Event Recap: Inaugural Asian American Authors Book Club Meeting

On March 4th, 2022, USCET hosted an inaugural meeting for the “Asian American Authors Book Club” program, featuring Professor Gordon H. Chang, the Senior Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Professor in Humanities and History at Stanford University. The webinar focuses on a mind-blowing discussion of Professor Chang’s book Ghosts of Gold Mountain, an unprecedented work that seeks to recover the stories of Chinese railroad workers and recognize their efforts in remaking America, with an opening and a closing remark made respectively by Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch, the Executive Chairman of USCET, and Professor King-Kok Cheung, the Special Advisor at USCET and Professor of English and Asian American Studies at UCLA, who envisioned this program.

Professor Chang began the discussion with explaining his motivation behind authoring Ghosts of Gold. A part of the “Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project” at Stanford University, a project co-directed by himself and Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin, the book serves as an addition to the scholarly work already done on Chinese laborers who helped build the First Transcontinental Railroad. Despite being contributors to a fundamental segment of the American history, the laborers have never received a representation of their own identity. Growing up in Oakland as a fourth-generation Chinese American, Professor Chang observed a lack of information around the Chinese workers in the San Francisco Bay Area; even at Stanford, a university of close relations to the Railroad, relevant archives are non-existent. By writing Ghosts of Gold Mountain, a non-fictional work of history, Professor Chang hopes to “reconstruct Chinese railroad workers’ lived experiences”.

Professor Chang retold the lives of Chinese railroad workers to the audience through a riveting slideshow of historical archives, including photographs that captured the construction process of the First Transcontinental Railroad. The Railroad played an important role in American history, the construction of which was a “nationalist event”, deemed by Americans at the time as the incarnation of a “continental empire”. Not only did it bring together the American East and West, but it linked North America to Asia, making the Railroad a catalyst to the 19th century Western industrial revolutions and economic development. Nonetheless, despite the Chinese workers being the major workforce for constructing one of the nation’s biggest historical accomplishments, they have been excluded from the documentation process. According to Professor Chang, be it in the photographs of the Promontory Summit, “Driving the Last Spike”, or construction across the cliffs and ravines on the High Sierras, the Chinese workers have rarely been the subject of attention, but constantly neglected or reduced to a mere subordinate to the project.

Though it has been difficult to find the Chinese railroad workers’ own voices in documentation, according to Professor Chang, there still are archeological methods that have successfully recovered parts of the workers’ lived experiences: the material culture along the rail line. On the High Sierras, archeologists have located remains of Chinese ceramics, discarded by Chinese laborers 150 years ago. Moreover, with more materiality being discovered, more and more Chinese Americans, the ancestors of whom worked on the Railroad, have become aware and proud of their heritage.

Professor Chang answered a few questions from other participants near the end of the discussion, including one raised by Professor King-Kok Cheung, who wondered whether the absence of Chinese railroad workers in the photographs could be due to their fear of bad luck and reluctance to be portrayed as hard laborers. Professor Chang agreed, but also added that this fear of modern technologies was not necessarily universal, as there still were a number of Chinese laborers comfortable with their photos being taken in a studio, so that they would be able to pass on memories to their descendants. Chinese American writer Huaiyu Liu, the author of The Road Afar, proposed a related question by asking whether the “emotional factors” have played a part in this “historical amnesia,” and to what extent were the workers reluctant to keep and pass the memories of their “hardship and humiliating experience”. Professor Chang explicated that a sheer number of Chinese laborers had come to America for fortune, yet hard labor on a railroad did not build a wealthy image, therefore some were ashamed of their occupation. Dozens of questions on Chinese railroad workers, their personal stories, their historical status, and their relations to white workers had been asked and answered, leading up to a vivid and informational discussion.

USCET applauded the successful inaugural meeting, especially Professor Gordon Chang’s inspiring presentation of Ghosts of Gold Mountain and the vibrant discussion among all participants. By recovering the voices of the long since neglected Chinese railroad workers, the meeting celebrated and paid tribute to the accomplishment and contribution by the ancestry of Chinese Americans. Just as how Professor Cheung remarked at the end of the discussion, it has the Chinese artisans, having their hearts in two places, half in China and the other half in America, that have united the world into one.