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California declares May 10 day for Chinese rail workers

By LIA ZHU in San Francisco | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2017-05-10 13:31

The California state Assembly on Monday unanimously passed a resolution to declare May 10 California Chinese Railroad Workers Memorial Day in honor of the nearly 12,000 Chinese railroad workers who helped build the Transcontinental Railroad more than 150 years ago.

The Transcontinental Railroad, originally known as the Pacific Railroad, was completed on May 10, 1869, linking the West and the East for the first time in American history. The construction, which took six years and stretched for nearly 2,000 miles, was one of the most remarkable engineering feats of the 19th century.

Chinese laborers joined the workforce for the Western section, the most arduous phase of the construction. They comprised more than 80 percent of the workforce of the Central Pacific Railroad Co; however, their role was largely neglected for many years.

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, "the assembly recognizes and honors the Chinese railroad workers who labored from 1865 to 1869 to build the Transcontinental Railroad by designating May 10, 2017, and each May 10 thereafter, as California Chinese Railroad Workers Memorial Day," according to House Resolution 31 (HR 31).

"The thousands of Chinese immigrants who risked their lives to build the Transcontinental Railroad faced prejudice, unsafe working conditions and low wages. Their sacrifice and courage must never be forgotten," said Assembly member Evan Low, author of HR 31.

In early 1865, the year the American Civil War ended, the Central Pacific Railroad arranged with labor contractors to recruit workers from China, mostly from Guangdong province in South China.

Desperate for work, the Chinese workers left their hometowns, which suffered from poverty and civil unrest, and boarded ships for California to support their families.

The Chinese railroad workers set a world record by laying 10 miles of railroad track in just one workday and were considered indispensible by their foremen.

However, the Chinese workers faced prejudice, isolation and dangerous working conditions. Nearly 1,200 Chinese railroad workers died from work accidents, avalanches, and explosions while working in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

"The Chinese railroad workers' contribution will be remembered by more and more people both in the US and in China," said Gordon Chang, a professor of American history at Stanford University and director of the Center for East Asian Studies.

"Because much mainstream historical writing omits their (early Chinese immigrants') history, it is imperative that we, descendants of the early Chinese, do not," said Chang, who for the past five years has been leading a Stanford project to preserve the history of the Chinese railroad workers.

The resolution also states that "through their fight against discrimination, the Chinese railroad workers set an example for the millions of Asian Americans who came to the United States after them".

"Both the descendants of the workers and the wider Asian-American community view the sacrifices of the Chinese railroad workers as being integral to the creation of the vibrant and growing Asian-American community that exists throughout the country today," the proclamation says.

Chinese laborers have made great contribution to the cause of American modernization, said Florence Fang, a renowned community leader in San Francisco. " There hard work should be remembered, their contribution should be recognized. They are heroes unsung."

In 2014, the US Department of Labor inducted the Chinese Railroad workers into the Labor Hall of Honor for their fight for better working conditions.

June Chang contributed to this story.

liazhu@chinadailyusa.com

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