Maxine Hong Kingston
Interviewee: Maxine Hong Kingston, Author
Interviewed by: Connie Young Yu and Barre Fong
Interview Date: November 4th, 2013
Location: Oakland, California
Length of Interview: 35 minutes, 4 seconds
* Italics added for words emphasized in Kingston’s read aloud.
00:07 Maxine Hong Kingston: I’d like to go to China if I can get a visa and – more difficult – permission from my family, who are afraid that applying for a visa would call attention to us. The relatives in China would get in trouble for having American capitalist connections, and we Americans would be put in relocation camps during the next witch hunt for Communists. Should I be able to convince my family about the good will of normalization, it’s not the Great Wall I want to see, but my ancestral village.
00:43 I want to talk to Cantonese – who have always been revolutionaries, nonconformists, people with fabulous imaginations, people who invented the Gold Mountain. I want to discern what it is that makes people go West and turn into Americans. I want to compare China, a country I made up, with what country is really out there.01:11 Connie Young Yu: Thank you. Page 90? In the next to last paragraph, starting with “Hong Kong, off the coast”
01:21 Kingston: Hong Kong, off the coast, tugged like the moon at the Cantonese; curiosity had a land mass to fasten upon, and beyond Hong Kong, Taiwan, step by step a leading out. Cantonese travel, and gamble. But China has a long round coastline, and the northern people enclosed Peiping, only one hundred miles from the sea, with walls and made roads westward across the loess. The Gulf of Chihli has arms, and beyond, Korea, and beyond that, Japan. So the ocean and hunger and some other urge made Cantonese people explorers – and Americans.
02:14 Yu: Great. Now there’s a long section, we’re between page 128, starting with “The Central Pacific hired him on site.”
02:23 Kingston: 128 (flips pages).
02:30 Yu: Uhm, the second paragraph. “The Central Pacific hired him on site.”
02:32 Kingston: Oh, I see.
02:34 Yu: And then through you know maybe through 132, “cover bodies from sight.”
02:44 Kingston: 132. Okay. I’ve got that.
02:48 Yu: It’s so beautiful.
02:49 Kingston: Oh, thank you.
02:52 Kingston: The Central Pacific hired him on sight. Chinamen had a natural talent for explosions. Also, there were not enough working men to do all the labor of building a new country. Some of the banging came from the war – to decide whether or not black people would continue to work for nothing.
03:14 Slow as usual, Ah Goong arrived in the Spring. The work had begun in January 1863. The demon that hired him pointed up – and up, east above the hills of poppies.
His first job was to fell a redwood, which was thick – his first job was to fell – wow – his first job was to fell a redwood, which was thick enough to divide into three or four beams. His – his trees – I’ll just start from –
03:56 Slow as usual, Ah Goong arrived in the spring. The work had begun in January 1863. The demon that hired him pointed up and up, east above the hills of poppies. His first job was to fell a redwood, which was thick enough to divide into three or four beams. His tree’s many branches spread out, each limb like a little tree.
04:24 He circled the tree. How to attack it? No side looked like the side made to be cut, nor did – he – any ground seem the place for it to fall. He axed for almost a day, the side he had decided would hit the ground. Halfway through, imitating the other lumberjacks, he struck the other side of the tree, above the cut, until he had to run away.
04:53 The tree swayed and slowly dived to earth, creaking and screeching like a green animal. He was so awed – he forgot what he was supposed to yell. Hardly any branches broke. The tree sprang, bounced, pushed at the ground with its arms. The limbs – did not wilt and fold. They were a small forest – which he chopped. The trunk lay like a long red torso – sap ran from its cuts like crying blind eyes. At last it stopped fighting. He set the log across sawhorses – to be cured over smoke and in the sun.
05:36 He joined a team of men who did not ax one another as they took alternate hits. They blew up the stumps with gunpowder. “It was like uprooting a tooth,” Ah Goong said. They also packed gunpowder at the roots of a whole tree. Not at the same time as the bang, but before that, the tree rose from the ground. It stood, then plunged with a tearing of veins and muscles. It was big enough to carve a horse -. Uhm, I, I am going to get a glass of water. It’s right at
06:20 Fong: Okay, go ahead.
06:21 Kingston: Oh, you could tell me what – do you want to tell me what page is
06:26 Yu: Oh, I am sorry.
06:27 Kingston: Oh wait I have it here. I have it here, if you want. Let’s see. 87.
06:47 He joined a team of men who did not ax one another as they took alternate hits. They blew up the stumps with gunpowder. “It was like uprooting a tooth,” Ah Goong said. They also packed gunpowder at the roots of a whole tree. Not at the same time as the bang, but before that, the tree rose from the ground. It stood, then plunged like a tearing of veins and muscles. It was big enough to carve a house into. The men measured themselves – against – against the upturned roots – the men measured themselves against the upturned white roots, which looked like claws, a sun with claws. A hundred men stood or sat on the trunk. They lifted a wagon on it and took a photograph. The demons also had their photographs taken.
07:43 Because these mountains were made out of gold – Ah Goong rushed over to the root hole to look for gold veins and ore. He selected the shiniest rocks to be assayed later – in San Francisco. When he drank from the streams and saw a flash, he dived in like a duck; only sometimes did it turn out to be the sun or the water. The very dirt winked (emphasis added) with specks.
08:11 He made a dollar a day salary. The lucky men gambled, but he was not good at remembering game rules. The work – so far – the work so far was endurable. “I could take it,” he said. The days were sunny and blue – the wind exhilarating, the heights godlike. At night the stars were diamonds, crystals, silver, snow, ice. He had never seen diamonds. He had never seen snow and ice.
