Thousands of Chinese railroad workers, the majority of whom are behind the building of the railroad, are not pictured.
As I’m sitting on the southbound bullet Caltrain, my thoughts begin to wander, converging on the image of my grandmother’s kind eyes and her many stories which had woven themselves into the fabric of my childhood. I kissed her goodbye that morning, more out of affection than some real need as I was only going to be gone for the day, having signed up for a tour of Stanford, one of my dream schools. She had that familiar look in her eye that signaled that though she was here within my reach, her thoughts were with her memories of a life I knew little about.
“Sunnu, the people who think it was always like this in America, are misguided. It’s so easy for you now, but the way was paved by several generations that really suffered and worked very hard . . . nameless, faceless men with big straw hats. . .”
I knew she was referring to my great-great-grandfather. I had heard stories of him who as a young and penniless man had decided to work on the railroads, despite his numerous cousins’ warnings against the dangerous and tireless job. The stories are as familiar to me as the Saturday morning cartoons of my childhood, yet every retelling entrances me with details so vivid and so real.
* * *
The young men quietly sat in a custard-yellow room, with nothing to do but listen to the argument outside.
“I will not take them! They are Chinese, for god’s sake! They can’t do this kind of work!” one man shouted, obviously frustrated.
“Calm down,” the other man, who seemed to be his superior, said.
“They can hear us. It’s not like they don’t understand English.”
“Let them hear me! I refuse to have our system slow down because of this poor choice! When have the Chinese ever built anything important?!”
“Well…” the man trailed off, “There’s the Great Wall...”
The listeners looked at each other.
“That was almost two thousand years ago!” the man thundered. “Just because we need to break the strike doesn’t mean we need the Chinese! Let’s take the Irish or the—,” he was cut off.
“I don’t care if you agree or not, we are taking these men,” the man said, and he stepped through the door. The acidity in his voice cut through the tension of the cramped hallway, but it was nothing compared to the bitterness that was going to be the men’s life from that day on.
* * *
The day they left lived in Bao Gang’s mind with a few other such days, unforgettable. A foreman stood in the open gate, shoving forward groups of three or four at a time, counting the men as if they were cattle.
“One hundred sixty-five of them,” the foreman called.
One hundred sixty-five. My mother’s great-grandfather could hardly imagine working with these men for the next year. The pay was low, and he knew the work would be hard, but he could not have known what really lay ahead—Bao Gang had never worked before, nor been away from home. But, here he was now. He was going to work and earn and save. He was going to send money back to his mother so she would have wood for the winter, and send his younger brother to school, and go back home one day, soon enough, and marry May. They were even going to have enough to open a food stand of their own at the grand night market. Around him shuffled other men with the same expressions as his, confused but also almost daring to be excited.
As a group they walked the length of the already finished miles of track; Bao Gang’s eyes soaked up his new environment. The view was fascinating. The sky tinted water lay still, leaving a small imprint on stones that had broken past the surface of the pond. A thick branch had collapsed across the far end of the pond and the water reflected the thin, branchy trees and his face—he could see his dirt-smeared clothes and hands. Here and there, modest cabins emerged from between trees, but not much was heard beyond the singing birds perched too high for Bao Gang to see.
Throughout the trip, they barely spoke. There was nothing to say about their surroundings, as they were more beautiful than the words any of them could muster out of their feelings of fatigue and homesickness. It was too dangerous to surrender to feelings—Bao Gang had heard stories of daydreams ending in nightmares of lost limbs and worse yet, lost lives. This work was dangerous, and he didn’t need to add to his burden. But Bao Gang and the rest of the group did not speak out against the mistreatment out of fear of losing their jobs.
A couple miles in, they crossed into a town marked by a single hanging, smashed sign. Though it seemed like a ghost town, my mother’s great-grandfather could not shake the feeling of being watched. The area was so quiet, and the noise that the white men were making seemed out of place.
Suddenly, three men fell to the ground. Bao Gang spun around, confused. One after another, arrows flew through the air, landing their target. Fear propelled him to sprint toward the big oak tree that stood a couple feet away.
Frozen in fear, Bao Gang hid for what must have seemed to him like hours. When the sound died, he got up off the ground and immediately stumbled, the field in front of him covered with the blood of his countrymen.
