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Project Remembers Chinese Railroad Workers in US Through Descendants

Next year marks the 150th anniversary of when large numbers of Chinese started working on the transcontinental railroad in the United States. Very little is known about these workers lives and what happened to them after the construction ended. Stanford University is working on a project to piece together the lives of the Chinese railroad workers by reaching out to their descendants.

Desperation and courage could very well describe what led Bill Yee’s ancestors to come to the United States.

“I don’t think I could do it to come to a strange country and don’t know a word of English. But I guess it’s between eating or starving. I guess you have to do what you have to do for your family,” said Yee.

His ancestors came from southern China, and became a part of key moments in American history.

“My great-great-grandfather came over during the gold rush days and he returned back to China as a wealthy man. My great-grandfather came over to work on the railroad. He came over to work with black gunpowder, black powder on the railroad and he died working on the railroad,” said Yee.

But that didn’t stop his grandfather from coming to the U.S. on false papers. He ran a laundry and Yee’s father continued that business.

“Things were pretty bad in some parts of China at that time. They came to America at all costs,” Yee said.

Shelley Fisher Fishkin wants to hear stories like Yee's.

“The records of specific individuals and their names and experiences are so sparse,” said Fishkin.

Fishkin is co-director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University. She is working with scholars in Asia to look for descendants of railroad workers on both continents to reconstruct the lives of these men.

“Many of the Chinese workers who came to work on the Transcontinental and other railroads returned to China after their work was done [and] created families there. Some of them had families who they left when they came here and they may have descendants in China,” said Fishkin.

The aim is to create a digital archive of artifacts, documents and oral histories from the railroad worker’s descendants so historians can piece together the mystery of who they were and what happened to them.

”The U.S. could not have become the modern industrial nation it did without the railroads and the railroads would not have come together when they did without the crucial work of these Chinese workers,” said Fishkin.

Jonathan Wong’s ancestor knew English and left China to work as a translator on the transcontinental railroad. He eventually brought his family to the U.S., and they settled in San Francisco.

“He had a [different] experience than having to do labor. He wouldn’t go home feeling that he was going to be in danger the next day. It was a closer relationship with the white community, his white superiors, but obviously I know that he was still treated as if he was the inferior minority,” said Wong.

Fishkin said racial issues were a part of life as a Chinese railroad worker.

“They suffered greatly from discrimination and from prejudice. They were paid less than their Euro-American workers,” said Fishkin.

Bill Yee wants his six children and 19 grandchildren to know their family history.

“They have to appreciate the sacrifice that our grandparents did for us otherwise I might be working in the rice fields now. So it really brings a big opportunity to this generation,” said Yee.

Through the Stanford University project, the lives of these men can be remembered, so the role they played in American history will be remembered by their descendants.