Pacific Postcards

Consequences of Chinese Involvement in the Transcontinental Railroad (Ethan Vicente)

The completion of the transcontinental railroad is widely considered to be one of the biggest and most impactful events in American history. Connecting the two coast lines of the United States, the railroad was a tool to continue pushing the States to the status of an economic superpower. Obviously the railroad became something of great pride for Americans. However, it was built primarily with Chinese immigrant workers. These workers were heavily mistreated and did not get much respect from the American companies that employed them. This is shown quite plainly in a payroll for the Chinese laborers from March of 1865. The document shows the “rate per diem” for each of the workers listed. They were paid extremely low wages, with a maximum of $30 a month, although it was almost often less. In “Chinese Railroad Workers and the US Transcontinental Railroad in Global Perspective” author Gordon Chang references a lot of positive impacts that the construction of the railroad had on the workers and their families as well as southern China as a whole. Although Chang comes around in the end to speak about the harsh conditions the workers were put through, his message through most of the paper is largely a positive one and influences the reader to believe the Chinese workers’ venture was profitable overall.
My source goes over a months worth of pay for a one group of workers under the Central Pacific Railroad Company (CPRR). It is simply titled: “China Labour”. The document was used for administrative purposes to document the payments that the CPRR made to its workers. It can be assumed by the last names listed on the far left column that most of the workers being paid are immigrant workers from China. This kind of payment would be handled by the contractor, who gives out the official pay roll sheets. Moving through the payroll’s columns, to the right of the names are the occupations for each of the workers. Normally, it would be assumed that this would be listing their individual jobs/duties. However, it appears that there are more names listed next to the names of the workers. These could be their direct supervisor that “occupy” the area in which the worker does his job. To the right of occupation is the column listed “when paid”. Again, the title of the column appears to be misleading. There are not dates listed but instead payments. This can be assumed because the numbers listed are being totaled. The next column that is fully filled is titled “rate per diem”. The words written at the top are hard to make clear, but the numbers seem to correspond to the numbers written in the “when paid” category. These numbers look to be used together to create another total that is put into the column immediately to the right. This part of the document is particularly useful when looking at Chang’s writing, as it displays some of the economics that Chang talks about broadly. Finally, the payments are signed off on by a supervisor or some higher-level worker. Most of the payments are signed by the same few people, but there is one signature in Chinese characters. This shows that a Chinese worker was able to rise up past the entry level worker. There was potential for Chinese upward movement, but it is clear to be very rare, and most of the Chinese were resigned to doing hard labor.
To go more in depth into Chang’s writing, he starts with challenging the traditional narrative that the railroad is solely a grand American achievement. He believes that there are a lot of different narratives tied into it. Chang details a “flow of international capital” from all over the world that helped fund the railroad (Chang 28). The transcontinental railroad was thought to connect the entire Western world to the East, and the final planting of the Golden Spike was symbolic of this worldwide connection as it connected the two ends of the railroad in the US. This accomplishment was lauded as being as influential as “voyage of Columbus” (Chang 31). Chang goes on to describe the work of Daniel Cleveland, who was a keen observer of Chinese involvement in Western United States. He introduces Cleveland as a writer who knew how important the railroad would be for international relationships. Chinese workers did not exclusively go to the United States to work, and left China by the hundreds of thousands to work in many different regions to the east of China. Despite the tough conditions, the American West was actually preferable over the way the workers would be treated in places like Peru and Cuba. In Hong Kong, American employers regularly provided proof that the contracts given to the Chinese involved free labor, something not guaranteed by other countries where the Chinese were used almost as slaves. Cleveland describes a very homey atmosphere within the Chinese camps in the U.S. where groups of Chinese held personal relationships with one another. As the Chinese worked and accumulated their profit, they sent back items to their “families in China” (Chang 36). They sent back silver and gold that came to fuel the economy and development of southern China. This relationship was a building block to the eventual transpacific trade relationships. Once the first transcontinental line was completed, the Chinese were employed all over the Americas, all while sustaining a relationship with those close to them back home. Chang mentions how some even brought the skills they learned back to China as railroad contractors who were part of building China’s rail network. Chang points out that there are no texts from the Chinese railroad workers to show what they thought about their American journey. From