Later he learned that the railroad company had refused to provide them with a military escort, adopted as standard procedure for groups crossing Native American land on the way to work camps. Someone had decided that it was more profitable to replace Chinese workers than provide for a military escort. Fifty men died that afternoon.
* * *
The golden spike was beautiful, balanced perfectly, standing upright, and almost glimmering in front of me. I could imagine the sweat and tears that had been shed to create that moment. So much of my family’s history had been tied to the spike in front of me; my mother had always told me stories of her great-grandfather. I snapped some pictures to show my mother and grandmother when I returned from the tour and looked around, hungry to find more information from my family’s past.
Next to the exhibit was a dusty, black and white photograph. It showed hundreds of men, smiling and rejoicing at the completion of the train tracks. Immediately, I searched through the names on the plaque, hoping to find my great-great-grandfather’s.
I must have read through them half a dozen times, but I could not find even one Chinese name. From years of family stories, I had heard that almost every single worker was Chinese.
I looked through the faces on the photograph. Though the picture was blurred, I could see clearly that the men were all white. They had on light colored straw hats, wore tidy suits, and smiled and shook hands. I looked closer. There were two non-smiling men, in the shadows, dressed differently, with billowing shirts and small hats. I could not make out the details on their faces. One of them could have been my great-great grandfather or one of the twelve thousand other Chinese workers.
* * *
Lying directly in their way was an enormous rock cave. Large jagged and rough boulders were stacked upon each other, and some sparse bushes and plants had been growing around the rocks. It would have taken weeks to carry down each rock out of the way, and the white man was impatient.
The workers started to unload the dynamite from their bags. In clusters of eight, hands sweaty and bloody, the group heaved the dynamite into crevices of the rock. Bao Gang led the team because he had learned a few words of English, but none among them, even those that had worked in mining back in Guangdong, knew anything about handling dynamite. Neither did the white man. He gestured to put in twenty sticks of dynamite. They did not refuse.
Lin Sou and my great-great-grandfather lit the last four wicks, and hurried across the clearing to the group taking shelter behind some trees. Shortly, there was a small explosion. They shut their eyes and covered their ears and braced for the larger one that was to follow. Fragments of rocks and sand blasted around them, and Bao Gang could feel scratches and cuts on his sunburnt arms and legs. What was left of the explosion were thousands of small boulders that they knew had to be carried away by the end of the day.
The white man shouted for them to approach and then yelled for my great-great-grandfather and Lin Sou to go fetch the wheelbarrows from behind the shed. The two men walked back, savoring the moment of peace, knowing they would be carrying boulders until sundown. Just as they rounded the shed, the wheelbarrows a few feet in front of them, they heard a third, unexpected, explosion. Bao Gang’s mind raced questioning the terror of the situation, knowing and yet failing to understand the ramifications of a few late-exploding sticks of dynamite. Bao Gang looked down at the wheelbarrow in front of him, not wanting to accept the sudden and terrifying change in its purpose. He heard a guttural noise and looked at his friend. He would always remember the glimmer of the noon-sun against wheelbarrow-metal in Lin Sou’s horror-stricken eyes.
* * *
When the white man blew the whistle that morning, they were not in their tents. Hiding behind the mountain of rocks that they were going to carry that day, the group of almost one hundred men had walked off the job site in protest. They passed around the paper for the white man, each signing their full names in Chinese below their list of complaints—the unfair pay, lower than that of the Irishmen, dangerous conditions, round the clock shifts, and daily whippings. Fen Da snuck out, holding the paper, and placed it on the table where the white man was sure to find it.
When he ran back, they all exchanged eye contact, and nodded. It was time.
They stepped out from behind the rocks, and proceeded in a large line. They could see the foreman and other groups of Irish railroad men staring at them. Some of the other men even started to throw rocks at the marchers, but they did not flinch. They knew that something had to be done about the blatant racism and abuse that had become their stark reality.
Lin Sou and Bao Gang walked side by side. The plan was to hit the railroad company where it hurt, to freeze all advancement on the railroad until conditions improved, and provide a financial incentive to the foremen and their supervisors to see to the situations.
Just four days later, as silently as they had come away from their jobsite, they all walked back.