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  • The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad ed. by Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin
  • Robert Cliver (bio)
The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad
Edited by Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019. Pp. 560.

Based on years of collaboration through Stanford University's Chinese Railway Workers in North America Project, this exciting collection of scholarly articles represents a major contribution to labor history and to the new wave of Chinese-American studies that is global in scope but intensely focused on recovering and illuminating the lives of the ten- to fifteen-thousand Chinese workers who constructed the Central Pacific Railroad section of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s.

Chinese-American histories are rich and varied, but one thing most American students learn about Chinese immigration is that the Chinese built the railroads. Even this simple fact, however, has been obscured in many earlier accounts of the Transcontinental Railroad. (For example, when the United States Transportation Secretary John Volpe spoke at the 1969 centennial of the line's completion, he completely ignored the fact that the workers who accomplished this feat were Chinese.) As co-editors (and co-directors of the project), Chang and Fishkin have brought together a diverse body of research, utilizing a wide range of sources that reveal railway workers' lived experiences, material and spiritual lives, connections to their hometowns, and the diasporic and commercial networks in which they moved.

Despite the lack of primary documents from Chinese workers, the researchers were nonetheless able to use sources in creative ways and expand the scope of inquiry to previously unexamined aspects of workers' lives, such as their pursuits after the completion of the line in 1869. Thanks to these collaborative efforts and innovative approaches, every chapter provides exciting new information and insights. The fact that one-third of the book is devoted to notes, bibliography, and index demonstrates these scholars' rigorous research.

A superb introductory chapter presents the volume's historiographical and methodological approaches. The other twenty-one chapters are divided into five sections. The "Global Perspectives" section looks beyond the national narrative usually associated with the Transcontinental Railroad to examine the global significance of this achievement and these workers' origins, characteristics, and efforts. Including paths of migration, connections to other parts of the western hemisphere, and worldwide responses, the project places the story of the iron road in a global context. The "Ties to China" section focuses on Chinese workers' connections to their hometowns in South China. It presents hometown (qiaoxiang) and remittance (qiaohui) documents, as well as Chinese songs, poems, and epitaphs. This section exhibits the creativity and sophistication of the research [End Page 1258] and interpretation of sources in the volume and is very informative, even for those knowledgeable about the topic.

The eight chapters in the section "Life on the Line" likewise apply innovative methods to explore a wide range of sources, including artifacts that reveal the lived experiences of Chinese railroad workers and the commercial networks that brought them commodities. Other sources include land surveys, artifacts relating to medicine and religion, photographs, and reports by European observers of the railroad's construction. One chapter by Taiwanese scholar Hsinya Huang, utilizes oral histories recorded in tribal archives to reveal the relationships between Native Americans and Chinese workers during and after the railroad's construction (chapter 11). Trade, shared cuisine (such as cabbage dishes), and numerous examples of intermarriage underline an intimate connection between two groups of people whose shared experience of exploitation and discrimination at the bottom of the social hierarchy brought them together in sympathy and kinship.

The sections "Chinese Railroad Workers in Cultural Memory" and "Chinese Railroad Workers beyond Promontory" (Promontory, Utah, is the site of the famous "golden spike" event commemorating the railroad's completion) continue transcending well-worn tropes and stereotypes. Three chapters are devoted to American history textbooks, Chinese historiography in the People's Republic of China, and literary sources. Readers find out what happened to Chinese workers in later railroad projects in the United States and Canada, the other occupations they pursued, and more about one of the best-known railway workers turned...


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