Summer 2019

Golden Spike Redux

By Vanessa Hua

The role that Chinese immigrants played in building the Transcontinental Railroad has long been buried. 150 years after the completion of the tracks, that’s finally changing. 

In the celebratory photograph taken after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869, two mighty locomotives from East and West meet at Promontory Summit, Utah. Engineers shake hands and pop champagne, surrounded by a cheering crowd of railroad workers. But the photo tells an incomplete story: None of the 20,000 or so Chinese immigrants who had risked their lives to blast granite and break through the Sierra Nevada by hand seem to be included.

That omission has long bothered journalist Corky Lee, 71, who first saw the famed photograph when he was in junior high. In 2002, and then every year since 2014, Lee and Leland Wong, the great-grandson of a railroad laborer, have hosted a flash mob of sorts to re-create the tableau at Golden Spike National Historical Park, which preserves a stretch of the railroad and the spot where the last spike was installed. Lee — the self-described “undisputed unofficial Asian American photographer laureate” — has taken pictures of Chinese workers’ descendants and other Asian American supporters in front of the locomotives and a natural formation now known as the Chinese Arch because of its location near a former Chinese work camp. He characterizes these works as acts of “photographic justice.”

“Some people would say, we’re reclaiming Chinese American history,” Lee said. “In actuality, we’re reclaiming American history, and the Chinese contribution is part and parcel of that.”

On the 150th anniversary of the completion of the rail line, it’s no longer necessary to stage guerrilla actions to highlight the contributions of Chinese laborers. Thanks to decades of efforts by community leaders, activists and workers’ descendants, the stories of thousands of Chinese immigrants who helped build the railroad are beginning to come to the fore. With heightened public attention during the sesquicentennial, organizers and park officials have been working to correct the record with exhibits, performances and other activities — both at the historic site, where a three-day-long anniversary event took place in May, and around the state.

“I always say a picture may be worth a thousand words, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. We are expanding the lens to see the workers who built the railroads, not just the industrialists,” said Max Chang, a board member of Spike 150, the volunteer committee that partnered with the park to organize the celebration there and is also coordinating commemorative events elsewhere in Utah.

Michael Kwan’s great-great-grandfather labored on the railroad, but his story, and even his name, have been lost to history. That kind of erasure is all too common and has contributed to the stereotype that Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners, say activists and academics. A couple years ago, Kwan, a judge in Utah, received an anonymous note telling him he should “get sent back to China.”

“Even though society recognizes the significance of the railroad and what it means to America, it doesn’t understand the role the Chinese played. We have bled, and we have died, building and sustaining America,” said Kwan, 57, president of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association, which aims to give their forefathers their due.

Built between 1863 and 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad extended the existing eastern railway network, from outside Omaha, Nebraska, to Oakland, California. Western Pacific built the line from Oakland to Sacramento, Central Pacific from Sacramento to Utah, and Union Pacific from the eastern terminus to Utah.

Out of racial prejudice, Central Pacific leadership had initially wanted only whites in its workforce, according to Gordon Chang, a history professor at Stanford University. Though a few hundred responded to recruitment efforts, many soon walked off to chase after a new gold strike.

Central Pacific turned to Chinese immigrants, an interested and available workforce. About 12,000 to 15,000 Chinese — many of whom hailed from impoverished Guangdong province near Hong Kong — worked for the railroad company at any one time, but due to turnover and unclear records, the exact number is unknown.

Chang writes that these Chinese workers “helped solidify the western future of the United States” in “Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad,” which was just published.

These immigrants played a crucial role in finishing the railroad, performing hard, dangerous work for long hours at low wages that were one-half to two-thirds of what their white counterparts were earning. Afterward, some returned to China, but many found work in other trades or continued to work on railroad lines throughout the United States.

