Historian connects the links


Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad

By Gordon H. Chang (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020, 320 pp., $16.99, paperback)

One great treat amid the latest crop of historical books on Asian Americans is Gordon H. Chang’s “Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad.” Chang, a distinguished professor of history at Stanford University, has contributed important works on Japanese Americans, most notably “Morning Glory, Evening Shadow: Yamato Ichihashi and His Internment Writings, 1942-1945,” an edition of World War II camp writings by Issei scholar Yamato Ichihashi.

Now Chang has turned his hand to telling the story of the 20,000 Chinese immigrant laborers who built the Transcontinental Railroad in the United States during the 1860s. The current book comes out of The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, which Chang co-directs. This enormous multi-year research project was founded with the goal of uncovering the daily life and work experience of the Chinese railroad workers (Full disclosure: I was a contributor to the project in its latter stages).

Chang’s book is a wonderfully-crafted history that brings together into a single accessible volume the epic narrative of the “Railroad Chinese.” To his credit, Chang works to bring out the story from the point of view of the Chinese workers, despite the lack of direct testimony — to give an idea of the difficulties faced by scholars — not a single letter written by any “Railroad Chinese” has been uncovered. As a result, Chang makes heavy use of business records, interviews with descendants of survivors, contemporary newspaper accounts, and archeological evidence, mixed in with folklore, songs and poems that have been handed down.

The result is a work that, while familiar in its broad outlines, offers multiple surprising new perspectives. For example, it is striking just how novel the project was: When the Transcontinental Railroad was planned, no railroad lines of more than a few hundred miles had ever been built. It was the largest-ever industrial undertaking in the nation’s history up to that time.

The Chinese workers, working by hand with picks and shovels, plus some blasting powder, tunneled through the Sierra Nevada mountains, built bridges at high altitudes and developed techniques for advancing their work. Their transformation into laborers at the cutting edge of modernity attracted admiration and stupefaction from observers. Yet they were by no means benighted peasants. As Chang notes, “(M)any of the Railroad Chinese were businessmen comfortable with handling money, making transactions, supervising labor, and interacting with management” (pp. 85). They organized against poor labor conditions and in 1867 launched a bold but unsuccessful strike for better wages.

Another surprise is Chang’s account of the railroad’s completion at Promontory Point in Utah in 1869. He reveals that the iconic photo of the driving of the Golden Spike was taken days after the official closing ceremony. The Chinese and other laborers who had completed the line were not deliberately excluded from that post facto image.

One odd omission in Chang’s book is that of the construction of the Panama railway. This 40-some mile route, which runs beside the route later carved out for the Panama Canal, was the first Atlantic-Pacific rail link. While Chang notes correctly that Chinese brought in as laborers suffered horrific losses from overwork, epidemic disease and depression, he neglects to mention that the line was completed in 1855.

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