Nan Hu

Arts & Sciences: Chinese and Comparative Literature, PhD
  • Partner University:
  • Cohort Year:
  • Graduate Year:
  • Ambassador:
    Shenyang Guo

McDonell Academy Global Leadership Visions | OPINION

Against Invisibility: (Re)Working on the Railroad

The Railroad and the Invisible

A photo taken on May 10th, 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah depicts the commemoration of the “Golden Spike Ceremony,” the joining of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads. Between 1863 and 1869, a railroad of 1,907 miles was constructed west of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, to connect the West Coast with the existing eastern U.S. rail network. It is the first transcontinental railroad in the world and is often described as the United States’ greatest technological feat of the nineteenth century. And the ceremony in Utah, claiming the completion of this feat, has come to be considered as one of the first nationwide media events.

In the construction of the railroad, there were 12,000 Chinese emigrant workers, constituting eighty percent of the entire work force. However, in all the pictures taken on that day of ceremony, there are no Chinese men. Therefore, the pictures of that time have become a metaphor for Chinese Americans from their very early history: they do the job, they are good citizens, but they are invisible.

A Brief History of Chinese Americans

Who are Chinese Americans? According to the Asian American Encyclopedia, the most embraced definition is “a person of Chinese descent who has decided to reside in America permanently.” Their history starts from 1785, when a trade vessel sailed from Canton Province to Baltimore, Maryland. The immigrants came as students, merchants, servants, circus performers, and so forth. With the Gold Rush of 1849, large numbers of Chinese began arriving in California. Afterwards, Chinese workers continued to constitute an essential part of the work force in California. However this caused problems: there were complaints that Chinese workers took jobs away from white workers. Hence, the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which suspended immigration and naturalization for individuals from China. The act lasted for 61 years, from 1882 to 1943, when Chinese immigration greatly declined. In 1943, the Magnuson Act allowed restricted Chinese immigration and permitted some Chinese immigrants already residing in the country to become naturalized citizens. But they were still denied property-ownership rights. In 1965, with the Hart-Celler Act, Chinese immigrants were finally able to immigrate on an equal basis. 

Chinese American Literature as Remembrance: “Ah Goong does not appear in railroad photographs”

We already know the forgotten contribution and the history of discrimination of Chinese Americans, and I seek to honor Chinese American Literature as remembrance of the past of the struggles and contributions, and in this way, to fight against the historical invisibility. In doing this I turn to two works by Chinese American writers, which revisit the American Chinese workers on the railroad.

The first book is China Men (1980) by Maxine Hong Kingston. The second is Donald Duk (1991) by Frank Chin. These writers are both among the first writers who brought mainstream America’s attention to the literary achievements of Chinese Americans.

China Men tells the story of the Chinese settlement in the U.S. The narrator traces the history of her great grandfather, who worked on a plantation in Hawaii, her grandfather who worked for the railroad, her father who was a laundryman, and her brother, a veteran of the Vietnam War. These men were all harmed and oppressed by racism, but in Kingston’s book she marks them with heroism.

Tracing the process of a Chinese American boy growing up, Donald Duk links the wake of identity with the historical event of building the railroad. The boy hated Chinese culture at first, but after he learns that his ancestor worked for the Central Pacific Railroad, he began to have weird dreams of Chinese men laboring for the railroad and protesting against a white boss. As these dreams progressed, he was inspired to research the Chinese workers and found that no credit had been given to the Chinese immigrants in American history books. The boy finally became touched by their contribution and heroic struggles against white racists, and embraced his cultural identity as Chinese American.

These two Chinese American novels revisit the historical moment of building the transcontinental railway and bring the invisible and the erased history of Chinese workers to the American reader. The function of the books is to “claim America,” to mark the land, and to give voice to the sufferings and contributions these men were never given the opportunity to express. Both books have abundant meanings, but a major theme of both writings addresses this invisibility. And this task continues even today.