Review by Herbert F Mintz II:
The Golden Spike: Chinese and Irish Labor versus The Big Four
The Golden Spike: Chinese and Irish Labor versus the Big Four was one of over 60 events featured in LaborFest 2017. A vibrant audience of nearly 50 crowded into the basement of the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco on Wednesday, July 12, 2017.
Lotus Fong, the event moderator, began by recounting the 145th anniversary of the reenactment of the joining of the Union Pacific Railroad with the Central Pacific Railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah in 2014. Attended by activists from the bay area, their purpose was to ensure and honor the invaluable contribution of Chinese railroad workers was included in that Golden Spike celebration. She deftly pointed out that 10-12 thousand Chinese laborers, who made up a majority of the railroad workers employed by the Central Pacific Railroad, were absent from the celebratory event and historic photograph of 1869.
A moment of brilliance occurred when Ms. Fong exhibited the 145th anniversary photo re-creation from 2014 that included 200 descendants of Chinese railroad workers as well as supportive visitors from China.
She also quizzed the event attendees regarding the influential business leaders who organized the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, known as “The Big Four”: Leland Stanford, Collis Potter Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker.
Ms. Fong introduced The Canton Army in the High Sierras, a video documentary produced, written and directed by Loni Ding. The 1998, 28-minute color documentary, recounted the monumental carving of Bloomer Cut, Donner Summit Tunnel, and the blasting of a roadbed from a solid rock mountainside, the Cape Horn railroad track. The documentary details the efforts of an army of thousands of Chinese railroad workers, mostly from southern China, who labor to complete their piece of America’s First Transcontinental Railroad. Often displacing, sometimes inch-by-inch, solid granite rock of the Sierras, the workers, who lived together in a family structure, successfully undertook the Herculean construction effort that built the Central Pacific railroad.
The most stirring sequence in the video was of a strike organized by the Chinese railroad workers in June 1867. This little-known detail of an organized and disciplined labor action in a remote region in the High Sierras proved thrilling. The fact that thousands of Chinese workers were willing to go out on strike over harsh working conditions provided viewers with a sense of the solidarity and community embodied in these workers that transcended the many years that separated us from them. Sadly, this noble effort for justice was broken by the withholding of food for eight days by men employed by “The Big Four”. A final irony to the strike was the signing of the Burlingame-Seward Treaty of 1868. This document contained language agreeing to an uninterrupted supply of labor from China, thus handing management an important tool in breaking strikes.
After the video, Paulette Liang, a descendant of a Chinese railroad worker, introduced the audience to her great grandfather Lum Ah Chew who worked for the Central Pacific Railroad company. She researched and collected primary source material to document her family’s history in America. In a moving presentation, Ms. Liang brought to life this story from her family genealogy. Later, Lum Ah Chew, worked on the Sacramento Delta levees and settled in Cortland, California, where he raised a family.
Professor Hilton Obenzinger, Associate Director, Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, Stanford University, followed Ms. Liang. According to Professor Obenzinger, the Chinese Railroad Workers project at Stanford seeks to acquire a true portrait and to give a voice to the Chinese migrants whose labor on the First Transcontinental Railroad helped to shape the physical and social landscape of the American West. He has been working with the project since it began in 2012.
Professor Obenzinger articulated many exciting details of the non-violent strike by 8,000 Chinese railroad workers in June 1867. For example, at the time, the strike was the largest collective action on the largest construction site. The strike covered the distance between mile marker 92 and 119 along the eastern slope of the Sierra. On this remote stretch of mountainous terrain, Chinese railroad workers decided to lay down their tools. The workers were demanding higher wages and reduced hours per workday and protesting the fact that overseers of the company whipped them or restrained them from leaving the job to seek employment elsewhere. After 8 days of no food and facing threats and coercion, the workers ended their strike.
Professor Obenzinger lamented the fact no letters or memoires or even the document announcing the strike produced by Chinese workers that participated in the strike, have not been found to date. However, he stated that research has made one thing clear: the absence of letters is not because the workers were unable to read and write. They could.
Where then might be the records of these Chinese railroad workers on the Central Pacific Railroad? According to Professor Obenzinger, it is a complicated situation. Violence in China and the US and physical attacks on Chinese up through the 1880s meant it was hard to preserve material. Revolutions, ethnic conflict, warlords and the Japanese invasion made it very hard to preserve letters in China. And letters were not regarded as anything special. Also, the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed a lot of records, notably the records of the Chinese Six Companies, the benevolent societies and businesses that protected the community, the names of the Chinese herbalists caring for the workers and documents regarding arrangements to ship bodies back home.
In a final monumental irony, Professor Obenzinger acknowledged that the labor of these Chinese railroad workers, eventually numbering between 10-12,000, was central to the creation of the wealth that Leland Stanford used to found Stanford University.
