published this year, which is the 150th anniversary of the day in 1869 when two railroads, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific, met in the middle at Promontory, Utah. Many of us are familiar with the photographs taken on that day, of the two sides, and their respective workers, coming together at the finish line. After years of grueling work, they constructed a railway that ran from one side of the country to the other, thereby facilitating trade and travel.
Depending on which photographs you have seen of this great achievement, the Chinese workers without whom it could not have been completed, are sometimes present (minimally) and most times not. As Chang says, “Chinese railroad workers were acknowledged as ubiquitous and indispensable, but they were accorded no voice…We cannot hear what they said, thought, or felt. They were ‘silent spikes’ or ‘nameless builders.’”
Even when their contribution is acknowledged, it seems like a paltry prize in the face of all of the other accompanying injustice.
Chang set out to give voice to those silent workers and claims that this is “the first book to attempt to fully address the inadequacy, amnesia, and insults that, for a century and a half, have relegated Chinese workers to the margins of history.” If not silent amongst themselves, they definitely went largely unheard of by white people, except for being the strong, capable bodies that allowed Central Pacific to carry out the miracle of building a railway through the Sierra Nevada mountains. Even if the Chinese workers left written or photographic records, we have been singularly unlucky in finding any. We are talking about “the largest single workforce in American industry to that date…” and yet, to know what they went through, we have to rely upon tangential documents and those put together by the white owners of the railroad companies.
Chang pieces together payroll lists, in which the Chinese are invariably misnamed and clumped together, and newspaper articles written with strong prejudices for and against the Chinese in America. He relies upon excavations of worksites where implements of daily life were found, and accounts of other Chinese immigrants who weren’t railroad workers but lived during the same period. At first I thought, do I really need to know all this? Then yes, as you proceed, the book creates a convincing depiction of what life must have been like during that time.
What strikes me the most is that things are different today, but not so much. How much progress have we made? At the time Central Pacific was recruiting Chinese workers, white America was growing resentful of the fact that they—say it with me—took the jobs away from white people. Jobs white people didn’t want. Said one California newspaper, “‘Roads have been made, and railroads will soon follow,’ but ‘will the white man, in this country, follow such employments? Never.’” Sound familiar? Chang relates that companies could not get white workers to do the work that the Chinese would do, for the pay rate at which they would do it. Nor were they as good at it. You can just feel the fear. The fear of the white person of being somehow eclipsed.
So tensions grew. Chinese workers were segregated and their lives seemed expendable.
There is no exact count of how many Chinese workers died. As Chang discusses, some insist it could not have been a lot, as their being alive was vital to Central Pacific’s bottom line.
Evidence suggests the opposite. Says Chang, “The repeated use of the undefined term ‘many’…is disturbing. How many is many?…not one of the officials provided any numbers.”
Chang gives a harrowing account of the difficulties involved in construction, especially the horrific weather in the part of the country that watched the Donner party eat each other. An image remains with me especially: avalanches that buried men alive whose bodies were not found until the snow melted.
The writer is overly optimistic at times, in spite of all he discovered about the hardships the Chinese faced. The skill possessed by the Chinese workers was immense, yet white people held the higher level jobs. At one point, Chang tells of a young white engineer who couldn’t take it more than five months out on the line before he hightailed it back to the East Coast.
Chang speculates that this engineer must have had some kind of sympathetic thought for the workers as he was fleeing to some comfortable, warm spot. No, he probably did not.
Riding through the Sierra Nevada is riding through a cemetery. Can we ever do justice to those Chinese that died there? Hard to say. Like today, politicians who were friends with Chinese people in private, toed the party line in public. Leland Stanford, of Stanford University, said, “The settlement among us of an inferior race is to be discouraged…”
Stanford changed his tune later, and many white people did support immigration of Chinese to America, but the damage was done. At first, the number of Chinese in America grew. Then, here in the West, backlash increased in 1871, when 500 people attacked the Chinese in Los Angeles. Chang explains this was the largest mass lynching in American history—and no one got in trouble for it. It makes you angry. It makes you struggle to remind yourself we have come a long way—right?
I was struck with what, to me, is the typical American disdain and selective memory towards those who helped build this country. (Remember our friends, the French, who fought for us in the War of Independence and gave us the Statue of Liberty?) Probably nothing about this story will surprise any Chinese person. They will not be surprised to hear that the lives of the “Railroad Chinese” were filled with danger, racism, loneliness, and lower pay. They might be surprised that the agenda then was to support the newly freed slaves, at the same time as Chinese immigrants who were certainly earning the right to be here. Yet, in 1870, those former slaves were given the right to become citizens while Chinese people were not (until 1943).
Chang is not entirely correct that those hard-working Chinese, who came to Gold Mountain to earn money to send back to their families in China, mostly in Guangdong, and the many who stayed, did not leave any traces. And he proves it himself. There are songs and poems sprinkled throughout that are as effective as an entire chapter describing their coming and their going. If you want to share in their common humanity, if you want to feel closer to them across the vast distance, and if you want to, somehow, by remembering, commemorate them and give them rest, then this is a must read. Maybe, eventually, things won’t stay the same. And we will change.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.