They endured back-breaking physical labor. They toiled in wind, rain and snow. They were paid less than their white counterparts. 1,200 of them died on the job. And, to top it off, they weren’t even invited to celebrate the completion of their work.
They were the 10,000 to 15,000 Chinese migrant workers who built the western segment of America’s First Transcontinental Railroad during the 1860s.
Most Americans are probably unaware of the role the Chinese played in connecting the west coast of the United States with the east. But, on the evening of October 22, at the 20th anniversary conference of the Association of Personal Historians in Sacramento, California, the experiences of these unsung laborers was brought vividly to life by Charlie Chin.
Mr. Chin, a renowned historian, master storyteller, and accomplished musician, took to the stage in the persona of Chin Lin Sou, a highly intelligent and resourceful Chinese immigrant who learned English and eventually became the foreman and contractor of Chinese railroad workers. In fact, Chin Lin Sou recruited many of his countrymen and helped arrange their passage to the U.S. After the “golden spike” was driven home at Promontory Point, Utah Territory (an event to which the Chinese workers were not invited), Chin Lin Sou settled in Denver, Colorado, where he became a highly respected businessman.
Mr. Chin’s performance, divided into three parts, was entertaining, educational, and electrifying. In part one, as Chin Lin Sou, he recounted the trials and tribulations of the Chinese railway workers as they worked furiously laying heavy rails, while at the same time battling the elements, dangerous working conditions, disease, and, of course, prejudice. In the second act of his performance, Mr. Chin, still in the guise of Chin Lin Sou, answered questions from the audience. Mr. Chin then stepped out of character to address subjects about which Chin Lin Sou would have had no knowledge.
Delivered to an audience composed of personal historians and members of the Sacramento community, the event also served to promote the efforts of the Chinese Railroad Workers Memorial Project, a group dedicated to building a proper monument, which seeks, as the project’s website describes, “…to recognize the important historic contribution and pay a solemn tribute to the Chinese immigrants who lost their lives laboring on the Transcontinental Railroad, which shaped the physical and social landscape of the American West.”
The event was sponsored by longtime APH member Lynne Choy Uyeda, and her company, Linking Lives & Legacies.
To hear a brief excerpt from Mr. Chin’s performance, click on the audio button below.