One of the earliest stories I heard as a child was that my immigrant great-great-grandfather worked out West on the first transcontinental railroad. Yuan Son, along with tens of thousands of other Chinese workers, blasted tunnels, carved footholds and laid grade at death-defying heights through the most arduous parts of the Sierra Nevada, miraculously making it out alive. I envisioned him tough and swashbuckling — a cross between my tall, bartender grandfather, who often told me these stories while smoking a Marlboro in our home in Queens, and Yosemite Sam.
My great-great-grandfather and his fellow laborers toiled around the clock in rotating shifts, handling explosive nitroglycerine, blasting through miles of granite, hauling tons of rock and dirt, even in upwards of 30 feet of snow. They endured brutal working conditions we would consider unconscionable today to complete the most difficult sections through the Sierra Nevada — the same terrain that stopped the ill-fated Donner Party in its tracks — and finally out to Nevada and Utah’s blistering desert heat. They were paid less and worked longer hours than their Irish or American counterparts, and they had to provide their own food and accommodations. Although some claimed it could never be done, Yuan Son and other Chinese workers completed the task in record time.
It wasn’t until, as an adult, I traveled to Promontory Summit, Utah, and saw the site of the railroad’s completion with my own eyes that I realized the true weight of this legacy. The railroad is a complicated affair for Chinese American descendants like me: The greatest U.S. engineering feat of the 19th century may have physically unified the country when it was finished in 1869, but this new network of rail also brought scores of white workers to the West, many of whom grew resentful when they saw Chinese holding down jobs they considered rightfully theirs. Not 15 years after the completion of the railroad, this ire, coupled with a severe economic depression, helped usher in the Chinese Exclusion Act — the country’s first major federal law that limited immigration based on race, class and nationality — setting the tone for future wide-reaching restrictive immigration policies.
My great-great grandfather was a teenager when he arrived in California, a mere boy, one of upwards of 20,000 Chinese, mainly from the Pearl River Delta area (in Guangdong province), who made up the majority of the Central Pacific Railroad workforce. He, like most of the others, was raised in a poor farming family, in a country that had been hammered by drought, famine, Western colonialism, warlordism and one of the bloodiest civil wars of the 19th century — conditions that would look familiar to many refugees and migrants today. So when the opportunity arose to feed his family by working for a railroad an ocean away, he took it.
As a schoolgirl, I scanned the official photograph that came to symbolize the railroad’s completion — engineers shaking hands, flocks of laborers posing for the camera, the champagne toast, a carefully choreographed scene — more than 100 years later, searching for faces like my great-great-grandfather’s. Only white faces stared back. Chinese workers were written out of this triumphant American story.
Their contributions were already being erased when Chinese Exclusion was enacted, and soon followed by a tsunami of anti-Chinese violence that swept across much of the West — lynchings, expulsions, boycotts of Chinese businesses, politicians jumping on the bandwagon. Nativism was as popular and potent then as it is today. Yuan Son, now an entrepreneurial shop owner, had happily settled in Idaho, where, after the railroad’s completion, Chinese made up close to 30 percent of the population. Although he had been living in the country for almost 30 years, one day he was forced out of his home at gunpoint by a band of masked vigilantes.
Despite these hardships, Yuan Son resettled back into life in China and surprisingly spoke of the work he had done on the railroad with great pride. He even taught my grandfather his first words in English: “Central Pacific,” “Southern Pacific” and “Union Pacific.” My chain-smoking grandfather repeated these names back to me through his ringing Cantonese intonations, in our home half a world away, as if he were a conductor calling out stations.
As the Trump administration attempts to rally support for ever more stringent immigration policies, I can’t help reflecting on railroad pioneers like Yuan Son. These men risked their lives hammering and detonating gunpowder, surviving avalanches and extreme conditions — engaging in the kind of backbreaking, chisel-to-granite “bone-work” that others refused to do. I am confronted by this complicated history, even as some wave patriotic flags amid cries to “make America great again.” One hundred and fifty years ago, my grandfather’s grandfather did help make this nation great, along with scores of his countrymen. It didn’t stop him from getting booted out, decades later, simply for being Chinese.
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