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The stories they told: How the Chinese railroad workers live on

Courtesy of Amanda Wilson Bergado

A century and a half after the Golden Spike was hammered in at Promontory Summit, Utah, people from all over the Bay crowded into Tressider Oak Lounge with standing room only. Except instead of being on the sidelines like they had been in 1869, the contributions of the Chinese railroad workers were the focus at the 150th Anniversary event, The Golden Spike: Chinese Workers and The Transcontinental Railroad.

For many in the audience, however, the presentation of the decades-long scholarship of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America at Stanford project served a purpose beyond recognition of the workers’ mark on American history. The legacy of their ancestors were on full display.

“So many people from across the Bay — many of whom are fourth, fifth, sixth generation Chinese — heard that this event was happening and came to see the exhibition, to see the history of their ancestors be highlighted,” said Amanda Wilson Bergado, an attendee and director of the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis at Stanford. “It was moving to see so many people, especially descendants, in the room.”

For descendants of Chinese railroad workers and nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants, the work that Chinese Railroad Workers Project co-directors Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Gordon Chang have achieved is not just about setting the historical record straight; it’s about reclaiming their families’ place in American history. And for people like Michael Solorio ’20, a junior at Stanford whose great-great-great grandfather Lim Lip Hong worked on the transcontinental railroad, it is about finally including the forgotten individuals who built Stanford from the ground up in the University’s history.

“This country has a long history of disrespecting immigrant laborers, and this recognition is one movement of change in the right direction,” Solorio said. “I am happy that Chinese railroad workers like Lim Lip Hong are finally being recognized for their important contributions to the United States,” Solorio said. “Stanford was built on the backs of exploited immigrant laborers, so we owe them respect and recognition for their tough sacrifices.”

Stories passed down through generations

A twelve-year-old Lim Lip Hong emigrated to the United States from Guangdong Province in 1855. Like many other Chinese who emigrated at the time, Lim wanted to make money to send back to his family given the domestic turmoil occuring in China from the Opium Wars, famines, the Taiping Rebellion and civil unrest during the nineteenth century. He found work as a laborer on the Transcontinental Railroad, the western section of which was being built by the Central Pacific Railroad Company. The Central Pacific Railroad’s president was none other than California governor and university founder Leland Stanford.

Lim was eventually promoted to Crew Head, recruiting and overseeing laborers who braved the Sierra Nevadas to set hundreds of miles of track. Solorio, who is descended from Lim’s third child Lim Sing, recounts stories of Lim and his descendants, passed down as oral history on his mother’s side.

“One oral story that my grandma told me was how Lim Sing ‘saved the SF Chinatown,’” Solorio said. “After the San Francisco earthquake and fires, the local government formed a committee essentially to move Chinatown away from San Francisco and somewhere else. Lim Sing and his friend Wong Git Yow fought against the committee until it was disbanded.”

Since immigration and labor records, especially for Chinese immigrants, were often not well recorded or erased, family stories like those passed down to Solorio form oral histories that serve as valuable primary sources in the rich history of Chinese Americans. The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project compiled and uploaded interview videos and transcripts with numerous descendants of railroad laborers, where they shared stories passed down generations that can now be accessed for posterity on the project website.  

“[My great grandfather] came to the United States, we think, in the mid 1860s,” recounted Russell Low in one such interview. “He came, with an uncle, older brother actually, he came with one of his brothers, and they worked on the Transcontinental Railroad. At some point during this, the story according to his son, was that the brother lost an eye during a blasting accident. And exactly where that happened isn’t clear. But that’s the story as we know it. The fact is that there is little that is known about that time period.”

Some interviewees discussed not just the stories of ancestors who worked on the railroad, but how their family in subsequent generations cemented themselves in the United States.

