By Terray Sylvester
PROMONTORY, Utah (Reuters) – Connie Young Yu says that when her parents joined a delegation of fellow Chinese-Americans attending a 1969 event commemorating the centennial of the first U.S. Transcontinental Railroad, they were snubbed, upstaged by Hollywood star John Wayne.
Now 50 years later, she and others descended from Chinese immigrants who built much of the cross-country rail line are looking forward to the 150th “Golden Spike” anniversary in Utah for rightful recognition they say is long overdue.
“It’s our connection to and participation in American society,” Yu, 77, a board member of the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco, told Reuters in a recent interview.
A three-day anniversary celebration is set to open Friday at Promontory Summit, 66 miles (106 km) northwest of Salt Lake City, where the Central Pacific Railroad from the west was joined to the Union Pacific Railroad from the east on May 10, 1869.
Organizers expect about 20,000 visitors and dignitaries for a day of speeches, music and a historical re-enactment of 1869’s ceremonial driving of the original last spike, cast in 17.6-karat gold, connecting the finished 1,756-mile (2,826 km) rail line.
The festivities also will feature full-size working replicas of the two steam engines seen facing each other, nose to nose, in an iconic photograph from that day, with crewmen crowded around the locomotives toasting the occasion with whiskey.
Initiated during the Civil War and taking six years to complete, the railway’s construction transformed America’s Western frontier, accelerating Anglo-European settlement of the vast region and aligning it politically with the Union states of the North. It also hastened the demise of the Plains Indians, as well as the bison herds on which they depended.
Yu’s great-grandfather, Lee Wong Sang, was a foreman on the 19th-century project, for which railroad contractors recruited thousands of Chinese, mostly Cantonese-speaking labourers from China’s Guangdong province.
They made up the bulk of workers for the Central Pacific, or western, segment of the railway, laying track and carving railbeds over and through the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains. They uniformly worked longer hours for less pay than their white counterparts on the Union Pacific, and performed the most dangerous work. There were no power tools. Virtually all work was done by hand.
Untold numbers – as many as 1,200 by some estimates – perished in blasting accidents, snowslides, falls and other mishaps.
“We Cantonese feel a pride that our roots are in these hardworking people who built this great iron road that connected America,” Yu said, adding she will be speaking for all immigrants when she addresses Friday’s event on behalf of the Chinese-American delegation.
“I feel that our biggest contribution would be for social justice, and to define what being an American is,” she said.
At the 1969 ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the railroad’s completion, Yu’s father was then vice president of the historical society and her mother the only descendant of the railroad workers who was present.
They travelled to Utah with the then-president of the historical society, Phil Choy, who was supposed to address the ceremony. Actor John Wayne ended up speaking in his place, Yu said.
Karen Kwan, a Democrat in the Utah House of Representatives who helped organise this year’s Golden Spike event, said plans for highlighting the contributions of Chinese immigrants was “righting a wrong.”
“Our names were not recorded by and large. We were not given the recognition that we should have been given,” said Kwan, the first Chinese-American elected to Utah’s legislature. “Asian-Americans as a whole are often thought of as perpetual foreigners.”
Yu acknowledged feeling “a bit nervous” in light of a resurgence in xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments that echo a backlash against the Chinese following completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. That hostility led to passage of the federal Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, marking the first significant law restricting U.S. immigration.
Remaining on the books until 1943, the exclusion laws drove many immigrants to alter their names and falsify family ties, playing a role in making it hard for Chinese-Americans to trace their roots, according to San Francisco-based historian Sue Lee.
Other factors include a general lack of records listing individual Chinese workers by name and the fact that many returned to their homeland after the project ended, Lee said.
Research organised by Stanford University has helped many overcome those obstacles in recent years, establishing a connection that for Chinese-Americans is equivalent to citizens of European descent who trace their heritage to the Mayflower, Lee said.
“It’s a cornerstone of Chinese-American history,” she said.
(Reporting by Terray Sylvester in Utah; writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Jonathan Oatis)