Utah is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the laying of the Golden Spike, the final nail which connected the Eastern and Western parts of the United States by way of the transcontinental railroad. Much of the physical labor to build it was performed by Chinese immigrants, who are finally gaining some recognition for the key role they played. CGTN’s Mark Niu reports.
At Promontory Summit in Utah, the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike featured historic re-enactments that included Chinese-American performers.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao reflected on the 500-1,000 Chinese who died doing the work.
Historian Connie Young Yu reminded the crowd how on the 100th anniversary of the event in 1969, the Chinese-American community representative wasn’t even allowed to speak as he was cut from the program at the last minute.
“There is something very moving for me to be able to represent my great-great grandfather railroad worker and take part in this story that is a very triumphant American story,” said Ava Chin, who attended the ceremony.
High school teacher and rail-worker descendant Linn Lee says her school’s textbook only has one sentence on the Chinese rail workers. She brought in supplemental material.
“It’s such an insult to all the work our ancestors have done and it’s time for us to recognize the labor that helped build the transcontinental railroad,” Lee said. “We have to really appreciate the significance of immigrant labor.”
At this Golden Spike anniversary celebration, organizers have been careful to include contributions from many ethnicities, but the role of the Chinese rail worker is being further examined at events across the state.
The Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association held its own Golden Spike 150 conference where about 750 people attended, at least 60 of them descendants of Chinese rail workers. The president of the CRWDA, Michael Kwan, learned his great-great grandfather worked on the transcontinental railroad from his grandparents.
“That’s how most descendants discovered it, through oral history, because the documentation wasn’t there. The Chinese really were not considered people worthy of recording,” said Kwan. “This conference is an opportunity for descendants to share their stories and begin to change the narrative of today.”
Russell Low points to some photos on display.
“His name is Xiong Lihe,” he says. “I think his brother’s name was Jik Wo, and they basically came to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. Xiong Lihe is my great grandfather. We weren’t celebrating a Golden Spike or a railroad. What we were celebrating is the people, celebrating their families, celebrating the generations of Chinese who came after that. That’s so important because the railroad is gone. But the people remain. The descendants remain.”
The family’s descendants even include two World War II heroes who saved lives.
Stanford University American History Professor Gordon Chang pointed how Chinese workers laid tracks with a speed and quality no other group could match.
Ultimately that helped line the pocketbook of the president of the Central Pacific Railroad – Leland Stanford.