After 145 years, Chinese railroad workers honored at last

Updated: 2014-05-12 07:22


Chen Weihua

(China Daily USA)
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After 145 years, Chinese railroad workers honored at last

US Labor Secretary Thomas Perez (left) announced the induction of Chinese Railroad Workers into the Labor Hall of Honor at a ceremony on Friday in the Department of Labor in Washington DC. Descendants of some Chinese railroad workers and former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta (first right) were also on stage. [Chen Weihua/China Daily]

It was a touching moment at the US Department of Labor's Cesar Chavez Memorial Auditorium on Friday noon, as Labor Secretary Thomas Perez announced the induction of thousands of Chinese railroad workers into the Labor Hall of Honor.

Someone in the audience cried. Siu G. Wong, whose grandfather Poy Wong worked on the Central Pacific Railroad, said the ceremony was a wonderful way to recognize a forgotten story from 145 years ago.

"I think the Chinese are very proud," Wong told China Daily. "We helped build this nation. We have a story that is worthy to be told and it should not be forgotten. It is surprising that so many people in the United States do not know about our contribution."

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 — the largest workforce in the US at the time, according to the Labor Department.

After 145 years, Chinese railroad workers honored at lastMany 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 100 miles, chipped away at granite and planted the explosives used to blast tunnels through the treacherous Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Secretary Perez said at the ceremony on Friday that the induction shows a long overdue appreciation for the 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 (Asian American and Pacific Islanders) workers who have contributed to America's strength and vitality," he said.

The induction has put the Chinese railroad workers alongside people like Cesar Chavez, Helen Keller and the 9/11 first responders. It was the first time that anyone from the AAPI community was inducted there since the Labor Hall of Honor was opened in 1988.

One hundred forty-five years ago on May 10, the word "DONE" was telegraphed to Washington DC, sending word that the final spike had been driven to complete the First Transcontinental Railroad. Before its completion, cross-country travel took six months; the railroad shortened it to a single week.

"But too often lost in discussions of this awe-inspiring achievement is the contribution of the approximately 12,000 Chinese laborers who took on the grueling task of completing the western section of the track," said Perez, a second-generation descendent of Dominican immigrants.

President Barack Obama, in a proclamation for the Asian American and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month, also lauded the contribution of the 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.

Besides the hard work, the Chinese railroad workers faced prejudice, low wages and social isolation. "Nevertheless, the Chinese railroad workers courageously took a stand to organize for fairer wages and safer working conditions," Perez said.

"In addition to connecting the nation and building its infrastructure, they also advanced American ideals of equal opportunity and the dignity of work for everyone, immigrant and American-born alike."

Andrea Yee, whose great grandfather Lim Lip Hong came to California from China in 1855 as a 12-year-old and worked at the Central Pacific Railroad at the age of 19, said that several cousins and uncles of his great grandfather died working on the railroad.

"He and his family faced many barriers, including my mother not being allowed to go to public school," Yee said.

While Chinese railroad workers made great contributions in helping build the country, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, prohibiting the arrival of Chinese immigrants.

There were labor riots, the burning of Chinatowns, and most devastating of all, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Chinese who meant to call this country home could not become citizens, according to Connie Young Yu with the Stanford Chinese Railroad Project of North America.

Yu, whose great grandfather also worked on the Central Pacific Railroad, said 45 years ago her parents went to the 100th anniversary of the completion of Transcontinental Railroad. At the time, "the Secretary of Transportation totally ignored the fact that the Chinese had worked on the railroad," she said.

"This is an awesome moment," she said on behalf of dozens of descendants of Chinese railroad workers present at the ceremony on Friday.

"The Chinese building of the railroad finally has its rightful place in US history.

The Department of Labor has written it on the wall. It cannot be denied or erased," she said.

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