“Photographic Act of Justice” commemorates Chinese builders of Transcontinental Railroad

Over 200 Asian Americans congregated at Golden Spike National Park on May 10th in a 'photographic act of justice'. (Photo credit: Scott Sommerdorf / The Salt Lack Tribune)
Over 200 Asian Americans congregated at Golden Spike National Park on May 10th in a ‘photographic act of justice’. (Photo credit: Scott Sommerdorf / The Salt Lack Tribune)

Earlier last month, I posted a call advertising photographer and Asian American historian’s newest project: an effort organized by photographer and historian Corky Lee as well as Utah-area activist Ze Min Xiao to collect 145 Asian Americans at the site of the Golden Spike  — where the final spike of the Transcontinental Railroad was installed — on the morning of May 10th in Utah. Lee wanted to take a photograph of Chinese Americans at the site to both commemorate our community’s contribution to this historic moment in US history as well as to question why Chinese Americans had been excluded (both 145 years ago, and currently in annual reenactments) from Golden Spike ceremony.

Chinese labourers had been critical in the completion of the Pacific line, often performing some of the most dangerous tasks of blasting away rocks blocking the line’s passage.

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U.S. Dept of Labor to Honor Chinese Laborers who Built Transcontinental Railroad

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According to their website, the US Department of Labour plans to honor the estimated 12,000 Chinese labourers who worked tirelessly to build the Western half of the Transcontinental Railroad, uniting for the first time by land the east and west coasts of this country; historically, the Chinese labourers who contributed to this American accomplishment have been edited out of the history of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Writing yesterday, the US Department of Labour announced that they would be inducting Chinese workers into their Hall of Honor:

From 1865-1869, approximately 12,000 Chinese immigrants constructed the western section of the transcontinental railroad – one of the greatest engineering feats in American history. For this accomplishment, for their courage to organize in pursuit of fair wages and safe working conditions, and for the example they set for millions of Asian immigrants who followed them, the Chinese railroad workers will be inducted into our Hall of Honor on May 9. 

I want to be excited, but frankly I find this to be a long overdue honour. That being said, props to the US Department of Labour for beginning the process of correcting the historic invisibility of Chinese labourers in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.

You can RSVP to attend this induction event here, which is open to the public; it will also be live-streamed.

Help Asian Americans Reclaim our History in the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad!

This historic photograph captured the ceremony celebrating the completion of the transcontinental railroad, which united east and west coasts of this country by a land route for the first time; yet, the thousands of Chinese Americans who helped build the railroad were conspicuously absent. Photo credit: Wikipedia
This historic photograph captured the ceremony celebrating the completion of the transcontinental railroad, which united east and west coasts of this country by a land route for the first time; yet, the thousands of Chinese Americans who helped build the railroad were conspicuously absent. Photo credit: Wikipedia

On May 10th of this year, the transcontinental railroad will be 145 years old. On that day in 1869, track laid by Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad companies finally connected, and insodoing created a railway that spanned 1,928 miles. For the first time in American history, it was possible to travel from coast-to-coast without sailing around the North American continent.

It is estimated that as many as 12,000 Chinese American labourers helped build the transcontinental railroad, predominantly on the West Coast. Working for a fraction of the pay of their non-Asian White counterparts, Chinese “coolie” labourers were assigned some of the most dangerous tasks, including blasting away rocks that lay in the path of the track. Unknown numbers of Chinese American men lost their lives in the course of laying the railroad. This was in part because of ongoing anti-Asian racism among the work crews; White labourers viewed their Chinese American colleagues with disdain, calling them “midgets”, “effeminate” and “monkeys”. Nonetheless, Chinese American labourers participated in the construction of virtually every railroad track on the West coast built during that era.

Yet, when the railroad was completed on May 10th, 1869, an event commemorated in a historical photograph that showed actual railroad workers crowded around the final spike as it is hammered into the ground, Chinese American labourers were left out of the photograph. They were literally erased from history.

Every year on May 10th, that historic photograph is re-created by the park officials who maintain the national park commemorating the site of the Golden Spike ceremony. And every year, park officials refuse to make any specific effort to make the Asian American community visible in the photograph recreation.

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