And yet, rather than being appreciated for their contributions, Chinese immigrants dealt with rising xenophobia in the years that followed the railroad’s completion. Amid economic downturns, they became scapegoats. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act became the first federal law barring immigration based on race and class; it also prevented Chinese immigrants already here from becoming citizens. For more than half a century, only merchants, teachers, students and their servants were permitted to enter the U.S., slowing immigration to a trickle.

Connie Young Yu, a descendant of a railroad worker, has spent decades restoring the Chinese to the official record. Growing up in San Francisco, she never learned about early Chinese immigrants at school. Only the stories at home, passed down from generation to generation, kept the history of these pioneers alive.

The railroad gave her great-grandfather, Lee Wong Sang, a foothold in America, she said. As a foreman, he picked up building skills, practiced teamwork and learned English. According to family lore, he accumulated enough savings to acquire a $20 gold piece, which he wore in a waist pouch until a fateful day, when the coin tumbled into the latrines. He mourned its loss for a month. Later, he became a merchant in San Francisco’s Chinatown and sent away for his wife in China.

In the wake of the 1906 earthquake, when Sang’s American-born son ran into the shop to retrieve his birth certificate to prove his citizenship, soldiers bayoneted him. Only his padded jacket saved him, said Yu, who calls herself an “activist historian.” She co-edited “Voices From the Railroad,” a collection of stories by nine descendants of Chinese railroad workers, recently published by the Chinese Historical Society of America.

In 1969, at the centennial celebration of the Transcontinental Railroad, then-Secretary of Transportation John Volpe boasted, “Who else but Americans could drill tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in the snow?” In fact, the Chinese laborers who were behind much of that monumental feat had been prohibited from becoming naturalized citizens at the time. Fifty years after Volpe made his pronouncement, government officials are telling a different story.

“We certainly want to honor the Chinese laborers and give recognition to their unfair treatment,” said Leslie Crossland, Golden Spike’s superintendent. “Clearly the Transcontinental Railroad would not have been completed without their contributions.”

The festivities in May included music performances, storytelling, speeches, historical reenactments and steam train demonstrations. Spike 150 installed a temporary mural that depicts the storied champagne shot, with text asking visitors to consider the faces that are missing. Another temporary exhibit features photos of Chinese workers. Most are anonymous, as the exhibit explains, because the railroad company either didn’t record their names or relied on nicknames. They weren’t perceived as individuals, noted Aimee McConkie, director of Spike 150.

For years, on weekends from Memorial Day through Labor Day, a dedicated team of volunteers has performed a reenactment of the last spike being driven into the last railroad tie. For the first time, at the 150th anniversary event, the volunteer actors re-created a moment before that moment, to portray the Chinese and Irish workers who laid down the final two rails.

“Today we take this opportunity at the 150 to reclaim a place in history,” Yu said in a speech. “To honor the courage, fortitude and sacrifice of Chinese railroad workers and their legacy in America, which involves us all.”

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The park’s focus on Chinese contributions isn’t ending in 2019. Staff are committed to continuing to include that history in ranger programs, exhibits and educational materials. They are also in the process of translating brochures into Chinese and updating the visitor center exhibits to highlight the stories of Chinese laborers. “Pretty exciting, since the majority of our current exhibits are original to the building, so about 50 years old,” Crossland said.

In addition, a fundraising drive is underway for a statue that would honor railroad workers by commemorating the “Ten Mile Day.” On April 28, 1869, a couple weeks before the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, a legion of Chinese workers and eight Irishmen laid a record length of track. A depiction of that remarkable achievement ideally will help spark discussions about pay inequity, interracial cooperation and working conditions, said Kwan, who is helping spearhead the initiative. The location of the statue is still to be determined.

“We hope the piece will capture people’s attention and drive them to question the status quo,” he said. “To gain insight and empathy for the new immigrants of today.”

About the author

  • Vanessa Hua Author

    VANESSA HUA is the author of “A River of Stars” and “Deceit and Other Possibilities” and a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

This article appeared in the Summer 2019 issue

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