Voices from the Railroad: Stories by descendants of Chinese Railroad Workers 

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Voices from the Railroad: Stories by descendants of Chinese Railroad Workers 

Co-edited by Sue Lee and Connie Young Yu, full-length book features first-hand narratives by descendants of Chinese workers who built US Transcontinental Railroad

150th Anniversary of Transcontinental Railroad: May 10, 2019

15 April  2019 – San Francisco, CA:Published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the completion of the TransContinental Railroad on May 10, a new book — Voices from the Railroad: Stories by descendants of Chinese Railroad Workers —  reveals the hitherto untold stories about the unsung and often forgotten Chinese workers who built the mammoth project. These stories have never been told outside their families until now. The book, $ 25,  is available through the Chinese Historical Society of America (965 Clay Street, San Francisco) or online at https://chsa.org/shop-chsa/publications/voicesfromtherailroad/.  

“No longer nameless, faceless workers lost to history, their stories will shatter misconceptions about the Chinese who helped build America,” said noted historian Sue Lee, longtime Executive Director of San Francisco’s Chinese Historical Society of America and community advocate.  “For the first time, readers will learn about Chin Lin Sou, Hung Lai Woh, Jim King, Lim Lip Hong, Lee Ling & Lee Gik-Gim, Lee Wong Sang, Lum Ah Chew, Mock Chuck and Moy Jin Mun, workers of the Central Pacific Railroad.”

Co-edited by Lee and Connie Young Yu, this full-length book features first-hand narratives by railroad worker descendants Gene O. Chan, Montgomery Hom, Carolyn Kuhn, Sandra K. Lee, Paulette Liang, Russell N. Low, Andrea Yee, Vicki Tong Young, and Connie Young Yu.

The Transcontinental Railroad was the work of giants. The building of 15 tunnels in the Sierra Nevada, the towing of locomotives and rails for 28 miles over the summit, the laying of ten miles of track in one day. The courage and daring of the Chinese in doing the impossible has been omitted from American history.   Setting the record straight has been the driving force of the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA) since its founding. In 1969, the Chinese Historical Society of America initiated an effort to obtain recognition for the Chinese who helped to build the first Transcontinental Railroad at its 100th anniversary celebration. The plan was to produce and install commemorative plaques at the two ends of the Central Pacific Railroad—in Sacramento and Promontory Summit. The Centennial Committee invited Phil Choy as President of CHSA to speak at the May 10th 1969 ceremony at Promontory.

“What happened instead was a monumental snub,” says Lee. “Phil was removed at the last minute rom the main program due to a special guest appearance by John Wayne.  To add insult to injury, the keynote speaker, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary John Volpe’s asked, ‘Who else but Americans could chisel through miles of solid granite? Who else but Americans could have laid 10 miles of track . . . ‘ His backhanded acknowledgement of key construction milestones insulted the very Chinese laborers who performed these amazing feats. Chinese immigrants, specifically laborers, were unwanted—they were discriminated against and eventually prohibited from becoming citizens by the Chinese Exclusion Act.”

This snub ignited community efforts for rightful recognition. New York photographer Corky Lee’s efforts to recreate the iconic Gold Spike photo in the name of photographic justice has inspired an annual event at Promontory. Stanford University’s Chinese Railroad Workers of North America project has spurred academic interest in recovering source material on Chinese, inspired new research in multiple disciplines, and brought stories to light through interviews and oral histories from descendants of railroad workers. Then at last, official recognition came in May 2014 when the United States Department of Labor inducted the Chinese Railroad Workers into its Hall of Honor in Washington DC.  No one could have anticipated the unintended consequence of this simple act of recognition.  The ceremony struck a chord in the hearts of Chinese Americans.  They have been inspired to recover the untold stories of descendant families. 

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“For many years, the only named Transcontinental railroad worker of note was Chin Lin Sou of Denver. And there was no documentation of other identified workers,” Lee continues.  “Today, we can identify names on the incomplete collection of Central Pacific Railroad payrolls of specific individuals and name more than a dozen descendant families who have stories about their railroad ancestor. Some families were inspired to share heirlooms and photographs, conduct deeper research, and interview far-flung family members. Their accounts are the foundation of a new chapter in the overall American historical narrative—the Chinese in America.”

According to Lee, this book now provides an opportunity to give the Chinese community’s laboring ancestors the recognition and credit, and above all, the humanity they deserve. While they did not leave journals of their ordeals or speak for themselves in the hearings on Chinese labor, the book documents the oral history interviews of descendants who can speak for their forebearers. Incredibly, the great-grandchildren and even great-great-grandchildren have provided insight into the character of their railroad worker ancestors.

“This book evokes the breadth and scope of the experience of these early Chinese American pioneers,” Lee sums up. “Their stories outline humble and arduous beginnings as well as their legacy to six generations of descendants, who now add their own history of the Chinese American experience.”