When scholars at Stanford University began the arduous project three years ago of unearthing the history of Chinese workers who helped build the transcontinental railroad during the 1860s, they weren’t sure they could find more than a handful of the laborers’ descendants with documentation proving their roots.
But on Saturday, some 50 descendants attended an event the scholars put on at the university, along with the San Francisco-based Chinese Historical Society of America.
The joint project seeks to reclaim Chinese workers’ role in building the railroad that connected east to west. Organizers say the Chinese railroad workers’ contributions weren’t recognized when the 100th anniversary happened. They are hoping to change that when the 150th anniversary of the railroad happens in 2019.
One descendant of a railroad worker, San Francisco resident Paulette Liang, who has lived in the Excelsior for four decades, shared her process for recovering information on her great grandfather, Lum Ah Chew.
Liang explained that her mother acted as the family historian until she passed away about five years ago. That prompted Liang to dig for more on her great grandfather.
Liang found records at the California State Railroad Museum that listed Chew’s name in the Central Pacific Railroad payroll as a cook and waiter. She also found that Chew’s name in the 1860 Census as a laborer in San Francisco. Other than that, she knows nothing else. “I really don’t know anything about his life as a railroad worker,” Liang said, explaining the difficulty. “In those days, parents didn’t really talk about their lives to their children.”
In fact, scholars on the project to this day have no pieces of writing from the Chinese laborers on the job.
“I think it was probably hard for them to keep records when they were working in the Sierras,” said Gordon Chang, co-director of the Chinese Railroad Workers Project. “There’s a huge challenge. We know so little from [the workers’] own voice, so we value information from families and we start to have a picture that emerges.”
Though Liang knows she may never find more details about her great grandfather’s contribution, she sees the value in the project as a whole. “Of course I’d like to find out more about him specifically, but in general I think the history of Chinese railroad workers in this country has never been explained,” Liang said.
Sue Lee, executive director of the historical society, said the project is “game-changing” and should give descendants a new perspective of the railroad workers.
“Instead of asking, ‘Who were they? What did they do?’ I want us to be able to say, ‘We did this, our grandfather did this,’” she said. “It’s reclaiming our history.”