Chinese Transcontinental Railroad Workers: Faceless but not Nameless

This photograph made on May 10, 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah that memorialized the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad with the driving of the "Golden Spike" failed to include even a handful of the thousands of Chinese laborers without whose incredible work the line would taken longer to be completed.

Although historical documents rendered them "faceless" and left out of the commemorative celebration, at least their names are a part of the permanent record of the 1870 U. S. Census.  Below are a sample of these Chinese who were residing in Box Elder County, Utah where the Central Pacific Railroad from the west joined the Union Pacific Railroad coming from the midwest.

Note that most of their names were of the "Ah Wong" variety.  Even though none of them were actually named "Ah," early Census takers mistakenly heard Chinese say, Ah, before they gave their names.

It is valuable to examine the Chinese presence in the region a decade later with the 1880 Census.  It might tell us if many Chinese were in Box Elder County after the railroad was completed.  There were some Chinese there in 1880 working for the railroad. Whether they were from the original workers or represent new laborers is not clear.  However,  other Chinese came to the region who did not work on the railroad as the sample page from the 1880 Census shows. By 1880, Box Elder County had Chinese in many other lines of work: laundry, restaurant, grocer, tailor, prostitute, doctor, engineer.  
And, none of these Chinese are named "Ah."


Chinese Immigrants Supported Family Back in Their Home Villages

Even as a young child, I knew that my father sent periodic remittances to help his family back in Hoiping back in the 1940s.  I later learned that this was a common practice for Chinese immigrants in North America to help family members back in the villages financially.

I didn't know how often or how much father sent, or how much he could afford to provide. After all, growing up I always had the feeling that we were fairly poor ourselves.  But I definitely knew my mother often complained bitterly that my father did not permit her to send money back to her family. This situation reflected the dominant role of the husband in the traditional Chinese family, and was a source of periodic marital conflict for my parents.

Not too long ago, I discovered a heart-wrenching letter that my mother's younger sister back in the home village sent her in 1951. A friend translated it into English.  She was desperately begging my father and mother to send money to help her and her children get shelter and food as they were literally living on the street.

I don't know how my mother responded, but surely she must have agonized over it, and my guess is that my father was not supportive. This situation was certainly not unique for my parents but probably faced by many other Chinese immigrants in North America.


"Chinese" Restaurants in the Mississippi Delta in 1880?

In 1880, there were few Chinese in the American South.  The Mississippi Delta had the largest number of Chinese east of the Mississippi and below the Mason-Dixon line in 1880.  Most of them were small grocer store owners or laborers.

The 1880 federal census did identify, however, three restaurants operated by Chinese. But should they be considered "Chinese restaurants" since it is highly unlikely that they would have served or their customers would have wanted Chinese food.  Remember, even chop suey, the dish that became the most popular or at least well known offering for non-Chinese was totally unknown anywhere in the U. S. until around 1900.

In the clippings below, we see that Nee Gaw was a restaurant keeper (the census taker's term) in Yazoo City, and he had 2 cooks born in China to Chinese parents.  In Leflore, 2 brothers ran a restaurant (their names got mangled by the census taker and don't look Chinese, but the record indicates they were born in China to Chinese parents) And, in Silver City, 20 year old Henry Hong was a restaurant keeper.

So, in one sense these are "Chinese" restaurants, but in another sense, they are not.  They are just restaurants operated by Chinese that served American food and probably nothing resembling Chinese food.  But since we have no access to their menus, who knows for sure?


19th Century Political Cartoons And Chinese Immigrants

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was an illustrator and cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly from 1857 to 1887. He might be considered the pioneer political cartoonist and his work was highly influential on public opinion. In his 30-year career with the magazine, Nast drew approximately 2,250 cartoons, including 46 related to "the Chinese Question." Nast’s Chinese drawings align with Harper’s Weekly editorial position of inclusion and tolerance for all immigrants. They depicted the plight faced by the Chinese created by anti-Chinese feelings and generally contributed a rare, positive voice for Chinese American immigrants – setting him apart from the work of his peers.

