On April 11, 2017, Hilton Obenzinger, Associate Director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, joined Sue Lee, Executive Director, Chinese Historical Society of America, Paulette Liang, Chinese Railroad worker descendant, and James Zarsadiaz, Assistant Professor of History, University of San Francisco, on a panel to discuss the role of Chinese workers to build the transcontinental railroad. Paulette Liang’s presentation was particularly powerful, as she discussed her ancestor who worked on the railroad and on the accomplishments of her family in California through the years. San Francisco University President Rev. Paul Fitzgerald also spoke to introduce the panel, underscoring the relevance of the history of the Chinese railroad workers to issues today, particularly the importance of immigrants in U.S. history in an atmosphere of increasing anti-immigrant sentiment. Thanks also to Jessica Lu and Sherise Kimura, of the Gleeson Library, for organizing the event.
Panel at the event, including Associate Director Hilton Obenzinger (center)
Obenzinger presenting to the event:
USF President Rev. Paul Fitzgerald speaking before the event:
This forum was perhaps the first event to ever bring together the Irish and Chinese communities to discuss the role of both groups in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, which was followed by anti-Chinese agitation, leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
An overflow crowd of over 140 listened to presentations by Barry McCarron, assistant professor of Irish Studies at NYU, and Gordon Chang, professor of history and co-director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford.
Introductions were given by Hillary Flynn of Irish Crossroads and Lotus Fong, Chinese American community activist. There was difficult history to encounter, but the basis was set for further joint actions. Professor McCarron is launching a project on Irish railroad workers that will do much to help the CRRWP.
The event took place on March 25, 2017 at the United Irish Community Cultural Center in San Francisco.
From left, Hilton Obenzinger, Prof. Barry McCarron, Lotus Fong, Hillary Flynn, Prof. Gordon Chang
Philip Choy, architect, educator and activist, passed away at 91 on March 16, 2017. He was a stalwart in the social justice movement, and a leading advocate for the recognition of the role the Chinese had played in shaping the United States. A pioneering teacher and scholar, he co-taught with Him Mark Lai the first Chinese American history class in the nation at San Francisco State University.
In 1969, as president of the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA), Choy joined others at the 100th anniversary of the Golden Spike ceremony commemorating the completion of the transcontinental railroad. The CHSA had prepared two commemorative plaques in English and Chinese to be placed in Sacramento and at the site of the Golden Spike ceremony to honor the Chinese, who constituted as much as 90 percent of the workforce of the Central Pacific Railroad.
At the ceremony, they heard Secretary of Transportation John Volpe declaim: “Who else but Americans could drill ten tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow? Who else but Americans could chisel through miles of solid granite? Who else but Americans could have laid ten miles of track in 12 hours?”
Choy, Thomas Chinn, Connie Young Yu, and the members and officers of the CHSA, sat shocked and outraged. It was Chinese workers—men who were barred from becoming “Americans” at the time—who had actually done the drilling, chiseling and track laying across the Sierra Nevada of California and the deserts of Nevada and Utah. Yet Secretary Volpe, the official speaker of the day, had failed to even mention them. The deliberate snub was one more spark fueling the nascent Asian American movement.
Philip Choy speaking at the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project Archaeology Workshop at Stanford, October 10-12, 2013
Philip Choy was a participant in the founding workshop/conference of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford, and gave presentations at the Project’s first workshop of its archaeologists network. He will be greatly missed—and he will be remembered and honored at the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike in 2019.
Below is a link to his obituary in TheSan Francisco Chronicle:
A film by Glenn Robert Lym as a part of his San Francisco Bay Area Video Podcast series called HERE. The whole series can be found on iTunes and Youtube.
This film is the story of railroad worker Lim Lip Hong and his wife, Chan Shee. It tells of their life and the family they raised in the 1800s on a ranch in Dogpatch, the Potrero, in San Francisco. In it, Glenn Robert Lym (great grandson of Lim Lip Hong and Chan Shee) explores why they chose to raise their family in outer San Francisco, and how they managed to do this so successfully in a period of intense anti-Chinese discrimination in Western United States.
