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Golden Spike 150: Honoring the forgotten Chinese workers lost in history

By Carter Williams, KSL.com | Posted - May 7th, 2019 @ 1:02pm



Editor’s note: This is the third part of a series looking back at the history and impact of the transcontinental railroad, which was completed 150 years ago this year.SALT LAKE CITY — Zhi Lin retraced the steps thousands of Chinese workers on the transcontinental railroad took more than 150 years ago.

Lin, a professor of painting and drawing at the University of Washington, trekked bends in the tracks in California where the railway is still active (narrowly escaping a train in the process), through the Sierra Mountains and some of the most impressive scenery in the country. His journey ended to the remote trail that still exists of where Central Pacific train lines were built in the 1860s leading up to May 10, 1869.

It may seem odd someone would care this much about the original route anymore since much it is now abandoned and gone, but he had a purpose.

Ninety percent of Central Pacific laborers were Chinese, yet very little records were kept about who they were or what their stories were. Anywhere from 12,000 to more than 20,000 Chinese workers remain nameless to this day. They are forgotten in time.

Lin wanted to honor those workers, so he turned to what he knows best: art. His work to honor those men helped lead him to contribute to Utah's massive Golden Spike 150 anniversary celebration and his paintings of the places the line went through offer a unique perspective also lost over time.

Anti-Chinese sentiment in the mid-1800s

There’s a sobering undertone to the history of the transcontinental railroad that has only been recognized relatively recently. While the end achievement was great and remains one of the grandest American achievements in the 19th century, the hard labor was primarily conducted by social outcasts at the time.

Chinese workers accounted for the majority of the Central Pacific labor that started work in Sacramento, California. Irish immigrants accounted for a good chunk of Union Pacific workers that started out of Council Bluffs, Iowa. Neither group was well-accepted in America at the time.

There were other groups involved, including Mormon pioneers and freed slaves that weren't universally accepted too. However, there was something different about how Chinese workers were treated.

For starters, they were paid less, they didn’t have the same housing as other counterparts and had to bring their own food, according to Utah Education Network, and they were omitted from the iconic “East meets West” picture (or the second try for that matter) during the famed “Golden Spike” ceremonies. Also, the majority of the workers’ names weren’t even kept on record, aside from roughly 900 foremen whose names were written on payslips in the 1860s.

More than 1,000 Chinese workers died during the years the track was under construction. Roughly 20,000 pounds of bones were shipped back to China from the remains of Chinese workers killed, according to the 2006 book “Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present.”

A photo of a Chinese worker for the Central Pacific Railroad company taken in California sometime during the 1860s. (Photo: Utah State History)

If this wasn't enough, their work didn't stop growing anti-Chinese sentiment in the western U.S. at the time.

In 1871, more than a dozen Chinese men and boys were lynched in the Chinese massacre in Los Angeles. And less than 15 years after the transcontinental railroad was completed, the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. It banned Chinese immigration into the U.S. beginning in 1882 and wouldn’t be lifted until 1943.

Not long after that, railroad companies in Utah started hiring Japanese workers because the ban didn’t immediately hinder their immigration status, according to Christopher Merritt, Utah's deputy state historic preservation officer.

Even years after the legislation was lifted, a Chinese historical society speaker was bumped from the 1969 centennial celebration in favor of actor John Wayne, Utah State History officials added.

Creating art to honor Chinese workers

How do you honor the contributions from thousands of nameless and faceless men?

Lin turned to the landscape — the only true remaining connection — to answer that question. He did research and also traveled to many places in California, Nevada and northwestern Utah. He trekked through the path the Central Pacific workers took to Promontory and drew the scenes these workers saw in the 1860s.

A Zhi Lin painting of a Chinese workers' dugout in northwestern Utah projected on a screen side-by-side with the location of the dugout during a lecture at the University of Utah on Thursday, April 11, 2019. Lin's paintings about the transcontinental railroad cover parts of California, Nevada and Utah. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL.com)

He was taken aback with what he saw and came across. Lin said there are people who question whether Chinese workers contributed to the project.

"It means you're collapsing time. You're going back in history and trace it," he told KSL.com after a guest lecture at the University of Utah on April 11. "Also, on the other hand, you see how this portion was erased and neglected and didn't get honored. Actually, some people systemically tried to maintain that. ... It's an ongoing struggle. It's up to us have a better."

Zhi Lin, a professor of painting and drawing at the University of Washington, speaks to a group of students and community members during a guest lecture at the University of Utah on Thursday, April 11, 2019. Lin has completed two art projects dedicated to honor the Chinese men who worked on the transcontinental railroad. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL.com)

That's why he wanted to make a statement with his 2017 collection, "In Search of the Lost History of Chinese Migrants and the Transcontinental Railroads." He purposefully used Chinese ink on American watercolor paper when drawing the scenes where the Central Pacific workers laid down track to say Chinese workers truly had an imprint on U.S. history.

“The history of the west is written by Chinese (workers),” he explained.

Lin also set out to correct the iconic image taken during the golden spike ceremony on May 10, 1869. He collected the 929 names available through foreman records and painted each name on the bed of the railroad grade with red ink. He then recreated the image with the two trains, Central Pacific’s No. 60 and Union Pacific’s No. 119, from the back for his interpretation of the moment.

"We must look at history at another point of view, especially others," Lin said.

Group honors Chinese contributions

Chinese workers won't be forgotten for the 150th anniversary. Michael Kwan, president of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association, helped make sure of that. The organization has a role in the state's festivities.

The group, which was created to honor the contribution of Chinese railroad workers, plans to bus 500 people — many descendants of Chinese workers — to Friday's ceremony, according to Kwan.

"Our mission is to preserve and protect the legacy of not just the Chinese railroad workers, but really all Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders as they have contributed to this country for well over 150 years," he said. "In the past year, we've put together exhibits of photographs in several places. In fact, there's three going on around the state."

Cui Tiankai, Chinese ambassador to the United States, will give remarks through video at the ceremony, according to the Deseret News.


We've been here for generations and we have worked, we have sweated and we have bled and died for this nation, and we're as American as anyone else.

–Michael Kwan, president of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association


The descendants group helped put Lin's work on display in Utah, as was a collection by photographer Li Ju that recaptured famous photos taken during the construction of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s.

The organization has visited classrooms and spoke with teachers to educate the Chinese workers' side of history that was lost over time. Some learned this side of history for the first time when they saw presentations and others learned more of the story, Kwan said.

As for Friday's celebration, Kwan said a platform for the nameless and forgotten Chinese workers means a lot for the Asian-American community.

"It's an opportunity for us to tell the story and for people to come to understand and appreciate that the Chinese and all Asian-Americans aren't foreigners," Kwan said. "We've been here for generations and we have worked, we have sweated and we have bled and died for this nation, and we're as American as anyone else. We deserve our fair share of the American dream and our fair share of credit for the contributions we made."

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