Sunday, February 09, 2014

Chinese workers of the Central Pacific Railroad

From: "Jennifer Chen"

... I am doing a rather large-scale history project on the Chinese workers of the Central Pacific Railroad.

I visited the Sacramento Railroad Museum and library recently, and I examined some payrolls in 1866. They were very hard to read and interpret, but I tried my hardest to decipher with the librarian.

It is a wonder why all the Chinese workers were paid in a company, and do you know why the Chinese were called "Ah" and followed by a single syllable of their names? Were the Chinese not called by their real names? Does it in any way show that Americans didn't even bother to learn the Chinese immigrants' names? ...

—Jennifer Chen


Anonymous Anonymous said...

44TH CONGRESS, 2d Session. SENATE. REPORT No. 689.
FEBRUARY 27, 1877.

"Q. I simply want to know whether they were English, Chinese, or Americans ?—A. I do not want you to think that republicans have made all the money out of the Chinamen.

Q. That is immaterial.—A. That house furnished us with Chinamen. They gathered them one at a time, two, three, four of them in a place, and got them together to make what is called a gang, and each gang is numbered.

Q. Just like mules ?—A. Well, sir, we cannot distinguish China-men by names very well.

Q. Like mules ?—A. Not like mules, but like men. We have treated them like men, and they have treated us like men, and they are men, good and true men. As I say, we employed them in that way. They come together in gangs of twenty-five and thirty, as we need them to work on a job of work, and the account is kept with the gang, No, 1, No. 2, 25, 30, 50, 100, just as it is. Each gang has a book-keeper to keep the account among themselves. We have a foreman and he keeps the account with the gang and credits them. Every night the Chinese book-keeper, who is one of the workmen and works in the pit along with the rest, comes up with his book, and he says so many days for that gang, do you see? and they count it up and they agree, and each puts it down. Then the Chinese keep their own accounts among themselves; but we keep an account with the gang. When the pay-day comes the gang is paid for all the labor of the gang, and then they divide it among themselves.

Q. Does the same thing obtain with the white men ?—A. No, sir; we get the individual names of the white men.

Q. You do not pay the individual Chinaman when he works for you?—A. We pay the head-man of the gang.

Q. Some head-man ?—A. He is a laborer among them.

Q. You do not pay them in the same manner that you pay white men ?—A. In the same manner, except that we cannot keep the names of the Chinamen; it is impossible. We would not know Ah Sin, Ali You, Kong Won, and all such names. We cannot keep their names in the usual way, because it is a different language. You understand the difficulty. It is not done in that way because they are slaves.

Q. Is it not a kind of servile labor ?—A. Not a bit. I give you my word of honor under oath here that I do not believe there is a Chinese slave in this State ... "

2/10/2014 12:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

See related discussion.

2/10/2014 12:19 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Wendell Huffman"

Interesting question. See Comments for the name Ah.

My guess is the "Ah" was what the Chinese themselves used. I notice the "Ah" is used in the 1870 census, too. I doubt it showed deliberate disrespect or ignorance.


2/10/2014 12:14 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Chinese name Ah

2/10/2014 12:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Early on, for example the 1851 California Census, listed Chinese names with the "Ah" prefix. An examination of that Census shows that James Harvey Strobridge had 17 Chinese workers on his hay farm/Starr House Hotel property.
As to the "gang" or group pay practice, that predates the CPRR employment. I have an American River Water and Mining Company billing, that lists 20 Chinese miners that purchased water from the Company, this dtd. March 9, 1863. Behind the name of Ah Sing, it is noted that he is "No. 1." Mr. Ah Sing was born in China in 1797, his age and experience could have made him a natural leader.
On October 16, 1864, "Wah Sing" took 29 ounces of gold to the Palmer and Day Assay Office in Folsom, Cal., and received an advance of $200 on the deposit.
Wishing yolu well in your research, it is my hope that someday, someone will write the true and correct history of Chinese in early California.
G J Chris Graves, Newcastle, Cal.

2/13/2014 7:39 AM  
Blogger Jennifer Chen said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2/15/2014 12:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you all for the responses. I am quite confused about whether early Chinese immigrants were treated fairly or not. It is understandable that the Chinese names cannot be memorized properly because they are in another language, but paying the workers in a group, in my opinion, shows the prejudice and ignorance.
Also, what is the "true and correct history of Chinese?"

Thank you,
Jennifer Chen

2/15/2014 12:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh my.

2/15/2014 2:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ms. Chen, "true and correct" would mean history without expression of opinion, prejudice or ignorance.
G J Graves

2/15/2014 3:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for participating in the discussion and for your frank comments.