Synopsis from Mr. Lym:
This is the story of my Chinese great grandfather Lim Lip Hong and my great grandmother Chan Shee and the family they raised in the late 1800’s on a ranch in Dogpatch, the Potrero, San Francisco on the then Bay shoreline. Lim Lip Hong had returned to San Francisco after working more than a decade in the Sierra’s and beyond, helping build railroads that criss-crossed the American West.
Why did they raise their family on a ranch in rural, outlying San Francisco instead of in protected Chinatown? And how could they do this during a period of intense anti-Chinese discrimination in San Francisco and throughout the West?
The ranch was half a acre large and located at the front gate of the biggest Potrero factory at the time – Tubbs Cordage. The ranch was intact for over 4 decades. Yet the family was never run off the property. Seven children and several grand children total were born at the ranch.
There are indications that the oldest son was employed at Tubbs as a teenager. By 1910, he was in business, doing many of the same services for Asian ships that Tubbs Cordage had done for Caucasian interests.
The 1906 Earthquake led to a dispersal of the family. Most the older offspring relocated with their own families to East Bay. The elders, the oldest son and his family and the youngest offspring remained in on the ranch. But by the early 1920’s, the ranch was demolished to make way for the construction of Minnesota Street. With the end of the ranch came the death of Lim Lip Hong.
Chan Shee and the remaining family members moved to two adjoining houses erected on a 1/10 of the original ranch land, lands post-deeded to the oldest son after the Earthquake destroyed City property records. This transaction was never contested by the Tubb family, who in fact gifted one of the houses to the oldest son in exchange for moving it from its earlier location that blocked expansion of the nearby vinegar, yeast and fertilizer factory.
This six decade tale leads to interesting suggestions about the identify of great grandfather Lim Lip Hong. Life at the ranch gave me a profound understanding of my own grandfather, Lim Lip Hong’s second son.
Recently, Professor Barbara Voss, Director of Archaeology for the Project, published an article on historical archaeology of overseas Chinese communities, “Towards a Transpacific Archaeology of the Modern World.” Here is the abstract for the article; and a web site for Springer, a publisher of scholarly articles. You may need to pay for the article – or you can access it through a library that subscribes to the International Journal of Historical Archaeology.
Abstract: The historical archaeology of overseas Chinese communities is a rapidly growing subfield. Although historical archaeology is not widely practiced in China, there are well-developed interdisciplinary research centers that investigate the history and culture of migrants’ qiaoxiang (hometown) societies. Scholars in American Studies programs throughout Asia are also bringing new perspectives to the study of Chinese migration past and present. By collaborating with these scholars, archaeologists on the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project are developing new chronological, geographic, spatial, and material frameworks for the interpretation of overseas Chinese archaeological sites and landscapes.
“Walk through the second floor of Stanford’s Packard Electrical Engineering Building this week, and you will encounter a surprising visual history of the Central Pacific Railroad line, the first transcontinental railroad network between California and Utah.
A new exhibition at Stanford titled The Chinese Helped Build the Railroad. The Railroad Helped Build America tells the transnational history of that railroad through past and present images of sites on a railroad line that required the labor of thousands of Chinese workers to complete.”
During his recent visit to the United States, President Xi Jinping saluted the Chinese railroad workers on several occasions in in Seattle, Washington and Washington, D.C. In one speech President Xi Jinping spoke about the relations between the people of China and the United States (emphasis ours):
“Though geographically far apart, our peoples boast a long history of friendly exchanges. Some 230 years ago, Empress of China, a U.S. merchant ship, sailed across the vast oceans to the shores of China. Some 150 years ago, tens of thousands of Chinese workers joined their American counterparts in building the Transcontinental Pacific Railway. Some 70 years ago, China and the United States, as allies in World War II, fought shoulder-to-shoulder to defend world peace and justice. In that war, thousands of American soldiers laid down their precious lives for the just cause of the Chinese people.”
“It is an American success story — the linking of the east and west by railroad in the 1860s. However many of the people who built it weren’t Americans but Chinese, and now there’s an effort underway to better tell their story.”
“The Transcontinental Railroad has been dubbed a feat of 19th century engineering and has been credited with opening California up to trade. Despite the importance of the project, little is known about the individual lives of the 12,000 Chinese immigrants who laid the track between Sacramento and the Sierra Nevada. Now, 150 years after Chinese workers began working on the railroad, we look back on the contributions of those workers and learn about the Stanford project that’s piecing together their personal stories.”