US honors Chinese who built Transcontinental Railroad
Updated: 2014-05-10 09:10
By Chen Weihua (China Daily USA)
US Congresswoman Grace Meng from New York speaks at the ceremony for the induction of Chinese railroad workers into the Labor Hall of Honor on Friday at the Labor Department in Washington. [Chen Weihua / China Daily]
Chinese railroad workers who built the Transcontinental Railroad across the United States in the late 19th century were inducted into the Labor Hall of Honor in Washington and lauded for contributing to "America's strength and vitality."
It was the first representation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) inducted into the hall since it was established in 1988.
US Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said at the ceremony at the Labor Department on May 9 that the induction shows the long overdue US appreciation for Chinese railroad workers.
"We are not just recognizing the miles and miles of railroad track they laid, we are recognizing them as the first in a long line of AAPI workers who have contributed to America's strength and vitality," he said.
Between 1865 and 1869, about 12,000 Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants were hired by the Central Pacific Railroad to construct the western section of the transcontinental railroad. They accounted for 85 percent of the labor force on the Central Pacific Railroad — the largest workforce in the United States at the time, according to the Labor Department.
Many of the workers risked their lives and died from the harsh winters and dangerous conditions. They laid tracks on terrain that rose 7,000 feet in for 100 miles, chipped away at granite and planted explosives that were used to blast tunnels through the treacherous Sierra Nevada Mountains.
At the same time, the workers faced prejudice, low wages, poor working and living conditions and social isolation.
Despite those challenges, the Chinese railroad workers took a stand to organize for fairer wages and safer working conditions.
"Although their demands were not met, their willingness to organize and stand up for their rights in itself was a victory, and in itself was a profile of courage. And yet their commitment to the work and sacrifice they made just have not been fully recognized," Perez said. "That is why we are here today, to recognize the Chinese railroad workers who didn't just build railroads, they helped build a nation."
US President Barack Obama, in a proclamation to the Asian American and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month this month, also lauded the contribution of Chinese railroad workers.
"This month marks 145 years since the final spike was hammered into the continental railroad, an achievement made possible by Chinese laborers, who did the majority of this backbreaking and dangerous work," Obama said.
While Chinese railroad workers made great contributions in building the country, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, restricting the arrival of Chinese immigrants.
Andrea Yee, whose great grandfather Lim Lip Hong came to California from China in 1855, told China Daily that there were many prejudices in those days. "He and his children received many barriers, including my mother not being allowed to go to public school," she said.
Siu G. Wong, whose great grandfather also worked on the railroad, said she was very moved by the ceremony and it was a very touching moment. "Somebody even cried," she said. "We helped build this nation. We have a story that is worthy to be told. It should not be forgotten. It is surprising that so many people in the United States who do not know our contribution… We have a proud history."