Railroad Workers' Descendants Notice Lack Of Credit For Chinese Immigrants Chinese immigrants helped build America's first transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, but their contribution has been largely forgotten. A group of their descendants is trying to change that.
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Railroad Workers' Descendants Notice Lack Of Credit For Chinese Immigrants

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Railroad Workers' Descendants Notice Lack Of Credit For Chinese Immigrants

Railroad Workers' Descendants Notice Lack Of Credit For Chinese Immigrants

Railroad Workers' Descendants Notice Lack Of Credit For Chinese Immigrants

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Chinese immigrants helped build America's first transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, but their contribution has been largely forgotten. A group of their descendants is trying to change that.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This spring, some Chinese Americans set out to correct the record of a part of American history. They attended the re-enactment of an iconic American moment. One hundred fifty years ago, workers completed the first transcontinental railroad. Workers laying tracks from the east approached workers laying tracks from California in the West, and they met in Utah in 1869.

The reenactment attracted Chinese Americans because their ancestors largely built the western part of the railroad. That dangerous work was the start of their families' long connection with America. More than once over the years since, the descendants have recreated a photo of the moment the railroads met - but with one significant change. NPR's Emily Feng reports as we hear people with A Foot in Two Worlds - the U.S. and China.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Wai-Soo Koo, in her 70s, opens up a plastic bag in her hotel room. She pulls out a big blanket and carefully unfolds it on the bed.

WAI-SOO KOO: Well, I bought this today...

FENG: It's emblazoned with a famous photograph of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. In it, dozens of men stand on or around two locomotives, one facing east, the other west. In between them, the heads of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads shake hands. But there's one thing missing.

KOO: I don't see one Chinese face here - just white faces.

FENG: Koo's great-grandfather Wong Joh Ting (ph) and at least 10,000 other Chinese workers endured the high snow of the Sierra Nevada and the brutal sun of the Nevada desert to help build the railroad. Hundreds died, and they were underpaid simply for being Chinese. Their descendants want to highlight that history.

KOO: Hopefully, we can rectify this and let people know that there were many Chinese people who sacrificed.

FENG: Koo herself took a long road to the U.S. Her great-grandfather, the railroad ancestor, left behind his family in China, so Koo was born in Shanghai. When she later tried to come to the U.S....

KOO: We had to wait five years to come because of the China Exclusionary Act (ph). So I know that act very well - of discrimination.

FENG: She's talking about the 1882 Exclusion Act. The act stopped Chinese from immigrating to the U.S. and forced those already here, many of them railroad workers, to return to China. Restrictions in Chinese immigration were not completely ended until 1965.

I met Koo in Utah. She and hundreds of other descendants are here to redo that photograph at the completion of the transcontinental railroad, the one with all the white faces. The opportunity to do it came at the Golden Spike festival to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad. I wandered the hotel where descendants of Chinese railroad workers shared their stories in empty ballrooms and alcoves. They spoke of their ancestors' experience and of their own.

RAYMOND CHONG: Chinese were the perpetual foreigner, and we still are the perpetual foreigner.

FENG: Raymond Chong, now 63, still doesn't feel at home. He grew up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and '60s during the Cold War, when Chinese people were viewed with suspicion. With the U.S. and China now in a trade war, he's worried...

CHONG: That we are being used as a false pretense, a scapegoat, to represent China. And we don't. We're true Americans.

FENG: I find Russell Low in a quiet corner of the hotel lobby, where he shows me pictures of his Chinese ancestors.

RUSSELL LOW: I think that's one of the things that makes us uniquely American.

FENG: Low's great-grandmother, Ah Ying, married a rail worker after escaping an abusive household and Chinese gangs. Her love story was documented in San Francisco papers at the time.

LOW: We're all descendants of some brave person, like Ah Ying, who decided that, no, I'm going to do this. I'm going to come to America.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Anybody else have an empty seat next to you?

FENG: I hopped on a bus with these descendants, who came from all over the country. Their Cantonese dialects mixed with English spoken in New York and Boston accents. We're heading to Utah's Promontory Summit, where a gold railroad spike was driven into complete the transcontinental in 1869.

There's just one long road that everyone is taking to get in that's lined with American flags. And they've set up all these tents for this event.

The summit is a windy grassland ringed by snowy mountains. Normally, there's nothing but scrub in between them. But Golden Spike festival organizers managed to bring in an Irish band and pull in two restored antique trains, just like the ones in 1869.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN BELL RINGING)

FENG: Mid-afternoon, hundreds of descendants gather in front of the restored trains. Many are dressed as their ancestors would have been - in straw hats, cloth tunics or flashier silks. One of them, Richard Kwan (ph), sits down in the sun.

How does it feel wearing the costume and that - you've got this long braid, as well.

RICHARD KWAN: (Laughter) It's very, very hot in here.

FENG: The heaving mass of bodies squeeze into the frame, the same spot where their ancestors should have stood 150 years ago. There's some good-natured pushing.

CORKY LEE: Pull in further. Make believe this is the New York City subway.

FENG: The photographer, Corky Lee, yells cheese, and cameras click away.

(CHEERING)

FENG: And just like that, there's a new version of the iconic Golden Spike photograph, this time filled with beaming Chinese American faces.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Promontory Summit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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