The Chinese and the Iron Road
Building the Transcontinental Railroad
Edited by Gordon Chang and Shelley Fishkin
370 pages w/o notes  539 w/notes.

We last heard from the editor, Gordon Chang, in our review of Ghosts of Gold Mountain, in the September Heirloom. “Ghosts...” was a product of the Stanford University Chinese Railroad Workers’ Project and new sources that described more fully the experience of the Chinese railroad workers than other sources focusing on the railroad have done. Ghosts… was Chang’s own research.  The Chinese and the Iron Road  follows along with a compilation of essays covering different aspects of the Chinese workers’ experiences.  The essays are by different authors and include Gordon Chang. This book is a little more dense than Ghosts… and is like an anthology you may have been assigned in college for a liberal arts course. It is like Finding the Hidden Voices of the Chinese Railroad Workers, reviewed in our October, ’16 Heirloom.

The Chinese and the Iron Road answers a number of questions about the Chinese in the Western U.S.: “Why did they come? What did they experience? How did they live? What were their spiritual beliefs? What did they do after the railroad was completed? What is their pace in cultural memory?”  Chang says, “The Chinese and the Iron Road aims to recover this neglected chapter of the past more fully than ever before.”  A little further he says, “Despite the importance of their work, the Chinese workers themselves are a shadowy presence in much of the written history of the transcontinental railroad.”

Chinese and the Iron Road answers all those questions and more. Without a focus on the Chinese one cannot have a complete picture of the railroad’s building.  In general, books about the railroad do cover the Chinese but the treatments are pretty superficial, nowhere near the depth Chang’s books do.  Here, despite the lack of primary sources about the Chinese experience, we get as close as we can get to the actual experience.

The introduction is excellent and goes beyond the rationale for the book.  It describes the history of the Chinese and the railroad, working conditions, pay, how the Chinese were used, the work, and the strike of 1867. 

The rest of book covers lots of subjects in the various essays: putting Chinese workers into the international context, they were leaving China for many other places than just California; documents related to the Chinese workers migration that are in China and in Chinese, which offer interesting perspective and insight; how the overseas Chinese remitted money home, what it was spent on, and the effects on local Chinese economies; archeological contributions to understanding the Chinese railroad workers’ experiences, including Donner Summit; health; religion; relations between Chinese and the Native Americans; photography of the Chinese; U.S. textbooks’ historical representation of the railroad workers; what happened after the railroad was done; etc.

Those essays provide interesting insights not seen on other books about the railroad.  For example, on the subject of remittances.  Chinese workers usually incurred debt to come to California.  Passage was about $70 and had to be repaid in monthly installments from wages of about $30.  The loans were guaranteed by the Chinese who stayed in China.  Beyond paying off the loans the Chinese workers also sent money home, remittances.  Remittances sent home, paid for the workers’ travel loans and then food and clothes for the family, followed by land, houses, and paying for the marriages of descendants of the overseas workers.

Those remittances also had bigger effects than just on  workers’ families.  “In China remittances from railroad workers and other migrants transformed the landscape of Guangdong Province in the nineteenth century, sponsoring public works, such as schools, orphanages, hospitals, assembly halls, roads, bridges, and even railroads.” “The workers who built the railroads constructed far more than a new means of commercial transportation. The identities and communities they formed reshaped the fabric of social life in North America and China, and the wealth generated by their labor continues to influence commerce, education and philanthropy today.” There’s nothing like that in other books about the transcontinental railroad.

Another effect the migration of railroad workers out of China was on the society in general. Most of the emigrants were men and that changed the role of women.  The book  includes poems and ballads of the Chinese expressing hopes failures and accomplishments and grief and those also show the effects of workers’ migration.  With the migration new social constructs were necessary, for example when a family lost a son overseas.  The family might then buy a daughter in law who was “married” with a rooster acting as proxy for the dead man.  Then the woman could move into the family house.  The family might then buy a son to keep the family line going.

One interesting essay describes European travelers’ accounts of the Chinese railroad workers. The reader gets a wider view and more insght of what it was like to build the railroad and people’s perception. In describing the 1867 strike one traveler says,

“…the Sons o Heaven have left their pickaxes buried in the sand, and walk around with arms crossed with a truly occidental insolence. 

“We stayed a few hours in the middle of the Chinese camp, our minds taken up completely buy thoughts that brought to mind both our recent memories of the Middle Kingdom, frozen for centuries in its own backward mold, and the sight of these Chinese who were brought in to accomplish he greatest endeavor ever undertaken by modern civilization.”

Another visitor described the camps,  “The camp of the Chinese, on the other hand, consisted of many small individual huts, in which an ordinary man could hardly stand erect. Their dining hall was a simple platform, on which they squatted with folded legs.” This was after describing the rest of the camp with its many buildings, even one with enough stalls for eighty horses.  The point being that the Chinese facilities were decidedly inferior.

One detail I’ve never read is about the work day. 

“Bells rang at 5 o’clock each morning to announce the beginning of the day…After taking care of watering the horses and setting up the tipcarts, everyone had breakfast together. There was a hearty piece of beefsteak, potatoes, fresh bread and coffee. The Chinese had their rice, their meat, and their tea.”

“Starting at 6 o’clock all the workers gathered for a roll call. After that, horses were harnessed, tools were handed out, and then all started walking across the dirt roads, often wading through knee-deep feces, to our worksite about a mile away…”

One visitor left advice for Americans saying that although the Chinese labor was a boon “Californians should remember the story of Goethe’s sorcerer’s apprentice and not forget the formula which can be used to send the servile ghosts/spirits back to where they come from… in order that this Chinese tribe does not become rooted in this country.”

Other visitors were more fair. “All laborers employed in this hardship work, except foremen, were Chinese. Their docility, their zeal, their dexterity ad finally their intelligence were all the more appreciated in that they hardly receive a dollar and a half for a day’s labor, instead of the three or four we had to give to US workers.”

There is also a part about Summit Camp on Donner Summit in the essay titled, “living Between Misery and Triumph.”  Given the living conditions and the work that’s an apt title.



“As an artist with shovel or drill, wheelbarrow and cart… the Chinese railroad worker has proved himself unsurpassed.”  277


“the Chinese… performed herculean feats of endurance and strength while  being treated with gratuitous disrespect and hostility. During the two decades after the Central Pacific and Union Pacific met at Promontory, Chinese railroad workers triumphed over some of the most punishing landscapes America had to offer, playing a major role in building the rail infrastructure of the nation.”