Upwards of 15,000 to 20,000 individual migrant Chinese laborers performed the bulk of the work constructing the Central Pacific span of the First Transcontinental Railroad. Between 1864 and 1869, these Chinese also crossed the Pacific Ocean in what was then, and may still rank among the largest transnational labor migration movements. How do we find sources to uncover this forgotten and deliberately erased history? How did they live their daily lives? What kinds of enterprise did they innovate? How did their work on the railroad shape their lives in communities on both sides of the Pacific? What topics and perspectives from this period should teachers introduce to high school students?
These as well as other questions were addressed by Dr. Roland Hsu, Director of Research for the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University, and Greg Francis, SPICE Curriculum Consultant, during a webinar for teachers that was co-hosted by Stanford’s Center for East Asian Studies (CEAS) and SPICE on July 20, 2020. During his lecture, Hsu shared many primary source documents, including photographs by Alfred A. Hart (1862–1869) from Stanford Libraries’ Department of Special Collections, as he gave an overview of the history of the Chinese railroad workers and shed light onto their work experiences. These photographs sparked a question concerning why there were so few photographs showing Chinese railroad workers’ faces. Hsu replied:
It’s a great question to leave us historically imagining… Portraiture—when you can see a face, individuation, individual details—was more like a studio portrait that people would pay for… versus [Chinese] workers who were quite rarely individualized… And from the period of anti-Chinese sentiment, it would really run counter to caricatures if you gave individual detail.
In 2018, SPICE developed four lessons on Chinese railroad workers. These lessons were based on the research, primary sources, and insights of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project and were designed for high school students and classes. Francis, one of the co-authors of the curriculum, followed Hsu’s lecture by interactively sharing portions of the curriculum—including political cartoons from the 1870s about Chinese immigrants, oral histories of Chinese railroad workers, and several descriptions of San Francisco’s Chinatown, which was an integral part of the Chinese railroad workers’ introduction to the United States. Francis explained, “Through the lessons, Waka Brown and I tried to give the Chinese railroad workers a ‘voice,’ as there are no known extant documents like letters and diaries from the Chinese railroad workers. We hope that the lessons will help to serve as a bridge between the scholarship of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project and U.S. classrooms.”
Bill Kwong (CEAS ’96), former Director of Global Initiatives/Director of Community Services at Crystal Springs Upland School in Hillsborough, California, attended the webinar and reflected, “The webinar presented by Dr. Roland Hsu and Greg Francis gave such touching and important details about the workers’ experiences that they add richness to this important chapter of often forgotten American experience. SPICE’s Chinese railroad workers’ curriculum needs to be included in our schools’ offerings. It is ironic that these workers are the same individuals whose sweat and tears contributed to the success of Leland Stanford who later founded Stanford University where SPICE finds its home.”
The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project-based lessons were made possible by the generous support of Adrian Arima and Monica Yeung Arima. All four lessons are free for download from the SPICE website. The webinar was made possible through the support of the Freeman Foundation’s National Consortium for Teaching about Asia initiative. Special thanks to Dr. Dafna Zur, CEAS Director, and John Groschwitz, CEAS Associate Director, for their support; and to SPICE’s Instructional Designer Jonas Edman for facilitating the webinar and Event Coordinator Sabrina Ishimatsu for planning this webinar.