08:48 As spring turned into summer, and he lay under that sky, he saw the order in the stars. He recognized constellations from China. There – not a cloud but the Silver River, and there, on either side of it – Altair and Vega – the Spinning Girl and the Cowboy, far, far apart.
09:12 He felt his heart breaking of loneliness at so much blue-black space between star and star. The railroad he was building would not lead him to his family. He jumped out of his bedroll. “Look! Look!” Other China Men jumped awake. An accident? An avalanche? Injun demons? “The stars,” he said. “The stars are here.”
09:42 “Another China Man gone out of his mind,” men grumbled. “A sleepwalker.” “Go to sleep, sleepwalker.” “There. And there,” said Ah Goong, two hands pointing. “The Spinning Girl and the Cowboy. Don’t you see them?” “Homesick China Man,” said the China Men and pulled their blankets over their heads. “Didn’t you know they were here? I could have told you they were here. Same as in China. Same moon. Why not same stars?” “Nah. Those are American stars.”
10:25 Pretending that a little girl was listening, he told himself the story about the Spinning Girl and the Cowboy. A long time ago they had visited Earth, where they met, fell in love, and married. Instead of growing used to each other, they remained enchanted their entire lifetimes and beyond. They were too happy. They wanted to be doves – or two branches of the same tree.
10:54 When they returned to live in the sky, they were so engrossed in each other that they neglected their work. The Queen of the Sky scratched a river between them with one stroke of her silver hairpin – the river a galaxy in width. The lovers suffered, but she did devote her time to spinning now, and he herded his cow.
11:20 The King of the Sky took pity on them and ordered that once each year, they’d be allowed to meet. On the seventh day of the seventh month – which is not the same as July 7th – magpies form a bridge for them to cross to each other. The lovers are together for one night of the year. On their parting, the Spinner cries the heavy summer rains.
11:48 Yu: We could, we could jump to “the Spining Girl and the Cowboy met” because it’s so long.
11:54 Kingston: Yeah. Okay.
11:55 The Spinning Girl and the Cowboy met and parted six times before the railroad was finished.
12:02 When cliffs, sheer drops under impossible overhangs, ended the road, the workers filled the ravines or built bridges over them. They climbed above the site for tunnel or bridge and lowered one another down in wicker baskets – made stronger by the lucky words they had painted on four sides.
12:24 Ah Goong got to be a basketman because he was thin and light. Some basketmen were fifteen-year-old boys. He rode the basket barefoot so his boots, the kind to stomp snakes with, would not break through the bottom. The basket swung and twirled (emphasis added), and he saw the world sweep underneath him. It was fun in a way, a cold new feeling of doing what had never been done before.
12:53 Suspended in the quiet sky, he thought all kinds of crazy thoughts, that if a man didn’t want to live any more, he could just cut the ropes (sense of amazement) or, easier, tilt the basket, dip, and never have to worry again. He could spread his arms, and the air would momentarily hold him before he fell – past the buzzards, hawks and eagles, and landed impaled on the tips of a sequoia. This high and he didn’t see any gods, no Cowboy, no Spinner. He knelt in the basket though – he knelt in the basket though he was not bumping his head against the sky.
13:38 Through the wickerwork, slivers of depths darted like needles, nothing between him and air but thin rattan. Gusts of wind spun the light basket. “Ai Ya,” said Ah Goong. Wind came up under the basket, bouncing it. Neighboring baskets swung together and parted. He and the man next to him looked at each other’s faces. They laughed. They might as well have gone to Malaysia to collect bird nests. Those who had done high work there said it had been worse.
14:21 Yu: Is it time?
14:22 Kingston: That’s Earl, interrupting. You should’ve come in the other door. *laughter*
14:28 Yu: It’s okay.
14:30 Kingston: I’m going to go back.
14:31 Yu: If you want, you could, uh, could slip to bottom of that section.
14:35 Kingston: Oh, okay. Just skip this next part and just go to “this time two men”?
14:41 Yu: Sure, yeah.
14:42 Kingston: Okay.
14:44 This time, two men were blown up. One knocked out or killed by the explosion fell silently; the other screaming – his arms and legs struggling. A desire shot out of Ah Goong for an arm – long enough to reach down and catch them. Much time passed as they fell like plummets. The shreds of baskets and a cowboy hat skimmed and tacked. The winds that pushed birds off course and against mountains – did not carry men.
15:16 Ah Goong also wished that the conscious man would fall faster and get it over with. His hand gripped the ropes and it was difficult to let go and get on with the work.
15:27 “It can’t happen twice in a row,” the basketmen said, “The next trip down, our chances are very good. The trip after an accident is probably the safest one.” They raced to their favorite basket, checked and double-checked the four ropes, yanked the strands, tested the pulleys, oiled them, reminded the pulleymen about the signals and entered the sky again.
15:56 Another time, Ah Goong had been lowered to the bottom of a ravine, which had to be cleared for the base of a trestle. When a man fell and he saw his face, he had not died of shock before hitting bottom. His hands were grabbing at air. His stomach and groin must have felt the fall – all the way down.
16:18 At night, Ah Goong woke up falling – though he slept on the ground, and heard other men call out in their sleep. No warm women tweaked their ears and hugged them. “It was only a falling dream,” he reassured himself.