In contrast, George F. Keller, cartoonist for The San Francisco Illustrated Wasp, an illustrated weekly magazine of “commentary and satire” often took cruel aim at the Chinese by exaggerating physical and cultural differences with his drawings to create fear and animosity toward Chinese in the American public. 
Keller’s images were some of the most vile distortions against the Chinese in California. In the four images below, Keller attacked two clergymen, Gibson and Loomis, who in defense of Chinese immigrants in 1877 testified to a Senate Committee of California that they were of "good character." Keller's cartoons, however, questioned whether they were peaceable, clean, honest, and suggested they were likely to have children with white women.

More details about the work of Thomas Nast and other political cartoons about topics other than Chinese immigrants can be found on the excellent website created by Michele Walfred.



Interracial Marriages of Chinese Men to White Women: II

 The majority of Chinese laborers who came to the U. S. in the late 19th and early 20th century were bachelors, or if married, left the wives in China.  There were very few Chinese women in the U. S. especially after the Page Act of 1875 restricting entry of Chinese women other than those smuggled in by Chinatown tongs and forced into being sex slaves.  Under these circumstances, only a small number of Chinese men married, and among the few who did, most married white women.  A previous post described several instances of marriages between Chinese men and white women in the late 19th and early 20th century and the reactions, often negative, of the mothers of the white women and of the American public. These reactions varied in different regions of the country. While such marriages in the West or South met strong disapproval, in New York City and parts of New England, they faced less criticism.  A look at two mixed race marriages below illustrates how different the reactions could be.

Example of Wong Suey and Sarah Burke (1883)

In 1883 Wong Suey, a Chinese laundryman in Santa Cruz, California and an adolescent white girl, Sarah Burke, who worked as a domestic in a hotel. They wanted to marry but local opposition was so strong, they decided to seek a marriage license in San Francisco. Arriving in San Francisco Chinatown they rented a room in a brothel for the night intending to get married the next day.  Police, however,  discovered Sarah and Wong there and arrested them. Wong was charged with a felony in having lodged a girl under age in a house of ill-fame, while Sarah was booked for residing in a house of prostitution. San Francisco newspapers covered the case extensively for several days.  

The San Francisco newspaper reporter wrote: 
"Sarah is an orphan without any competent advisers or guardians, .... there was opposition of the people of Santa Cruz to the union of a Chinese with a Caucasian. ...The girl claims to be 20 years of age, though the police discredit the statement. In appearance she is rather pretty, her large black eyes strangely illuminating her somewhat expressionless face. Her figure shows more plainly than her words why she is unable to take care of herself, being with child some five months....Wong Suey has strong Caucasian features, and is by no means a poor specimen of his race. 

A few days later, Sarah Burke had to appear before before the Commissioners of Insanity. She had been arraigned on the complaint of her father, Winifred Burke, who deemed the fact of her infatuation for a repulsive Chinese sufficient grounds for believing that she had lost her reason. The Commissioners weighed the evidence and concluded that while she was evidently suffering from a moral eclipse,  her mental trouble did not, in their opinion, come within the meaning of the law. A report to that effect was made to Judge Finn, who had been asked to conduct this examination, and thereupon she was discharged. 

The young couple still faced the problem that the law forbade marriages between Caucasians and Mongolians, and they were advised to execute a civil marriage contract in writing.

Example of Yung Wing and Mary Kellogg (1875)

Yung Wing was a highly educated man and was the first Chinese graduate of Yale University.  He later headed the Chinese Educational Mission, an experimental project to bring 30 young Chinese boys to study in New England in hopes that they could return to China and bring Western ideas to help China enter the modern world.
in the spring of 1875 Yung Wing married a white woman, Mary Kellogg, who came from a well-to-do family in Connecticut. Their marriage was well-accepted and even lauded by many. The account of the nuptials that appeared in newspapers across the country read much the same as it would have been for marriages involving white couples, complete with a description of the attire of the bride and groom, who attended, who officiated, and what foods were served, and honeymoon plans.

Although these two mixed race marriages took place within a few years of each other, they met with completely opposite reactions. Yung Wing was well respected and Mary Kellogg came from a prominent Connecticut family.  On the other hand, Wong Suey was only a laundryman and Sarah Burke was an adolescent girl of humble origin. During this era, the Yung Wing marriage to Mary Kellogg was the exception rather than the rule.

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