USF's Museum Blog

Reclaiming History, Reconstructing Lives: Chinese Laborers and the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad

by Shabnam Shermatova (MA, 2016)

On April 11, 2017, University of San Francisco hosted a panel discussion on the Chinese American Historical Society exhibition Reclaiming History, Reconstructing Lives: Chinese Laborers and the building of the transcontinental railroad.  It was on display from March 20 to April 28, 2017, at the Gleeson Library/Geschke Center. The goal of both the exhibition and the discussion was to give voice to the Chinese laborers who built the American railroad system; call attention to this part of the US history; and acknowledge the fact that immigrants from China helped to build today’s social, economic and physical landscape of America. To put it in the words of one panelist, Dr. Hilton Obenzinger: “This is the story of America and how it was built,” and this is a story we need to know and remember.



East Meets West at Promontory Point, Utah, Alfred Joseph Russell (1869), Oakland Museum of California

Between 1851 and 1860, more than 40,000 people from China came to America seeking new opportunities and new life constructing America’s first Transcontinental Railroad.[1]  Before attending the USF event, I knew very little about the history of US railroad construction, especially in California. Later, I realized that this is because this topic has not been studied or presented widely. More than 90% of the Central Pacific’s workforce were Chinese, mainly involved in the most back-breaking physical labor. Yet, they were rarely represented and seemed invisible in most of the photographs and in reports of the Golden Spike ceremony that commemorated the Transcontinental Railroad. Chinese people were excluded from the historic photographs and erased from this piece of history. There are no written formal reports on the working conditions; most records are either incomplete or have been destroyed. Severe conditions, inequality and harsh discrimination defined everyday life of Chinese community during its first years in the US during that period.



Three Chinese railroad workers: Ging Cui, Wong Fook and Lee Choo.


The USF panel featured Dr. Obenzinger and other experts including Dr. Sue Lee, Executive Director of San Francisco’s  Chinese Historical Society of America Museum (CHSA); and Paulette Liang, a descendant of Chinese Railroad workers.  Through the moderation of USF Professor James Zarsadiaz, their talks became a platform for an open discussion of such timely topics as immigration, exclusion, marginalization, incomplete narratives, resistance and social justice. We were reminded that the past is a resource of meaning and knowledge for future generations.


Dr. Sue Lee, Executive Director of the Chinese American Historical Society speaking at University of San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Shabnam Shermatova.

The first speaker, Dr. Lee, shared her stories on achievements and challenges of completing incomplete narratives and raising awareness about participation and contribution the Chinese made to the American society. She also presented some of the projects designed to educate the public about the topic. One of the recent attempts is CHSA’s new permanent exhibition Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion that presents a complex history of personal experiences of the first Chinese who arrived in the US from 1738 to the present day.



Laborers Working on Central Pacific Railroad Jake Lee (ca. 1950s)




Dr. Obenzinger (third from left in above photo) Associate Director of Stanford University’s  Chinese Railroad Workers in North America  presented a project that brought together a group of researchers, who worked with professionals, communities, scholars and experts from China and the US to rehabilitate the neglected history of Chinese railroad construction workers. The most important outcome of the project is a digital archive on Chinese workers of North American railroads. The archive contains unique files, including on the role of the Chinese in building the foundation of the Stanford University.


Paulette Liang

The third speaker (pictured to the left) was Ms. Paulette Liang, a descendant of a Chinese Railroad worker.  Ms. Liang recounted her personal story of the Lum Chew Family. It was important for the audience to hear how she could collect and put together the pieces of history of her forbears. She shared a success story of a Chinese worker, who earned a piece land, built his business, and procured, through hard work, a better future for his family and community.


One more time I got reassured that America is great because of its “melting pot” – diversity and insistence on the freedom. Immigrants did so much to build this country, in spite of great hardships.  Recognizing the effort of each person and acknowledging the fact that great things are made possible through a collective effort is a way to build social justice.  Every nation, every individual living in the US has been contributing to this country’s success.  It is crucial for the intellectual community to research and acknowledge the contributions of underrepresented communities and share it with us.

To learn more about University of San Francisco’s graduate Museum Studies program, click here.




[1] Holland, Kenneth M. “A history of Chinese immigration in the United States and Canada.” American Review of Canadian Studies 37, no. 2 (2007): 150-160.


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