16:34 Across a valley, a chain of men working on the next mountain. Men like ants, changing the face of the world fell, but it was very far away. Godlike, he watched men whose faces he could not see and whose screams he did not hear, roll and bounce and slide like a handful of sprinkled gravel. After a fall, the buzzards circled the spot and reminded the workers for days that a man was dead down there. The men threw piles of rocks and branches to cover bodies from sight.
17:16 Yu: Uhm, okay. I don’t, I don’t want to exhaust you. Are you doing okay? Do you want some water?
17:19 Kingston: Oh, I am, I am just fine.
17:21 Yu: Great. Okay. Then, one thirty – 138, uhm, “the men who died slowly enough to say the last words,” second paragraph.
17:30 Kingston: 138. “The men who died slowly.” Okay.
17:33 Yu: Because I do also want to leave time to [inaudible] but is it okay if we take a little more time?
17:36 Kingston: Yes. Oh yes.
17:39 Yu: Great. Thank you. It’s, it’s beautiful.
17:42 Kingston: Well, thank you. Thank you.
17:46 Yu: So maybe 138 through wherever you think it is a good place to stop.
17:51 Kingston: Let’s see, you had it marked. You had it marked at 141.
17:53 Yu: Because, yeah. I mean. Through top of 142 – that’s a lot to read. I just wanted some things on the strike..
18:03 Kingston: Oh yeah.
18:05 Yu: And picking it up on 144.
18:06 Kingston: Yeah I think the strike is
18:07 Yu: But feel free to skip, you know, if you think that there is coherent place to just stop and just pick up.
18:17 Kingston: The men who died slowly enough to say last words said, “Don’t leave me frozen under the snow. Send my body home. Burn it, and put the ashes in a tin can. Take the bone jar when you come down the mountain. When you ride the fire car back to China, tell my descendants to come for me.” “Shut up,” scolded the hearty men. “We don’t want to hear about bone jars and dying. You’re lucky to have a body to bury, not blown to smithereens. Stupid man to hurt yourself.”
19:00 They bawled out the stick – “you are – you are stupid – you are lucky to have a body to bury, not blown to smithereens. Stupid man to hurt yourself.”
19:13 They bawled out the sick and wounded. How their wives would scold if they brought back deadmen’s bones. “Aiya, to be buried here – nowhere.” “But this is somewhere,” Ah Goong promised. “This is the Gold Mountain. We’re marking the land now. The track sections are numbered and your family will know where we leave you.” But he was a crazy man and they didn’t listen to him.
19:42 Spring did come, and when the snow melted, it revealed the past year – what had happened, what they had done, where they had worked – the lost tools, the thawing bodies, some standing with tools in hand, the bright rails.
20:01 “Remember Uncle Long Winded Leong? Remember Strong Back Wong? Remember Lee Brother? And Fong Uncle?” They lost count of the number dead. There is no record of how many died building the railroad. Or maybe it was demons doing the counting, and Chinamen not worth counting (emphasis on the rhyme). Whether it was good luck or bad luck, the dead were buried or cairned next to the last section of track they had worked on.
20:32 “May his ghost not have to toil,” they said over graves. (In China a woodcutter ghost chops eternally. People have heard chopping in the snow and in the heat.) “Maybe his ghost will ride the train home.”
20:49 The scientific – the scientific demons said the transcontinental railroad would connect the West to Cathay. “What if he rides back and forth from Sacramento to New York forever?” “That wouldn’t be so bad. I hear the cars will be like houses on wheels.”
21:10 The funerals were short. “No time. No time,” said both China Men and demons. The railroad was as straight as they could build it, but no ghosts sat on the tracks. No strange presences haunted the tunnels. The blasts scared ghosts away.
21:33 ÊYu: Do you want to may be skip – skip down to “the demons invented games”
21:35 Kingston: Yeah. I think we don’t need the “new year’s” and all that.
21:40 The demons invented games for working faster – gold coins for miles of track laid for the heaviest rock, a grand prize for the first team to break through a tunnel. Day shifts raced against night shifts, China Men against Welshmen, China Men against Irishmen, China Men against Injuns and black demons. The fastest races were China Men against China Men who bet on their own teams. China Men always won, because of good teamwork, smart thinking, and the need for the money. Also, they had the most workers to choose teams from. Whenever his team won anything. Ah Goong added to his gold stash. The Central Pacific or Union Pacific won the land on either side of the tracks it built.
22:38 One summer day demon officials and China Man translators went from group to group and announced, “We’re raising the pay. Thirty five dollars a month! Because of your excellent work, the Central Pacific Railroad is giving you a four dollar raise per month.” The workers who didn’t know better cheered. “What’s the catch?” said the smarter men. “You’ll have the opportunity to put in more time,” said the railroad demons. Two more hours per shift. Ten-hour shifts inside the tunnels. “It’s not ten hours straight,” said the demons. “You have time off for tea and meals. Now that you have dynamite, the work isn’t so hard.” They had been working for three and a half years already and the track through the Donner Summit was still not done,
23:35 The workers discussed – I just remembered, you gotta remind me: I have the gold ring.
23:44 Yu: That’s what I was going to ask you. You do!
23:47 Kingston: Yes, I do (wide smile).
23:47 Yu: That is so fabulous.
23:48 Kingston: It’s upstairs. I’ll bring it down later.
23:49 Yu: That was one of my questions. It’s so wonderful.
23:50 Kingston: I’ll show it on camera. Yes.
23:53 Yu: Fantastic.
