Descendants Of Chinese Laborers Reclaim Railroad's History : Code Switch America's first transcontinental railroad was completed with a golden spike 145 years ago. Thousands of Chinese workers helped build it, but their faces were left out of photos from that historic day.
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Descendants Of Chinese Laborers Reclaim Railroad's History

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Descendants Of Chinese Laborers Reclaim Railroad's History

Descendants Of Chinese Laborers Reclaim Railroad's History

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East finally met west 145 ago today on America's first transcontinental railroad. The symbolic hammering of a golden spike in Utah completed the connection between the country's two coasts. It shortened a cross country trip from more than six months to a week. Much of the building was done by thousands of laborers brought in from China. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports on how some of their descendants are now remember that history.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: There's one photograph from May 10, 1869 that took root in U.S. history.

ZE MIN XIAO, COMMEMORATION ORGANIZER: It's black and white and it's pretty blurry. So...

CONNIE YOUNG YU: Yes, a black and white very historic looking photo. It's iconic actually.

WANG: That was Ze Min Xiao, who organized a commemoration of the golden spike ceremony in Utah. And Connie Young Yu, the great granddaughter of a Chinese laborer on the transcontinental railroad.

YU: There's a big crowd of people.

ORGANIZER: A lot of men, two locomotives in the backdrop.

YU: On the left, there's this engine that's called the Jupiter. And then on the right, is the Union Pacific engine.

ORGANIZER: It looks like it's a desert. You don't see any trees or anything.

YU: And in the middle are the two engineers shaking hands. And above them are workers, you know, hoisting champagne bottles.

WANG: Some bubbly to mark the long-awaited completion of the gateway to the American West. Nearly 2,000 miles of iron rail that crossed the Rockies and Sierra Nevada, but the portrait wasn't picture perfect.

CORKY LEE: Well, history, at least photographically says that the Chinese were not present.

WANG: Photographer Corky Lee poured over the photo with a magnifying glass in junior high. But he couldn't spot a single Chinese laborer in the picture, even though more than 12,000 workers from southern China were hired by the Central Pacific Railroad. They made up the overwhelming majority of its workforce.

So in 2002, Lee gathered a group Chinese Americans at Promontory Summit to recreate the historic shot. And he did it again today with descendants of those Chinese laborers.

LEE: They're standing in the same spot where 145 years ago there were no Chinese.


CHRIS LU: We gather today to honor a group of workers who helped build our nation.

WANG: In Washington, D.C. this week, Deputy Labor Secretary Chris Lu said he was beginning to, quote, "right an old wrong" by including the Chinese railroad workers into the department's Hall of Honor.

LU: These were immigrants who came to this country seeking a better life, and they had the chance to work on something really extraordinary. And then you had a nation that not only did not appreciate their efforts, but then lead to a big exclusion after that.

WANG: The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese laborers from entering the U.S. for more than half a century. And Chinese immigrants already in America were kept from becoming citizens. The law was part of a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment that the ancestors of Lisa Hsaio and Susan Yu experienced firsthand.

LISA HSIAO: Where do you work?


HSIAO: Oh, FDA, OK, we represent FDA. I work at the Consumer Protection Branch of DOJ

WANG: Both federal employees, Hsaio and Yu are also descendants of transcontinental railroad workers. As a sixth generation Chinese-American, Chow says the recognition is long overdue.

HSIAO: And maybe implicitly a little bit of a recognition of the injustice, you know, the Chinese railroad workers were widely discriminated against. They were hired because nobody else would do the work.

WANG: Susan Yu says she takes comfort in seeing her great-grandfather's efforts remembered in the halls of the U.S. government.

YU: To me, that's quite meaningful in that, you know, it's a final acceptance.

WANG: And, she says, a kind of closure.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.


RATH: Hansi Lo Wang covers race, ethnicity and culture for NPR's Code Switch Team.


RATH: Up next, before the hip-hop group Atmosphere took off, MC Sean Daley had pretty much decided to give up on his dreams of hip-hop success.

SEAN DALEY: I got a job as a courier for a wholesale florist. And my goal was to work my way up into a sales position where I'm bringing in $50K a year or something. You know what I mean? I can get a house, a little nice place somewhere in South Minneapolis, you know?

RATH: Twenty years later, he's just released his seventh album. Sean Daley of the hip-hop group Atmosphere. That's in the next part of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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