Patrick Goggins, Board Chair, Irish Literary and Historical Society of the San Francisco Bay Area, is a descendent of a third generation Irish railway family employed by the Great Northern Railroad, a transcontinental railroad built in the late 1880s. His grandfather, William M. Goggins, came to the US from Ballinrobe, Ireland, at 16 in 1888. His granduncle, Michael Goggins, arrived in the US around 1878-80 and lived in Omaha, Nebraska. He may have worked for the Union Pacific or one of the other railroads in that area after the completion of the First Transcontinental.
Mr. Goggins spoke of the impact of the Great Famine from 1845 -1849 as a factor in Irish immigration to the US. While the potato blight was catastrophic for Irish peasants, other grain crops and livestock had bumper yields during those years but the absentee land lords and ruling British government cruelly brought in troops to guard this food. Instead of mitigating the impact of the famine by distributing available food, it was loaded onto ships and sent to England over the course of the main famine years. Starvation, disease and evictions resulted. Over one million people died and another two million left their country.
According to Mr. Goggins, Irish men found employment in the US army and were organized into the Irish Brigade during the American Civil War. The average number of Union army deaths in the entire war were 2 out of 3 due to disease and 1 of 3 dying in combat. The average deaths in the Irish Brigades were remarkably reversed with 2 out of 3 deaths in combat and 1 of 3 due to disease.
He then described that Irish also found jobs with the railroads, which did not discriminate against hiring them, during and immediately after the Civil War. Mr. Goggins acknowledged the Irish discrimination against Chinese in San Francisco with the contrived anti-Chinese ordinances and particularly with the venomous attacks by community leader Denis Kearney.
He went to point out that routine low wages and harsh working conditions as well as individual stories of efforts to build a transcontinental railway paralleled, to some degree, the experiences of the Chinese in the High Sierras.
Mr. Goggins, after noting the hardships among the Irish, then emphasized the power of Irish music, laughter and poetry in sustaining the identity and culture of the Irish. Celebrating good company, pub culture, knowing well that relationships and family were important enabled the Irish to strive into the future.
In a show of solidarity and gratitude for the tremendous organizational work of Lotus Fong, Mr. Goggins presented her with a book entitled, The Irish in the San Francisco Bay Area: Essays on Good Fortune, underpinning his sense that the Chinese and Irish people have much in common.
The next speaker, Gifford Hartman, a global supply chain researcher, rendered visible the salient details of the complicated connections between workers and their factories in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, People’s Republic of China, where the trail of the production of shoes began and then lead to retail outlets in the Chicago area. A particular focus of Mr. Hartman’s research entailed the ways in which workers and activists can support each other and interrupt that global supply chain with local labor actions.
Armed with photographs, texts, graphics and his strong voice, Mr. Hartman accompanied the audience on an eye opening 7,770-mile passage of shoes to market. In striking detail, he brought to the foreground the invisible forces in production process: Shoe producing workers, their factories, the port of exports, the ships, the ocean passages, the receiving ports, the rail lines and railcars, the warehouses, the logistic firms, and finally a Walmart in the Chicago area, the final point in the process.
This exhibition of the rationalization of production then turned to how workers in particular points in the production process could shut down the movement of the shoes.
Moreover, Mr. Hartman’s research clearly showed the earth’s landscape shaped by the interests of contemporary capital to market shoes as nearly identical to the interests of the capitalists to shape the earth’s landscape to build the Transcontinental Railroad.
Bill Shields, City College of San Francisco labor studies professor, made a brief statement about the Labor Studies program at CCSF, pointed out that all Fall 2017 courses are now free of charge and announced upcoming fall courses in Labor Studies.
Mr. Shields introduced two members of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), Norman Ten, SEIU Local 1021 Field Rep, an APALA member since 1993 and presently serving as a member of the APALA National Executive Board and Daz Lamparas, CWA 9404 member, an APALA Founding member since 1992 and presently serving as the APALA San Francisco Chapter President.
Mr. Ten informed the audience that APALA is the first and only national organization of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) workers, most of whom are union members advancing worker, immigrant and civil rights. APALA continues the legacy of labor struggle by Asian Americans.
Mr. Ten and Mr. Lamparas both made the connection between the labor actions of the Chinese railroad workers that worked for Central Pacific Railroad and Asian American activism in the labor movement today.
This LaborFest 2017 event paid tribute to the Chinese workers who were instrumental in building the nation’s First Transcontinental Railroad. Nearly 150 years ago, these workers made labor history. With a mix of family narratives and stories of descendants, historical and contemporary photos, records and illustrations, tonight’s efforts pushed forward the struggle to learn a more complete history of these workers.
Links to additional resources:
Chinese Historical Society of America
The Canton Army in the High Sierras
Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, Stanford University
Irish Literary and Historical Society of the San Francisco Bay Area
CCSF Labor Studies
Nota bene: May 10, 2019 is the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad and the anniversary of Leland Stanford’s driving the famous “golden spike” to connect the Central Pacific and Union Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah. This is potentially a momentous turning point in history, when the recognition of the contribution of Chinese railroad workers to the building of the American Empire, which connected East Coast to West across the Pacific to the China Trade. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org