San Francisco Public Library resurrects brave history of Chinese railroad workers

Documentary film screening and panel discussion about the building of Transcontinental Railroad

Chinese immigrants laid down 690 miles of track in the mid 1800s for North America’s first transcontinental railroad, connecting Sacramento to Promontory Summit in Utah. The efforts of these migrant workers were long overlooked, but recently local organizations have collaborated to celebrate their contributions.

Now through May 22, San Francisco Public Library, the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association and the Chinatown History and Culture Association present “Silent Spikes: Following in the Footprints of Chinese Railroad Workers.” And Saturday, the library’s main branch hosts a special event with a screening of “Crossing Donner Summit,” a documentary by Min Zhou about the laborers’ heroics, along with a panel discussion featuring historians, scholars and descendants of the workers sharing stories and mementos.

The centerpiece of the exhibition comprises 30 panels in which photographer Li Ju places his contemporary shots next to historic photographs to show the accomplishments of the 20,000 Chinese workers. Ju traveled the entire route of the Transcontinental Railroad seven times, making sure that his images’ angles and locations were historically accurate. For the exhibition, the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association and the Chinatown History and Culture Association prepared original Chinese translations of the panels.

Curator and CHCA head Nancy Yu said pandemic restrictions delayed the exhibition’s opening for two years. Translations were critical for Yu, who wanted the show to be accessible to Chinese immigrants who may not read or speak English.

“We want to connect the community and different groups of people who want to help the Chinese community,” said Yu. “We also want to promote our Chinese history and culture.”

Chinese immigrants arrived in significant numbers during California’s Gold Rush as southeastern China endured war, famine and a poor economy. As the rush subsided, immigrants worked as farm laborers, in low-paying industrial jobs and railroad construction. The Central Pacific Railroad, a company chartered by the U.S. Congress in 1862 to lay tracks eastward from Sacramento, was initially opposed to hiring Chinese laborers but the number of white applicants was fewer than needed.

In February 1865, the Central Pacific Railroad hired 50 workers on a temporary basis and more were soon hired as contractors. Immigrant labor turned into an asset for the Central Pacific Railroad, which set up recruiting efforts in China’s Guangdong province. Workers labored for as little as $1 a day and were exposed to harsh weather, illnesses and other hazards. Their presence is omitted from photographs of the 1869 Golden Spike ceremony, an event that celebrated the joining of the Central Pacific’s portion of the railroad with the Union Pacific Railroad from Omaha, Nebraska.

Zhou’s documentary “Crossing Donner Summit” points out the omission with one sentence: “When they laid the last rail, people only saw their backs.” The film includes interviews with descendants like Gene Chan, the great-grandson of railroad worker Jow Kee. Zhou also interviewed Union Pacific Vice President Scott Moore, railroad conductors and local historians.

Larry Yee, a featured panelist and president of The City’s Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, says the exhibition corrects previously incomplete historical portrayals of the Chinese workers, referencing the June 1867 labor stoppage, considered the largest of the era. Chinese laborers had been grading topography and digging tunnels in the Sierras when they decided to strike in protest of inadequate pay, long hours and sordid working conditions.

Though the Central Pacific Railroad did not concede to any demands, the laborers’ actions defied impressions of Chinese immigrants’ supposed docility.

“We must learn from our ancestors who fought for their rights,” said Yee. “Now it is our time to fight. If we could do it 160 years ago, we can do it today. We must be role models for those who follow in our footsteps.”

The exhibition is very much oriented toward students. Last week, classes from the Children’s Day School visited and were given a lecture by historian David Lei.

Though Yu’s schedule only allows her to host only one class a week, she wants the program to be a regular fixture.

“Our hope is that the Chinese contributions to the formation of this country will be better represented in textbooks and school curricula for future generations,” she said.

jsalazar@sfexaminer.com

IF YOU GO:

“Crossing Donner Summit” screening

When: 11 a.m., Saturday

Where: San Francisco Public Library, Main Branch, Koret Auditorium, 100 Larkin St., S.F.

Cost: Free

Contact: (415) 557-4400, sfpl.org 

The San Francisco Public Library is hosting an exhibition about Chinese immigrants who worked on the Transcontinental Railroad in the mid 1800s. (Photo courtesy Nancy Yu)

The San Francisco Public Library is hosting an exhibition about Chinese immigrants who worked on the Transcontinental Railroad in the mid 1800s. (Photo courtesy Nancy Yu)

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