23:54 The workers discussed the ten-hour shift, swearing their China – the workers discussed the ten-hour shift, swearing their China Men obscenities. “Two extra hours a day! Sixty hours a month for four dollars.” “Pig catcher demons, snakes, turtles, dead demons.” “A human body can’t work like that.” “The demons don’t believe this is a human body. This is a Chinaman’s body.” To bargain, they sent a delegation of English speakers, who were summarily noted as troublemakers, turned away, docked.
24:41 The China Men then, decided to go on strike and demand forty-five dollars a month and the eight hour shift. They risked going to jail and the Central Pacific keeping the pay it was banking for them. Ah Goong memorized the English, “forty-five dollars a month, eight-hour shift.” He practiced the strike slogan: “Eight hours a day – good for white man, all the same – good for China Man.”
25:18 The men wrapped barley and beans – oh, I don’t know whether, maybe we can skip all this about the food
25:25 Okay, okay. Skip to “the strike began on Tuesday morning.”
25:29 Yeah, I think that’s better. Right there. Yeah.
25:32 The strike began on Tuesday morning, June 25, 1867. The men who were working at that hour walked out of the tunnels and away from the tracks. The ones who were sleeping, slept – the ones who were sleeping, slept on and rose as late as they pleased. They bathed in streams and shaved their mustaches and wild beards. Some went fishing and hunting. The violinists tuned and played their instruments. The drummers beat theirs at the punchlines of jokes. The gamblers shuffled and played their cards and tiles. The smokers passed their pipes, and the drinkers bet for drinks by making figures with their hand. The cooks made party food. The opera singers’ falsettos almost perforated the mountains. The men sang new songs about the railroad. They made up verses and shouted “Ho” at the good ones, and laughed at the rhymes. Oh, they were madly singing in the mountains. The storytellers told about the rise of new kings. The opium smokers, when they roused themselves, told their florid images. Ah Goong sifted for gold. All the while the English-speaking China Men, who were being advised by the shrewdest bargainers, were at the demons’ headquarters repeating the demand: “Eight hours a day good for white man, all the same, good for China Man.” They had probably negotiated the demons down to nine-hour shifts by now.
27:19 The sounds of hammering continued along the tracks and occasionally there were blasts from the tunnels. The scabby white demons had refused to join the strike. “Eight hours a day good for White man, all the same good for China Man,” the China Men explained to them. “Cheap John Chinaman,” said the demons – many of whom had red hair. The China Men scowled out of the corners of their eyes.
27:52 On the second day, artist demons climbed the mountains to draw the China Men for the newspapers. The men posed bare-chested, their fists clenched, showing off their arms and backs. The artists sketched them as perfect young gods reclining against rocks, wise expressions on their handsome noble-nosed faces, long torsos with lean stomachs, a strong arm extended over a bent knee, long fingers holding a pipe, a rope of hair over a wide shoulder.
28:29 Other artists drew faeries with antennae for eyebrows and brownies with elvish – other artists drew – other artists drew them as faeries with antennae for eyebrows and brownies with elvish pigtails. They danced in white socks and black slippers among mushroom – they danced in – gosh, I am having trouble with that sentence –
29:00 Other artists drew them as faeries with antennae for eyebrows and brownies
with elvish pigtails. They danced in white socks and black slippers among mushroom rings by moonlight.
29:16 Ah Goong acquired another idea that added to his reputation for crazy – Ah Goong acquired another idea that added his reputation for craziness: the pale thin Chinese scholars and the rich men fat like Buddhas were less beautiful, less manly than these brown muscular railroad men, of whom he was one. One of ten thousand heroes.
29:48 Yu: Do you want to skip to “the strike ended”?
29:52 Kingston: The strike ended on the 9th day. The Central Pacific announced that in its benevolence, it was giving the workers a four dollar raise, not the fourteen dollars they had asked for. And that the shifts in the tunnels would remain eight hours long. “We were planning to give you the four dollar raise all along,” the demon said – to diminish the victory. So they got forty-five dollars – so they got thirty-five dollars a month and the eight-hour shift.
30:30 They would have won forty-five dollars, if the thousand demon workers had joined the strike. Demons would have listened to demons. The China went – the China Men went back to work quietly. No use – the China Men went back to work quietly. No use singing and shouting over compromise and losing nine days work.
31:01 Yu: Let’s see, do you think the celebration at the ending? “At the end of the tunnel” and then and then maybe 75th to [inaudible]. Maybe to “there were two days” through all the way through
31:16 Kingston: Okay. Oh, where are you?
31:15 Yu: So the last paragraph on 144. And that finishes at top of 145. All the way through through [inaudible] 31:21 Kingston: 144, last paragraph. Okay. And okay. “All the way through”
31:34 Yu: Actually just to “all the way through” at top of 145 and maybe we just pick up –
31:38 Kingston: Oh, okay. Right there. Okay.
31:45 There were two days that Ah Goong did cheer and throw his hat in the air, jumping up and down and screaming “yippee” like a cowboy. One, the day his team broke through the tunnel at last. Toward the end, they did not dynamite but again used pics and sledgehammers. Through the granite, they heard answering poundings and answers to their shouts. It was not a mountain before them anymore but only a wall with people breaking through from the other side. They worked faster, forward, into day. They stuck their arms through the holes and shook hands with men on the other side.
Ah Goong saw dirty faces as wondrous as if he were seeing Nu Wo, the creator goddess who repairs cracks in the sky with stone slabs. Sometimes she peeks through and human beings see her face. The wall broke. Each team gave the other a gift of half a tunnel dug. They stepped back and forth where the wall had been. Ah Goong ran and ran, his boots thudding to the very end of the tunnel, looked at the other side of the mountain and ran back – clear through the entire tunnel, all the way through.