“After working on the railroad as a foreman… my great-grandfather, Lee Wong Sang, has a store ‘Wong Sang Wo,’” said Connie Young Yu. “He had three sons working there, and my grandfather who was the second son, Lee Yuk Suy…the [1906 San Francisco] earthquake hit and my grandfather, he realized he just had to get the papers… his birth certificate—no one was going to believe a Chinese was born in 1878 in San Francisco.”

Connie Young Yu’s father later attended Stanford, where, despite the essential contributions that Chinese workers made in building campus and building Stanford’s fortune, he lived “in the Chinese clubhouse — and that was because Chinese students were not allowed to live in the dorms,” Yu continued. “And this was after 1919 when a Chinese [person] came to Encina Hall and was thrown out bodily by, you know, some good ol’ boys at Stanford. And then the Chinese in the community raised money to build the Chinese clubhouse.”

“I’ve always thought about the incredible irony of all this,” Yu said.

And while the work of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America project has comprehensively and unprecedentedly managed to document Chinese American history, for many descendants, much of their family’s history remains in uncertainty. Language barriers, a dearth of records making it difficult to corroborate oral stories and the pressures of American exclusionary policies causing necessary omissions and changes in narratives recounted by families to avoid deportation leave much to be explored.

“Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese people had to fit within certain social classes in order to be admitted to the US, which narrowed the identities of people possible,” Wilson Bergado, who is fourth and sixth generation Chinese American, said. “From the start of exclusion, a lot of the stories passed down by my family, and many others, conformed to a certain narrative by political necessity because we had to be of the merchant class in order to remain in the US.”

Wilson Bergado’s ancestor Lee Bo Wen, according to their family history, is said to have emigrated to the United States during the 1850s, but a lack of written records make this hard to confirm.

“That may have obfuscated the nuances of my family’s history, and with Lee Bo Wen, my ancestor who I know nothing about, he may not have been a merchant during that time and thus there might have been an intentional gap and secrecy surrounding his identity,” Wilson Bergado said. Some of her ancestors were also detained for months on Angel Island, the infamous immigration station in San Francisco Bay where Chinese immigrants were processed, separated and deported during the exclusion era.

“There was some reticence on the part of some of the older people in my family to talk about things that were particularly hard in their past because they were Chinese, whether it was racism in their communities or the real challenge that immigration policies posed. They’d tell me, ‘We’re not actually supposed to talk about this,’ even though [her ancestors] are long gone,” Wilson Bergado said.

While there is still more to unearth in regards to Chinese American history — even now, the Stanford Archaeology Project is excavating sites in the Stanford Arboretum where Chinese workers were housed as they built campus — descendants like Wilson Bergado and Solorio are grateful on a personal level for the progress the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America project has made in showcasing the history of Chinese contributions to the U.S.

“The dearth of records and the dearth of inclusion in the histories I learned growing up in California spurred my interest in becoming a historian,” Wilson Bergado said. “I’m grateful that this is opening up new narratives, new dimensions, addressing the gaps in our history. Not just understanding history from above … but from below, from the people who made this happen.”

Solorio also expressed gratitude for the institutional change around recognition of the Chinese railroad workers happening at Stanford.

“I feel very connected to the Chinese railroad workers because I would not be here if it wasn’t for the job opportunity here in the 1850s,” Solorio said. “Going to Stanford, I feel grateful that change is happening and that some descendants of mistreated laborers are finally getting the chance to benefit from institutions like Stanford.”

Solorio continued, “Every piece of information we have about them is valuable.”

This article has been corrected to remove an unsubstantiated claim that anti-Chinese mobs burned down the Virginia City Chinatown in 1875. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Sean Lee at seanklee ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Sean Lee

Sean Lee

Sean Lee '22 is the desk editor for the University News beat. He is interested in studying Political Science, History, International Relations, the humanities and the intersections between the humanities and STEM. An avid boba connoisseur and adventure seeker, he proudly hails from Arcadia, Los Angeles, California. Contact him at seanklee 'at' stanford.edu.