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Charlie Chin


Interviewee: Charlie Chin, Performer
Interviewed by: Connie Young Yu and Barre Fong
Interview Date: November 12, 2013
Location: San Francisco, California
Length of Interview: 15 minutes, 8 seconds

Introduction / History of Transcontinental Railroad

00:01 Charlie Chin: Hi I’m Charlie Chin, and I’m artist in residence here in the Chinese Historical Society of America.
00:08 I’d like to talk a little bit about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad – a very very important project, not just for the Chinese who participated on the West Coast side, the Central Pacific, but for the country itself. Most of us, out of context, don’t remember that the railroad was a very important contribution to the development of this country.
00:31 When it all began, it had to be held in place for a while because the Civil War was taking place. At the completion of the Civil War in 1865, work could begin in earnest. The East Coast was ready to provide labor. The West Coast had a problem. It was sparsely populated and the first call were roughly brought only about 500 men to work on this project. It was conceded that a minimum of five thousand men would be needed.
00:57 Through one particular means or another, finally in a desperation – desperate attempt, Charles Crocker decided to experiment with Chinese labor. While some hooted that the Chinese were weighed physically too small to do this kind of work, he argued they had built the Great Wall of China and they certainly were familiar with gunpowder.
01:19 Using the trial gang of twenty to fifty men at a time, they discovered the Chinese worked out very well. The Chinese contribution to the western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad was so important that we could actually say without fear of contradiction that it would have been impossible to link up the two sides without the Chinese labor.
01:36 More than a thousand two hundred men of the Chinese laborers died during the construction. We know roughly 12,000 were hired. The distance from Sacramento to Promontory Point is roughly 600 miles plus so one Chinese men for every half mile of rail laid down was the price that was paid.
02:01 The difference at the completion of 1869 was astounding. The country had been joined again – North and South – in 1865 at the completion of the great struggle of the Civil War. At the completion of the railroad in 1869, the travel time from New York City to Sacramento changed from 166 days overland to 11 days. And in a very short period of time, they were able to reduce that by using bridges and special express trains to a period of only three and one-half days of travel. It was to have a dramatic effect on the country as a whole, the western territories, and certainly the West Coast.
02:39 And in the long run, on America’s policies in the Pacific Rim. For first, the Gold Rush and the founding of California allowed us to have a presence on the Pacific Rim. Now the railroad allowed us to underline that several times.
02:55 Unfortunately, in a strange contradiction, the men who built the railroad had laid the groundwork for their own expulsion. As thousands of people arrived from the East Coast and from Europe looking for work, universally, labor leaders pointed out the Chinese as those who are most likely to be used as strike breakers. And, playing on the racist attitudes at the time, dehumanized them – allowing people who for all intents and purposes would never dream of hurting another human being, able suddenly to commit atrocities unthinkable to us today because the victims of those atrocities had been dehumanized and were seen as pagan, Chinese idol worshippers, who lived on vermin and smoked opium.
03:43 It’s not a stretch of the imagination to say that all this was to lead to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. But in its aftermath, we have to remember this single great project – which in its own time was referred to as the Overland Northwest Passage – which allowed goods, trades, and people to move from the Atlantic to Pacific was completed in 1869 with the help of and perhaps impossible without the help of the Chinese men who worked on the Central Pacific Railroad.

Charlie Chin describes the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, and presents statistics on the number of workers, miles of track, and number of deaths. After the Civil War, Chinese workers filled in a labor shortage for the Central Pacific Railroad. According to Chin, the railroad’s completion would have been impossible without the Chinese. The railroad gave the U.S. a greater presence on the Pacific Rim, but also increased racism against the Chinese as more settlers poured into California, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Artist-in-residence; California; Central Pacific Railroad; Charles Crocker; Charlie Chin; Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Chinese Historical Society of America; Chinese labor; Chinese stereotypes; Chinese workers; Civil War; Gold Rush; Great Wall of China; Labor shortage; Overland Northwest Passage; Pacific Rim; Transcontinental Railroad

Central Pacific Railway Company. Chinese Historical Society of America. Gold rush- California. Immigrant labor. Pacific Rim Racism–California–History–19th century. Transcontinental Railway.

How Railroad Changed America

04:15 Fong: [Inaudible] 04:24 Chin: America was to change is the completion of the Railroad because of several things. Number one, there had been a Homestead Act, put in place earlier. But because of the difficulty of reaching the western territories – or as they refer to it then, the Great Western Desert – it really didn’t much matter. In 1868, when it became obvious the railroad was soon to be completed, another Homestead Act was put into place. People were encouraged to take the train, to move to the western territories, and homestead.
04:52 This was to set into motion a series of falling dominoes. Of course, the land had to be cleared, not only of the wandering buffalo but of the indigenous people who over the next 20 to 30 years were either put into concentration camps / reservations. Or an honest effort was made on behalf of some of the people involved to exterminate them as a group. It also meant other groups like the Latin Americans and Mexicans had to either be nullified, disenfranchised, or moved, to allow continuing growth – quotation marks mine – of the western territories and the West Coast.
05:31 It is, it is a strange fact that the large number of people who were able to arrive on the West Coast in ease and comfort were able to do so and then attack the very people who had provided them with that means. It had its completion, on a certain level, in the great driving out from 1872 to 1900, when the country as a whole – and consciously – Êtried to eradicate or expel or expunge, anybody it felt was not necessary for the development of the United States. And we cannot forget the immense effect of eugenics at that time. We still are dealing with the aftermath of that today.
06:16 The West offered a promise, made accessible by the railroad, of an endless amount of space and distance, which allows you to travel. Even to this day, when we think of the West, we think of a lone black top highway going off into the distance. Well at that time, it was a set of rails, going off into the distance, often wondrous and endless possibilities.

