The completion of the transcontinental railroad in May 1869 is usually told as a story of national triumph and a key moment for American Manifest Destiny. The Railroad made it possible to cross the country in a matter of days instead of months, paved the way for new settlers to come out west, and helped speed America's entry onto the world stage as a modern nation that spanned a full continent. It also created vast wealth for its four owners, including the fortune with which Leland Stanford would found Stanford University some two decades later. But while the Transcontinental has often been celebrated in national memory, little attention has been paid to the Chinese workers who made up 90 percent of the workforce on the Western portion of the line. The Railroad could not have been built without Chinese labor, but the lives of Chinese railroad workers themselves have been little understood and largely invisible.
This landmark volume explores the experiences of Chinese railroad workers and their place in cultural memory. The Chinese and the Iron Road illuminates more fully than ever before the interconnected economies of China and the US, how immigration across the Pacific changed both nations, the dynamics of the racism the workers encountered, the conditions under which they labored, and their role in shaping both the history of the railroad and the development of the American West.
About the authors
Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin are Co-Directors of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford; Hilton Obenzinger is Associate Director and Roland Hsu is Director of Research.
"The long-awaited The Chinese and the Iron Road makes visible the previously invisible Chinese railroad workers who built America's first transcontinental railroad. They are given names, family lives, homes, spiritual beliefs, and agency. The research is astounding. The wide variety of interdisciplinary, international, and collaborative perspectives—from archaeology to family history—is revelatory and a model for future collaborative projects. This timely and essential volume preserves the humanity of the often-ignored and forgotten immigrant worker, while also uncovering just how important Chinese American railroad workers were in the making of America and its place in the world."
—Erika Lee, author of The Making of Asian America
"Destined to become the go-to resource about Chinese railroad workers in the American West. This anthology assembles an international, interdisciplinary team of leading scholars to conduct the most extensive and thoughtful exploration of these near-mythic, yet heretofore scantly researched, historical subjects producing insights not only into the material conditions of their labor and lives but also the ideological implications of their ubiquity contrasted against their individual illegibility."–Madeline Hsu, author of The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority
"To understand the emergence of the United States as a major player on the world stage, we must recognize the importance of its two-ocean power, which the transcontinental railroad made possible. Deeply researched and richly detailed, The Chinese and the Iron Road brings to life the Chinese immigrants whose work was essential to the railroad's construction."
—Thomas Bender, author of A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in World History
"When I wrote a play in the early 1980s about Chinese workers on the American transcontinental railroad, information was scarce, and often of questionable accuracy. Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin's meticulously researched and beautifully written book fills this critical gap in our nation's history. The Chinese and the Iron Road brings to life the stories of workers who defied incredible odds and gave their lives to unite these states into a nation."
—David Henry Hwang, Tony Award–winning playwright of The Dance and the Railroad and M. Butterfly
"[An] eclectic and comprehensive study that brings visibility to the monumental and very intimate human stories too long submerged beneath the pageantry of the golden spike ceremony."
—Timothy Dean Draper, Journal of American Ethnic History
"Scholars Gordon Chang [and Shelley Fisher Fishkin] deserve praise for this...memorial, a commemoration to the almost entirely nameless thousands whose labor became the biographical [Stanford] university itself."
—William Deverell, Pacific Historical Review
"Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin's monumental edited work The Chinese and the Iron Road is an impressive collection of interdisciplinary essays....This collection is essential and provides tools for scholars seeking to understand not only the lives of Chinese railroad workers but also the U.S. West and any other groups that left behind few written sources. Specialists and lay readers alike are encouraged to read this engaging work."
—Stephanie Hinnershitz, Journal of American History
"[This] exciting collection of scholarly articles represents a major contribution to labor history and to the new wave of Chinese-American studies that is global in scope but intensely focused on recovering and illuminating the lives of the ten- to fifteen- thousand Chinese workers who constructed the Central Pacific Railroad section of the Transcontinental Railroad."
—Robert Cliver, Technology and Culture
"[Detailed] and informative. The anthology shows the care that these authors and scholars who are part of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project took in trying to piece together a largely unknown narrative. The sheer attempt of such a project is commendable."
—Marimas Hosan Mostiller, China Review International
"[A] generous and beautiful [offering] to the ghosts of California's landscapes, necessary for the deep reckoning that is sorely needed in that storied place."
—Douglas Cazaux Sackman, Reviews in American History