Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Fudging the facts doesn't promote tolerance: The Chinese at Promontory

Chinese railroad workers most definitely were included in the May 10, 1869 joining of the rails ceremony. Honor the memory of the heroic Chinese transcontinental railroad workers by telling their story with historical accuracy.

We are troubled by an article in today's Rochester Democrat and Chronicle which misleadingly states:

"However, although historical records show that most of the railroad was built by thousands of Chinese laborers, on the Golden Spike Day, when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railways were joined at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869, the picture taken to commemorate the occasion EXCLUDED the Chinese railroad workers. That is despite the fact that they were the ones who actually laid the final tracks joining the two railways and that these Chinese workers laid 10 miles of track in one day, a record still unbroken to this day. There have been many efforts to redress this omission." [emphasis added]

Referring to "the picture taken to commemorate the occasion" fudges the facts since there were multiple pictures taken. Presumably this refers to UPRR photographer A.J. Russell's "champagne" picture as if it were the only one, while in fact Russell didn't exclude the Chinese from his photography. To the contrary, A.J. Russell took a photograph on the same day specifically to show the Chinese workers which he titled "Chinese at Laying Last Rail UPRR."

The CPRR management went much further, commissioning the famous painting of "The Last Spike" by Thomas Hill that includes the Chinese railroad workers, as well as the earlier stereoviews taken by A.A Hart, the railroad's official photographer to promote the construction project and showing the Chinese workers.

Also omitted is a critical part of the story: the fact that the portions of the transcontinental railroad built in Utah where the golden spike ceremony was held used mostly Mormon contractors and crews, largely replacing Chinese or Irish laborers used earlier in other states.

The famous A.J. Russell photograph (or the related stereviews by Charles Savage and by A.A. Hart) could not include the Chinese workers[sic] photographed earlier participating in the joining of the rails ceremony because at the moment the famous photo was being taken it was AFTER the conclusion of the ceremony and the Chinese workers were away from the two locomotives to dine at J.H. Strobridge's boarding car, being honored and cheered by the CPRR management.

Far from the Chinese being "excluded," a reporter for the San Francisco Newsletter, May 15th, 1869, described the final moments of the celebration at Promontory:

"J.H. Strobridge, when the work was all over, invited the Chinese who had been brought over from Victory for that purpose, to dine at his boarding car. When they entered, all the guests and officers present cheered them as the chosen representatives of the race which have greatly helped to build the road ... a tribute they well deserved and which evidently gave them much pleasure."

The Chinese were not only not "excluded" from the ceremony on May 10, 1869, but three of them, Ging Cui, Wong Fook, and Lee Shao survived long enough to also be included in the commemorative parade held exactly 50 years later!

While virulent anti-Chinese racism was certainly prevelant in 19th century California, Central Pacific Railroad officials facing economic necessity, rapidly overcame their initial prejudice against the Chinese once they hired some Chinese laborers and discovered that their work was outstanding. Don't unfairly malign great men whose vision, investment, and hard work made a project many thought impossible into a stunning success.

The few surviving Chinese-American descendants of the CPRR Chinese railroad workers whose ancestors built the difficult mountainous and arid western portions of the first transcontinental railroad should look back with well justified enormous pride at their brave ancestors' amazing accomplishment – the manual construction of the greatest engineering project of the 19th century that united our nation.

What the historic record actually shows is that the CPRR management overcame the prevalent racist attitudes of the day, recognized the great value of Chinese labor, and at the completion of the railroad construction properly honored and cheered the Chinese workers who built the railroad and were included in the ceremonies on May 10th, 1869. Those Chinese were free men seeking opportunity in America, paid comparable wages in gold for their incredibly hard construction work, who were able to save two-thirds of their railroad wages to enable them to return to China with considerable wealth.

Eight Chinese railroad workers, including Ging Cui, Wong Fook, and Lee Shao, were the men who actually joined the rails at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869 and were honored on that day by the railroad officials for the magnificent Chinese contribution to building a transcontinental America.

"History is a pack of lies agreed upon." —Napoleon Bonapart

UPDATE 4/19/2019
Stanford University researchers have identified two of the men shown in the A.J. Russell "champagne" photograph as being Chinese CPRR railroad workers. ["One of them is facing the camera, and one is turned away."]

Two Chinese CPRR railroad workers in A.J. Russell 'champagne' photograph.
Image detail courtesy Stanford Historical Photograph Collection, Stanford University Libraries.

Also, contrary to what is commonly mis-reported, at the peak of CPRR Chinese employment in 1866, both Chinese and Caucasian railroad laborers received $35/month in gold coin.