The railroad had several impacts on the country. The Homestead Act of 1868 was passed to encourage settlement of the west as the railroad neared completion. This settlement led to efforts to displace, disenfranchise, and in some cases even exterminate indigenous people, Latin American or Mexican settlers, and other minority groups. The railroad also fed into romanticist notions of the West as a source of endless space and possibility.

“Development” of the West; “Endless space”; Concentration camps; Disenfranchisement; Eugenics; Extermination efforts; Great Western Desert; Homestead Act of 1868; Indigenous people; Latin American people; Mexican people; Reservations

Eugenics–history–United States. Frontier. Homesteading. Indigenous peoples–United States- History. Pioneers–West (U.S.)- History. Romanticism.

Life and Importance of Chin Lin Sou

06:43 Fong: [Inaudible] 07:06 Chin: It’s sometimes difficult to relay history to people, without using a particular person or a particular event, as the nail with which to hang things on. There were, for reasons which are now obvious, very few voices that survived the building of the Transcontinental Railroad on the Chinese side. But there were men who continued to stay and work after its completion. Amongst them, Chin Lin Sou, who eventually settled down in Black Hawk, Colorado and then again later in Denver, Colorado. He became – uh, later – labor leader. He had been, when he was working on the Railroad. Amongst other reasons, because his apparent facility with speaking English allowed him to gravitate towards that position. Later as a labor contractor working in Colorado, he was able to build a very comfortable living for himself and sent for his wife.
08:00 I understand that in Denver, Colorado, if you go to the City Hall, they have 12 stained glass windows representing 12 pioneers of Colorado and he is amongst them. Reportedly, in the research I’ve done, I, it was discovered that his daughter was married in Denver, Colorado. And it was the social event of the season. The mayor of Colorado – uh, Denver Colorado – and the governor of Colorado attended. So in many ways, it was – it bespeaks of – both his importance and how well they had done in Colorado. His descendants are still there. They’ve also spread to other parts of the country. He is a representative example of the Chinese men who worked on that great project.
08:47 Unfortunately, it was also in Colorado – Denver, Colorado – during the great “Hop Alley” Riot, which took place in 1880. There, about 3,000 of the local inhabitants rose up and attempted to destroy the Chinatown and one Chinese man was lynched. He made an effort to try to bring calm but was unsuccessful.
09:11 Chin Lin Sou represents one of the few voices we have left. Because these attempts to expunge this country of Chinese were so successful, it is difficult for us now to find voices of any kind that still survived.

Chin Lin Sou, one of the more prominent Chinese-American railroad voices, settled in Denver, Colorado as a well-off labor contractor. He grew in influence and was recognized by political figures and on the town hall. He tried to calm the Great Hop Alley Riot in Denver Chinatown but failed.

“Expunging” of Chinese; Blackhawk, Colorado; Chin Lin Sou; Chinese Historical Society; Chinese lynchings; Chinese voices; Denver Chinatown; Denver town hall; Denver, Colorado; Great Hop Alley Riot; Historical characters; Labor contractors; Labor leaders; Railroad workers

Chinese Historical Society of America. Labor contractors–United States. Lynching–Colorado–History–19th century. Race riots–United States–History–19th century.

Issues with Accuracy of Family Stories

09:27 Fong: Were there first person accounts from Chin Lin Sou about the Hop Alley-?
09:34 Chin: Not from him himself. One of the problems we have is that information, especially from a family source, an informant, tends to be very tricky. Number one, most people, when they discuss things with younger people, use that as an opportunity to make the narrative a form of instruction. This is typical. For instance, a father will tell the son who’s complaining about having to get up to go to get into the school bus, that in his day, the father will say, “I had to walk three miles and through the snow with no shoes.” Well, he’s altered history in order to instruct the child in something. By the same token, there’s a reluctance, often on the part of parent, to discuss something distasteful with children, especially when they’re young.
10:17 So frequently, what happens is, as each generation passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to get actual and factual information. We may have personal anecdotes and certainly the family can exercise its right to be proud of their forbear, but sometimes we have to be very very careful about analyzing the information we get.
So often, as in this case, what happens is a process of triangulation. We have to decide, basically from the information we do have, what his character most likely was like and from that triangulate what he was most likely to have said or most likely to have done.
10:57 Fong: And there was a point during the construction of the railroad where they were building 10 miles a day? Do you know if Chin Lin Sou was involved in that at all?
11:12 Chin: Actually I don’t. We know about that the laying of the ten miles of track, but I, there’s no personal account of him and what, what his involvement might have been. We also know for instance that the men, at one point, a group of about 2,000 of the men, held a strike for better wages but they were starved out. I don’t know if he was involved in that or not. I’d like to think he was, but we don’t know.