33:20 Yu: Great. Maybe closing with at the bottom of the page “Seventy went to New Orleans”?
33:28 Kingston: Oh, yes.
33:31 Yu: “And the ancestors of this place,” on 146.
33:36 Kingston: 146, ancestors.
33:38 Yu: That’s the end of that first paragraph.
33:40 Kingston: Oh okay.
33:44 Seventy went to New Orleans to grade a route for a railroad, then to Pennsylvania to work in a knife factory. The Colorado State Legislature passed a resolution, welcoming the railroad China Men to come build the new state. They built railroads and every part of the country – the Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad, the Houston and Texas Railroad, the Southern Pacific, the railroads in Louisiana and Boston, the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
34:20 After the Civil War, China Men banded the nation – north and south, east and west – with crisscrossing steel. They were the binding and building ancestors of this place.
34:38 Yu: Thank you so much.
34:40 Kingston: Thank you. I am glad you chose that one, because I felt that that we as my poetic vision that I saw. That’s what we were all doing. The Civil War – the place was broken. And, so what do we do? We have to build this railroad *laughter*
34:56 Yu: Absolutely. It’s wonderful. Thank you.
34:57 Kingston: Yeah. Yeah. I’m going to go up and get that ring before we forget.
35:04 Yu: Wonderful. Okay.
Interviewee: Maxine Hong Kingston (Author)
Interviewer: Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Barre Fong
Date: November 4th, 2013
Location: Oakland, California
Length of the Interview: 37 minutes, 15 seconds
00:38 And, and so when he returned to China after working here, he actually had no money, he had nothing. And, and they, they actually had to rent out land in China in order to give him passage back. And, but he did have this gold, and and he had made it into a ring. And, and when my father got married to my mother, this was the ring that they used. So this was my mother’s ring. And, and it has survived. And we went through the fire here, And this didn’t get burned in the fire – still have it.
01:28 Shelley Fisher Fishkin: Wonderful.
01:29 Barre Fong: I’ll get a close up after –
01:30 Fishkin: You’ll get a close up afterwards. Great. I’m so glad that you thought, you thought of that. It’s a wonderful – it’s really wonderful to see it. Um, I have to say that your book China Man was my first introduction to this chapter, chapter of history. And so, in a sense, you are the godmother of this whole project.
01:47 Kingston: *laughter* yes. Oh, so great.
01:49 Fishkin: Um, and, you know, I really want to thank you for that inspiration and for being so gracious about sharing your time and your beautiful words with us.
01:56 Kingston: Oh, you’re welcome.
01:57 Fishkin: Um, so as you know, we have nothing written from any of these workers – nothing from any of the fifteen to twenty thousand workers who were here working on the railroad from China, but we have your vision of what might have been going on in one worker’s mind and one worker’s imagination. And that’s so much more important – all the – all the more important given that we have nothing from them. So tell, tell us a little bit about the process that you went through to imagine what your father’s father’s experience working on the railroad would have been.
02:31 Kingston: Well, I have some sources of information. And I think the most important one was a whole tradition of talk story that – and, my mother is the one that’s really a good storyteller. And she comes from generations of storytellers also. And, and it was her that told the, the Grandfather railroad stories because she, she knew my grandfather for a long time. And, and when he, when he came back from America, he came back from America and then his son, my father left. And so, my, my grandfather and my mother were very close. And he told her everything that he had gone through. And, and I, so she has the direct transmission of the stories. But also, she’s a storyteller. She’s a fictional storyteller. And so I know that she made up a lot. And maybe he made up a lot too. And that was the story about the baskets. So. so who knows whether that really happened or, or in their telling. And they loved making up things. They loved exaggerating. So, so, as I wrote it, I, um, I used their imagination and I also used the stories as they were orally transmitted.
04:15 Um, the another way that I compose this was, that I wanted to get as close as I could to, to, to what they were physically going through. And, and, so surely, there is bodily memory that I have, I have memory in my body. And if I could use a sledgehammer, then I would know how it felt up directly. And, and I would, and I would be able to describe it for myself. And, so, I, I got, I used all those tools that I described. I, there was a friend who was driving a fence post. And, and I got that hammer
05:21 Fishkin: Wonderful!
05:22 Kingston: And I drove the fence post, so that I could feel where the shocks are in my own body. And so, and, and I have been there with, with great trees are felled. So I know the sounds, and the way this living beast of a tree, the way it falls, and it – so, I –
05:54 Oh, and several trips, going by train, you know, taking the train from Sacramento and, and going through the Sierras, and just really paying attention to what it would have been like, if it wasn’t Amtrak, you know. But then we lived across the street from the railroad in Stockton. And this was before Amtrak. And there were all those steam engines and, and the, the wheels. And, so, living there, for what – 18 years, and I, I really knew how those trains worked. And how the people that would be working them, and the way they jumped on and off, and -. And also being on those railroad tracks, as kids, you know, you, you are on those tracks and you can listen and you, you put things to, to, for the train to run over. So I wanted to find, get that direct transmission as much as I can, and then-.
07:22 And then, I also know the kinds of stories they told one another. Because the, my mother passed those stories on. And, and and I know who they came from. I did not get to meet Ah Goong myself. I’m, I missed him, by a short time. But he was alive during my lifetime. But he was in China. His, he had two brothers, actually, like maybe they were even three. And they were in Stockton with us and growing up. And so, I knew what their personalities were. And so, so I could use that to give me the energy to write about him.