The history of the Chinese railroad workers is a difficult topic because the primary source information is limited, and there is a great deal of misinformation in later writings.

Unfortunately, according to the Library of Congress, none of the many thousands of Chinese workers left even a single first hand account of their experiences building the first transcontinental railroad so that we could know their observations and point of view.

No need for confusion about the treatment received by the Chinese immigrants in California, as in part they were treated terribly by much of the general population, especially in the 1880's (for example, by labor in San Francisco), but there is also evidence that the prejudice was mutual (with Chinese hating "foreign devils", Italians, and Jews), and this has little to do with the Central Pacific railroad which supported Chinese immigration and defended the Chinese against the white population, for example, when the Chinese were expelled from Truckee. But earlier, the prejudice was much more limited.

The story of the Central Pacific Railroad seems instead to be one demonstrating how in a free market economy, prejudice is just too expensive for businesses to bear. The railroad executives quickly overcame any prejudices they may have had (but note that a Chinese herbal medicine doctor had saved the life of the wife of the CPRR President), and made hiring and relying upon the Chinese workers the single most important decision allowing the railroad to be successfully built. Their attitude is most clearly shown by the Chinese at the joining of the rails ceremony being taken to dinner by the CPRR management to honor and cheer the Chinese for their contribution to building the railroad.

Your conclusion that "paying the workers in a group, in my opinion, shows the prejudice and ignorance" is simply mistaken. That is just the way that the Chinese chose to be organized under the arrangements with the Six Companies. It is hard to see how they could do otherwise when the railroad managers and the Chinese laborers did not share a language. Similar employment arrangements are widely used today when labor is outsourced by companies, and nobody objects or thinks that prejudice is involved in any way. (Common current examples would be when a building is cleaned by workers employed by a cleaning company instead of by the business occupying the building, or when a city hires a company to supply labor to collect the city's trash.)

What is the "true and correct history" is what is supported by primary sources, not opinion.

2/15/2014 4:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank You for a clear, concise and thoughtful response. Without the Chinese working on the CPRR, it would have been most difficult to make the deadlines imposed by the Federal Government. According to testimony by Strobridge, Crocker and others, the Chinese work ethic was strong, they worked as a team, striving towards a common goal of success

2/15/2014 4:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The clearest indication that the CPRR Chinese workers were treated very fairly is that their pay in gold was similar to that of white laborers and that their savings from employment by the railroad made them wealthy by the standards of Chinese in 1860's Canton:

"The Chinese [railroad workers] ... are paid from $30 to $35 in gold a month ... They are credited with having saved about $20 a month." —Alta, California, November 9, 1868 Newspaper.

" ... Chinamen ... receive $35 per month (gold) ... Of this they save from $20 to $23. ... " —The New York Tribune, June 26, 1869.

It is wrong to substitute present day judgement for the actual preferences of people in the past. The Chinese came to California to work on the railroad by the tens of thousands because they liked the jobs offered to them and kept working until the transcontinental railroad was finished, and then went to work building more rail lines, for example, south from Sacramento to Los Angeles.

Obviously, in their judgement they were much better off due to those jobs and preferred the railroad employment to any available alternatives. It was entirely their decision to make, and very wrong for anyone from the future to second guess and criticize them by claiming that they were wrong to do what they wanted with their lives. Such rewriting of history is particularly offensive when what they chose to do in building the greatest engineering project of the 19th century was so amazing and significant.

2/15/2014 5:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thought that we were disagreeing with a professional historian doing a major project, but it seems that the original poster instead may be a young student just seeking help in interpreting historical details. Hope that the above is helpful, in either case.

2/15/2014 7:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you very much. I'm very sorry that I didn't indicate that I am a high school student and competing in the National History Day, which has the theme "Rights and Responsibilities" this year.

Originally, I've heard that Chinese immigrants were not treated fairly and risked their lives to build the Central Pacific Railroad, so I wanted to do my research project on the limited rights owned by Chinese laborers and the responsibilities of Congress, which did not act against the use of Chinese "slavery."

I think I should reconsider my topic, as I think discrimination against Chinese is more apparent in daily life but not during railroad work.

Thank you again for your responses.


2/17/2014 7:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are to be commended for your insightfulness and exceptional integrity. Best wishes with your project and let us know if we may be of any further help.

2/17/2014 8:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This student now seems to have a much better grasp of the historical reality than the unfortunate misinformation written in some recent books.

2/17/2014 8:33 PM  
Anonymous Rowlett said...

Check out this web site...the "western Ellis island
and for more day to day life in California read Lisa See's On Gold Mountian.

3/04/2014 12:54 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Here is that link: Gateway to the Golden Mountain: Angel Island Immigration Station

3/04/2014 1:23 PM  

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