Chinese and the transcontinental railroad

Angry Asian Man posted yesterday about an interview (in the Washington Post) with producers of an upcoming original series on AMC, Hell on Wheels. The series’ producers were asked why there were no Chinese characters in the series and, in their fumbling responses, gave no clear answer to the question but did manage to inflame emotions with a statement that “they ended up getting excised” from the show’s pilot. Angry Asian Man uses the statement to make a larger point about the historical contributions of Chinese. While I sympathize with Angry Asian Man’s broader concern, in this specific instance, he (and for that matter, everyone involved) confuses “history” in several ways.

AAM begins by stating: “we all know that Chinese immigrant workers were a major part of the labor force that helped build the railroad.” He then askes: “It would make perfect sense for Chinese characters to have a presence in this show. Right?”

The problem is that while his first statement is correct–given most people’s take on the issue–the answer to his question is actually, no. According to its web site, Hell on Wheels tells the story of the building of the transcontinental railroad from the perspective of workers on the stretch of rail built westward from the central United States by the Union Pacific. More specifically its focus is a tent city that followed the progression of the rail as it was built.

Chinese worked on the rail segment built eastward from California by the Central Pacific. This segment was shorter than the Union Pacific, but the work was far more arduous because it required extending the rail line through the Sierra Nevada mountains, some of the harshest, steepest terrain on the North American continent. The work was particularly dangerous when it required lowering men down the side of sheer cliffs in baskets to plant and explode dynamite, which was lit while the men were lifted back up the cliffsides. The high incidence of death and injury gave rise to the expression “Chinaman’s chance,” meaning very unfavorable odds.

Since the construction of the transcontinental railroad involved both the eastward and westward rail segments, it makes sense to credit Chinese workers for their contributions to the overall project–something that did not occur at the celebration culminating the railroad’s completion. However, it makes no sense to expect to see Chinese workers in a historical drama about the Union Pacific’s rail segment because there were none–although I should admit that I haven’t checked the historical record to see if there were a few.

An overall assessment about Chinese contributions to the railroad historically is not the same thing as historical specificity and detail. These are two different senses of history, although the one is connected to the other. Specific detail matters because they configure and determine the historical narratives and arguments that are made about them.

My point is not to excuse the producers of the series. If their larger concern is to tell the story of the railroad’s construction, they needed to include the Central Pacific perspective, which would include Chinese. Their statement that the railroad was part of the nation’s westward expansion is demonstrably false and based on older, questionable historiography. Why, after all, build a transcontinental rail line to an undeveloped west coast region? The railroad connected segments from developed areas east and west, which is why it was completed in Utah, and the territory it “expanded” and developed was the United States’ mountain interior.

If the producers’ primary concern, however, is the social dynamics and drama within a tent city following the eastern segment of the rail as it was being built, there were no Chinese involved. But it’s also not that interesting. So why expect any and get upset about it? Such a direct and straightforward answer based in historical detail and understanding should have been satisfactory.

Admittedly, the UP and its workers were aware of the CP and the Chinese because they were in competition for progress and wages. This competition allows for the issue and even Chinese characters and/or issues to be introduced at some point. But no one speaking or commenting seems to be operating with that much actual historical knowledge.

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