08:21 Fishkin: That’s very interesting. And did any of them have any direct connection to the railroad? Or he was the only brother who worked on the railroad?
08:27 Kingston: No. Yeah, he was older than them. And they, they were farmers. And they had horses. So they were really, really back in that old time.
08:44 Fishkin: And did you also find that there were some books that were helpful? Did you do other kinds of research to reconstruct this history?
08:56 Oh. Yeah, yeah. The books – I had to rely on just traditional research to find out how a railroad is made. And of course, all that information about the strike, what happened every day on the strike, exactly which days they they were striking, what the demands were, how the negotiations went. The, oh, I was going to say something about – hmm – it was very important!
09:43 Fishkin: Oh, it’ll, it’ll come back to you. I’m sure. So, should I just ask -?
09:50 Kingston: Oh, just a moment, maybe, it’s coming. Of the information that, that was historical or documented, I would look these up when I had a talk story from my mother. And then I would try to see whether I could find any kind of written record or if anybody else had said such a thing or wrote it down. And so I would always try to confirm, uh, things. But most of the time, I could not. And I think the most interesting historical research I did was, on, about Alaska. And, and I found diaries. And all the diaries were different. And so then I’m thinking, you know, the written history is not anymore, uh, for “sure” than the spoken history. Yeah.
11:14 Fishkin: That’s absolutely true. That keeps historians in business. Um, do you recall your mother saying anything about how your grandfather was recruited for the Railroad? How did he even know that it was possible to come work on the Railroad?
11:31 Kingston: I did not get that from my mother. But I did read in history that there were recruiting posters that, that went out all over South China. And they, they were, they had posters in the cities and even out to the villages where people knew that they were recruiting, that the, that Crocker was, it was going to pay people for helping with the Railroad. I imagine that the same recruiting posters went to Ireland and to Wales.
12:07 Fishkin: And were there others from your father’s Village who also responded to those posters?
12:14 Kingston: Not that I know of. Just my grandfather. And, and, all the time he did have this reputation for being crazy. And, and and there was also the story that, that he was bayoneted in the is head by the Japanese, and that was why he was crazy. But then that would be after the Railroad time. That would be when he was very old.
12:41 Fishkin: You have a wonderful line in the book. You said your grandfather left the railroad for his message. We had to go somewhere difficult, ride a train, go somewhere important. In case of danger, the train was to be ready for us. What was the message?
12:55 Kingston: Oh, I don’t know. But that, that came from just always living next to the railroad. And I thought that was the railroad that he built, and, and, and, there it was. And, and it meant that we needed to go somewhere. And maybe some kind of quest. I don’t know. Maybe the message is, it’s the, the whole history of his life, of our lives, or the history that we’re going to make.
13:32 Fishkin: I like that. How do you think men like Ah Goong changed America?
13:40 Kingston: Hmm, hmm. You know, I feel that what he did was very small. It’s just a little, a little bit of the work on the railroads. And, um, and there were many people from all over the world working on it. And, and this includes the bankers and who financed it. So it’s just a little drop in whatever is going on.
14:22 Fishkin: And, your, your work blends history and myth, often American history and Chinese myth. So how did you decide which Chinese myth would have been comforting, empowering, inspiring to Ah Goong and others he worked with?
14:41 Kingston: Yeah. As I was writing this, I was trying out different myths. And, and, bu5t this one with the Spinning, the Spinning Maid and the Cowboy, it really seemed to fit because it’s a, it’s a story about, um, being apart and being lonely, being far away from the loved ones, which was the condition of work, but also it’s a story about a, a pathway in which we could all meet one another. And so this is the story about the Milky Way, the River of Heaven. And they’re going to use this River of Heaven so that they can meet up at the sky. But on Earth it’s going to be the Railroad which is also like big way of transportation, a way of communicating with people, so I thought that one fit. And it was comforting. And it was comforting to them that they do eventually meet, even though it’s once a year.
15:55 Fishkin: Yes. It was perfect. It was really beautiful. Um, tell me about your decision to follow this chapter in the book of your grandfather here in Sierra Nevada with the description of the laws relating to the Chinese from 1868 to 19 – 1978. I thought it really was important to mention of the book. And I’m wondering if you could tell us a bit about why, why you did it the way you did and what it means to you.
16:20 Kingston: Yeah. The laws are right in the middle of the book. And the laws are in a completely different language than the rest of the book. Okay? Let’s say the rest of the book is poetic language. The, the laws are written in legalese. And they are a barrier, a border, a fence, uh, the, that, that says that you cannot travel. You cannot, uh, you cannot go riding on that Railroad. Uh, if you’re going to, the laws ore saying you, you cannot, you cannot travel at whenever you please. And so, I, I put the laws in the middle of the book to show obstacle, to, to being, uh, free. And the, and, and I thought, I think it works literarily, in that the language changes. But not all the laws were bad. Because I started with the -.
17:36 Fishkin: The Burlingame Treaty.
17:38 Kingston: The Burlingame Treaty. And I just love that treaty. Because it says you are free to travel. I mean, we don’t get that in the Constitution, the freedom to travel. It was, it was on that Treaty. And, the, it also talked about “for purposes of curiosity.” You can travel just because you’re curious? And it says you can change your residence. And we had that treaty and I think, boy, that’s a broken treaty. And you know, it, sometimes I’ve even thought to myself, you know, with all of this border stuff that we’re going through now, if we could take that, just cut it out of the book, put it in your wallet. And when you cross borders, just show it to them – “See? We have this Burlingame Treaty.”