There are no first-person accounts of Chin Lin Sou’s interaction with the Great Hop Alley Riot. Oral stories passed down through family members can be a difficult and, at times, unreliable source of information. It is unclear whether Chin Lin Sou was involved in the Ten Mile Day or a strike of 2,000 workers for better wages.

Altered histories; Chin Lin Sou, Great Hop Alley Riot; Family informants; Family stories; Personal anecdotes; Strikes; Ten Mile Day; Triangulation

Race riots–United States–History–19th century Triangulation

Myths and Facts about Chinese Railroad Workers

11:37 Fong: And what are the top three myths of the construction of railroad that you think you’ve found?
11:49 Chin: Well, of the myths about building the Railroad, first and foremost, was that the men hung from baskets, from a cliff side, when they needed to blast away through the mountain. Apparently, this was not true. The actual site reveals, the slope is angled but it is not perpendicular. So men at that time, according to eyewitness accounts, tied ropes around their waist for safety measure and repelled slowly down to work, and then it could pull themselves back up. They did not require a partner to pull them up. So while it wasn’t the dangerous work, the tour guides on railroads often would embellish it to make it an even better story – by making it a series of baskets hanging, like so many lanterns, on the side of the cliff.
12:37 There are many stories that huge amounts of bone was sent back to China. We really don’t know. We know that a very large number of the men died, and that the normal process at that time was to save the body for a year or two, bury it and then dig it up, and send the bones back after they had been cleaned. And there are some accounts where it goes over 2,000 pounds or more, but we really don’t know exactly what happened.
13:05 It is true that at the completion of the railroad the Chinese were not invited. No known photograph shows any large number of Chinese. There are two photographs where there appears to be somebody wearing a coolie hat looking in the other direction but we have no clear image of them being actually Chinese and they don’t number more than one or two in a crowd of a couple hundred people.

The Chinese were not lowered down vertical cliffs in baskets, but instead worked on more angular slopes and could pull themselves back up on a rope. Stories of large quantities of bone sent back to China are unverified. It is true, however, that the Chinese were not invited to the railroad’s completion ceremony and that many returned to China after the railroad’s completion.

“Great Driving Out”; Baskets; Burial customs; Chinese Exclusion act of 1882; Completion of railroad; Myths; Work on Cliffs

Railroad workers.

Impact of Railroad / Relevance Today

13:30 The Chinese built the railroads, and then in many cases have simply returned home. Some of them stayed to work the branch lines, some of them made their way back to San Francisco and the West Coast. But subsequently, because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the great driving out, most of them were driven back to southern China.
13:49 Fong: [inaudible] 13:59 Chin: The railroad? Oh, that’s an interesting question. I don’t really know. I don’t know. The Gold Rush happens in 1849, but people kept coming as late as the 1850s. There was the Silver Rush that took place in Nevada. Nevada Silver Rush was a little different. As you know, the Gold Rush was wide open, because the gold could be found on the surface of the ground. And even after millions of years of washing down from the mountains and hills, it was there, it was washed, it was clean, you could find it.
14:32 The Silver Rush, which hired Chinese in some cases, because they were still looking for a way to survive, used Chinese in mines. Silver, when it comes to the surface and is exposed, tends to disintegrate. It can, it can literally oxidize. So real, the heavy silver, is still in the vein. And you have to dig through that. That’s hard rock mining. So we know there were Chinese used in it, but whether or not they were also involved in the Gold Rush, we don’t know. Or we don’t know, yet.
15:02 Fong: [inaudible] 15:09 Chin: No, except that the building of the Transcontinental Railroad established this country as a player both in the Atlantic and in the Pacific. It predated the Panama Canal, which America also built. And its importance is economic as well as militarily strategic. It allowed us, still, to think of ourselves as members of the Ring of Fire, the Pacific Rim and all the things that are going on there now, which is what the future is all about. We have to remember that we’re living at a time when the emergence of China as an economic entity is happening right in front of our eyes. China has already speculated that 4.1 million tourists will arrive in the United States in the year 2016. Many of them will be coming to buy things, and many of them will be interested in the history of the Chinese of the United States and its contribution.

Many Chinese returned home after the railroad. Some participated in Nevada’s Silver Rush, where they worked in different conditions (often in mines) than Gold Rush workers. The railroad increased the U.S.’s influence in the Pacific region. As China’s economy rises and tourism increases, interest in the history of Chinese contribution to the United States also increases.


California. Gold Rush. China. Tourism. China’s economic rise. Nevada Silver Rush. Panama Canal. Ring of Fire. Transcontinental Railroad.

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