A well-researched history of the “Railroad Chinese,” those who traveled to the United States to build the transcontinental railway system but were thereafter mostly forgotten.
As Chang (History/Stanford Univ.; Fateful Ties: A History of America’s Preoccupation with China, 2015) notes, the lives and fates of the Chinese railroad workers who labored to build steel lines across mountains and deserts are not well-documented; much is an argument from silence, barring the discovery of “that elusive prize, the diary of a Railroad Chinese.” What is certain is that many thousands arrived, traveling freelance or having been recruited from villages and cities in China. Drawing on family memories, government records, archaeological reports, and other materials, Chang reconstructs their difficult work and the social organization that underlay it, with young workers led by somewhat older foremen and labor brokers. Some arrived during the various gold rushes of 19th-century California, where they “frequently worked in teams on claims abandoned by white miners” and learned skills that would prove essential in later railroad work. Praised as “very good working hands,” they were also subject to racism at every level of American society and were often the victims of violence—e.g., the case of “a Chinaman,” as the court record calls a man named Ling Sing, who was repeatedly shot by a white man who escaped punishment thanks to laws that forbade nonwhites from testifying against whites. “Where Ling Sing is buried is not known," writes the author. The identities and pasts of so many others who died in construction accidents are similarly unknown, and although Railroad Chinese participated in strikes and asserted their rights, most disappeared after the lines were built, some to return to China, others to find work as farmers and laborers in places like New Orleans and California’s Central Valley.
A valuable contribution to the history of the Chinese in North America, allowing the formerly nameless to emerge “as real historical actors.”