18:35 Fishkin: I think it’s a great idea.
18:36 Fishkin: So, understanding the past changes the present. And the ever-evolving present changes the significance of the past. So, how does understanding this chapter of the past change the way we live in the present? Or how might it change the way we live?
18:53 Kingston: Yeah. I should think that, you know, even though, Ah Goong had a, just a tiny bit of, of American history that he was affecting, the, the turning of what he did into a story and an art – that changes, that changes the way we think of what a human being is or what an American is. And it even makes us aware of why should history or life be like that – where, where you, where you get driven out of your country or where you cannot travel freely.
19:54 The, so, so, I think, to be able to tell the story of, of these, of a common laborer and even remembering that there was a strike on the railroads. It to me, that strike, in a way, it’s even more important than the labor of putting up, of building the Railroad. I mean, can you imagine these people, who, who are not Americans, and they came from – they came from nowhere. And they’re nobody. They’re, they’re just about slaves. And, and to then make this great contribution to labor rights and to human rights – and to dare to say we are going to organize labor and and we going to organize a strike. And so, wow. In the 1860s, to be able to – we can think of it as the founding of one of the first unions.
21:11 Fishkin: Hmm hmm. That’s great. Thank you. Um, I know the book has been translated in China, several times. Could you tell us a little bit about how Chinese readers respond to this, this part of the book?
21:23 Kingston: Um, yeah, the Chinese readers – oh, excuse me –
21:29 Fishkin: Sure.
21:39 Kingston: I think Chinese readers are now appreciating the, the work that’s been done by Chinese Americans. When these books first arrived in China, the, there was a sense that these are not really Chinese. Um, the, the first Chinese readers and critics found mistakes. They said, “oh, this is not like China.” “This isn’t Chinese.” But, what, 30 years have gone by, and now, there is a sense that there is a, um, a, a Chinese American Literature but now, they’re even calling at Chinese Literature. They’re calling it World, World Chinese Literature. And they are proud that the World Chinese Literature goes, so, is so universal and that, that, that it, that world Chinese literature can even be written in English. And they included in, in their canon.
23:11 Fishkin: And did you have surprises when you went back to the village that Ah Goong came from a few years ago? Um, you saw some, in some ways, how right you would have been in some of the ways you have described it and in other cases there probably were things that surprised you?
23:28 Kingston: Yeah, the first time I went to that village, which is about 30 years ago, um, the, it, it took, it took, two days to get from Canton to the Village. And we were in a car. And then we, we were two or three ferries, and then more driving, and then staying overnight at an inn, and then going on.
24:02 Two and a half years ago, when I went, it just took like four hours. And we were there! And, it’s, it was so, super highways. And, and, and then we get there and they have a television. And they have, everybody’s got a cell phone. And, in a way, I was so, I was so disappointed. Because the first time I went, they were showing me these pipes, and I’m looking at the pipes, and then “water.” You know, they’re getting water. And this time – and before, there was electricity, they were so proud of their electricity. There was one bare light bulb, just next to the altar. And, but this time, you know, television. And I was disappointed – because where is the colorful ancient village. But they still had the, they had a water buffalo, and it was the – a baby the first time I saw it, and now, it’s a big water buffalo. And so, our village was still using water buffalo. My cousin was still farming that way. So lots of differences, but, but a lot of things the same.
25:30 Um, they were – oh – oh, here’s a big, big difference. There’s a – they built a, they built a new temple. And, and, they they were getting money from everybody in America to, people like me sending money back, and then when you send your money back, your name is, you know on red paper, and it’s in the temple. And lots of women’s names. Because that’s a big difference. Before it was all men’s names. And the descent line, now there’s women. *laughter*
26:12 Fishkin: That is wonderful. Um, and just one last question. Are there any photographs left? You refer to photographs a lot in the book. Are all of those photographs gone? Or do you still have any of those photographs of Ah Goong and his family?
26:27 Kingston: Yeah, I was thinking about photographs when I was reading that – you know, the, I did depend a lot of photographs. Not my family photographs, but it was so great that the camera, it was invented before the railroads. Because there’s a lot of good pictures of them on, among the trees, chopping down trees, making trellises, uh, the way they -. Also, newspapers. The newspapers. Wonderful photographs but also drawings. And that was where I found the drawings of, of the workers on the Railroad, which was – it was so wonderful. Sometimes they were so idealized, they really did look like gods. Just those beautiful bodies and muscles. And, and the way they made the hair, the braids were just beautiful.
27:28 And at the same time, there could be, maybe just, maybe a few years later – the Driving Out period. And then you get the, the little, the Chinky Chinaman drawings, and buck teeth, and all that stuff. And so, completely different. And I love that other stereotype that was also going through America, that they were fairies. And I guess the Irish had faeries too. And, and then, there’d be these beautiful little Chinese fairies, and they, and with their, you know, their eyebrows, they look like little antennae. And so, in the pictures, you got so many different ways of looking at them.
28:19 Um, from our own pictures, um, there’s the picture of Ah Goong. We always live with that picture – and he and his wife. Uh, they, they, they, well, in this religion, in this Chinese religion we have, which some people called ancestor worship, well the ancestors on top was Ah Goong and his wife. And so we, we have that picture. And he is, he is in an overcoat, which is, that was one of the treasures he brought back from -. He got a really warm, good overcoat. So I don’t have that picture. My, my brother has those pictures.
29:20 Fishkin: Do you think that, that we could write him and ask if he could take a photo of the picture and send it to us? That would be wonderful. Because you described it in the book, it’s so. Could you maybe ask him to email it to us? That would be wonderful if you could do that.