this point, Chang shifts from talking about some of the benefits China enjoyed from the American railroads to focusing on the struggles the Chinese had to go through working in the West. From the type of labor, the culture, weather, the Chinese workers were far out of their element working in the West. Chang goes over how “labor was almost all agricultural” in southern China, “they dealt with the unforgiving demands of business competition,” and the harsh environments of the Sierra Nevada mountains and the deserts in Utah and Nevada that the Chinese could never imagine where they were from (Chang 38). Just to get to their places of work, the laborers were, according to Chang, locked tightly into boxcars, where any attempt to leave meant almost certain death. As a result of this practice of using Chinese labor, the Chinese population naturally grew across the West, which was met with much anti-Chinese sentiment from white Americans. This resentment grew so large that it forced political action and contributed to the exclusion acts we know today.
The main issue that I have with Chang’s piece is that he leaves almost all mention of Chinese mistreatment in the construction of the railroad to the end of his writing. Chang builds up the transcontinental railroad as a monumental global achievement. He writes about the “flows of international capital [that] helped finance the construction of the line” (Chang 28). This capital comes in the form of financial assistance but also human capital with workers coming from three different continents to find work on the railway. Chang does challenge the fact that it was a vision pushed to life solely by the United States, but only makes a brief mention of the United States’ ethical failures with the railroad. After describing how figures across the world recognized the significance of the railroad and its global impact, Chang focuses on Chinese involvement. He praises how “the Chinese workers . . . facilitated the transformation” of “the way people thought about the world and themselves” (Chang 32). Chang characterizes the Chinese as “free and voluntary laborers,” using Cuba and Peru to position the U.S. conditions in good light. Chang’s next comments are where the primary source can be best applied. He talks about how the Chinese works would send back specie to their families and that this “formed a significant portion of the southern China economy and contributed to building countless numbers of homes, schools, [etc.] throughout the region” (Chang 36). The workers had enough to have “sent remittances back home to support their families” (Chang 36). Looking at these quotes alone, it is not a stretch to think that the Chinese workers were well off in the U.S., or at least that it was worth what struggles they went through. The reality is that these workers barely made enough to sustain themselves, and if they sent any money back to China it just made things extremely difficult on them. The payroll shows monthly payments of only tens of U.S. dollars. This does not support the connotation that Chang presents. Looking at the source, it is clear that the Chinese were not treated well at all financially, and were very much at the mercy of their white supervisors because of this. Chang notes in his writing that some workers “returned to China and played prominent roles in the first railroad projects there” (Chang 37). By saying this before going into detail about the experience of an average railroad worker, Chang makes it seem as if moving up in the railroad sector was a strong possibility purely due to the time spent working on laying the tracks. The path out of their servant-like work was not clear. The primary source shows only one signature of a supervisor in Chinese. The appearance of a Chinese signature likely was not a consistent mark on every payroll either. Essentially, the vast majority of Chinese workers were stuck in their servant-like role, which is not the message that Chang puts across. Although he does spend a few pages highlighting what the Chinese had to go through, by putting those pages after many more detailing all the positives of the railroad’s construction, Chang makes the Chinese struggles secondary. When Chang mentions the foreign weather and “Western ways of life,” the reader could easily look back at the previous section of the paper and think that it worked out for the Chinese workers in spite of that. Chang's depiction of Chinese being forced into boxcars “whose doors were closed and then locked to prevent escape” is disturbing, but not enough to overcome the earlier sentiments (Chang 39). Chang pulls it all together at the end of his writing and says that Americans today still “have a long way to go to understand the Chinese railroad workers” (Chang 41). That statement is undoubtedly correct, and Chang could have been much more effective in explaining the Chinese experience had he presented the two sides of the experience in a more integrated fashion.
There were many longstanding impacts of the Chinese railroad experience with immigration policy and anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States. Although not as directly related, some of that sentiment still exists today. Though there is still much room for progression, there has been improvement. Notably, former President Barack Obama made note of the impact the Chinese made on the U.S. (Chang 41). Chang's piece seeks to continue improving the narrative around Chinese involvement with the transcontinental railroad and succeeds in educating his audience, but he forces his readers to grapple with the benefits and consequences of their involvement more than is necessary

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