29:24 Kingston: Oh sure. Oh sure. Yeah, yeah. Oh, I’ll ask him. And my brother is a good photographer. And all that.
29:42 Fishkin: That’s just great. Thank you. Well, this has been absolutely wonderful. Is there anything that you would like to talk about that we haven’t talked about?
29:53 Kingston: Oh, my. You’ve been so thorough. So I’m trying think whether there’s anything.
30:05 Fong: So maybe just for the record, if you could just, uh, I was asking Shelley, sort of just say your name, where we are, uh, and maybe just a, give a quick bio of you Êknow when you think, your father, your parents came to American, where you were born. Just one or two minutes would be great to have on camera.
30:23 Fishkin: Maybe connect it to ancestors also.
30:27 Fong: Yes, absolutely.
30:28 Fishkin: Yeah, that would be great – the Railroad.
30:32 Kingston: Okay, wait. Um, I’m Maxine Hong Kingston, and we’re in Oakland California on November, November 2nd, 2013, November 3rd, November 4th? *laughter*
30:51 Fong: Start over. Gee, good thing, it’s amazing we got here actually. I thought it was the first.
30:58 Kingston: Is it fourth?
30:59 Fishkin: Is it the fourth?
31:00 Fong: Yeah, it’s the fourth.
31:04 Kingstno: Oh, this is Maxine Hong Kingston in Oakland, California on November 4th, 2013. I was born in Stockton, California on October 27th, 1940. And I am descended from my ancestors who came here and, and my grandfather who worked on the railroads. And, and then, and then, my, let’s see, I was conceived in New York, where my father came in – he arrived in New York the same day that, that Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris. He had stowed away from Cuba and he was caught and deported and he stowed away again deported again and he finally came in, he finally made it the third time. And, and as he was running toward Chinatown, he saw a newspaper, and it said that Lindbergh had landed in Paris and he just yelled “we did it!”
32:36 And then in New York, he, he was, he was working there, between the time he was in Cuba and New York, for 15 years. And then, he was, he was working in gambling for a while. And then he was gambling at a table. And, and he won all this money from, he won $600 from somebody. And, and the guy did not have the money to pay it off. And so he said, um, why don’t you give me your wife’s visa to come to America. And so, he got that visa and he sent for my mother. And so she arrived illegally in, at Angel Island, as somebody else. Fortunately, the fake papers and the real papers had the same name. And so, she’s a Hong, and I’m a Hong, but it’s not really the same person. And she, so she arrived in, um, on Angel Island where she was imprisoned for 3 weeks. And then she, she took the train, she took the train all the way across the country and met my father in New York.
34:01 Fishkin: The train that her father had helped build –
34:05 Fong: That’s a
34:06 Fishkin: Or her father-in-law
34:07 Kingston: Her father-in-law.
34:08 Fong: A paper daughter? That’s actually kinda unusual.
34:12 Kingston: Yeah, yeah, she’s paper daughter. Oh, you know, the Angel Island has done so much – and the Chinese Historical Society – such a great work. Through the Chinese Historical Society, I got all of my mother’s papers, 50 pages with her interrogation on Angel Island –
34:29 Fong: Awesome.
34:31 Kingston: and I thought, wow, this is great. I’m really going to know about my mother. But oh wait a minute. Oh, this is all fake. She told all fake stories. They asked her all these questions, she told them all the – Ê
34:43 Fong: Of the right person, right? Oh, oh my gosh.
34:46 Kingston: Yeah.
34:47 Fong: So how did your dad get to Cuba? Do you know what the route was?
34:49 Kingston: How did he get to Cuba? You know, it was really free travel. My great-uncle, they went from China to Cuba. I don’t know how they, but it was, no, there’s no stories from that. No big deal, you know. They were free to travel there.
35:05 Fishkin: And do they work in Cuba?
35:06 Kingston: Yeah.
35:08 Fishkin: Do you know what – oh, that’s right – they worked on the plantation? Or, um, did you tell that story? I can’t remember.
35:14 Kingston: Um, yeah. There was, no that was the other side of the – my mother’s family worked in – there was somebody from my father’s side. They worked in plantations in Hawaii. So some went to Hawaii, some went to Cuba. The Hawaii generation was older. They were even Ah Goong’s father. And, and also the great-great-grandfather from my mother’s side. And so the Cuba, I don’t know anything, I don’t know what they were doing in Cuba. So, I just heard that this one great-uncle killed somebody. That’s what I know. I didn’t, I never did that story because I don’t know much about it. Except that -. But my father was there too. And, um, then they both got to America. The great-uncle and my father.
36:05 Fishkin: They were both very determined. They took a lot of -. I’m so glad that they made it. Because, my goodness.
36:12 Kingston: Yeah, yeah, no otherwise I wouldn’t be here.
36:13 Fishkin: Otherwise you wouldn’t be here. And that’s – and that would be a huge loss. But you are so fabulous, and we’re so grateful to you for sharing your time with us so generously and thank you for your beautiful books. You are our inspiration.
36:20 Kingston: Thank you, oh, thank you for appreciating them. That’s so nice.
36:33 Fishkin: Yeah, it has been, it just has been fantastic. Thank you.
36:40 [Kingston’s gold ring].
36:46 [Photo of Ah Goong and his wife].
36:56 [Photo 1 of Kingston’s Family].
37:08 [Photo 2 of Kingston’s Family].
All materials on these pages © Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford.