Why This Taiwanese American Helped Tell the Story of Chinese Railroad Workers

Max Chang was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah and is considered one of the first, if not first, Taiwanese Americans born in Utah.  Max is a Board Member of the Spike 150 Foundation which oversaw the sesquicentennial celebration of the completion of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.

May 10, 2019 marked the 150th year anniversary of the driving of a Golden Spike into a polished laurel tie at Promontory Summit, Utah to celebrate the completion of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.  Conspicuously absent from Andrew J. Russell’s wildly celebrated “East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of the Last Rail” 1869 photograph, commonly known as the “Champagne Photo,” are Chinese railroad workers who comprised 80-90% of the Central Pacific’s workforce.

As part of the first generation of Taiwanese Americans born and/or raised in Utah, I first noticed this omission not just in the Champagne Photo but also from my Utah history lessons I had in the 7th grade. The Chinese railroad workers were asked to do the impossible and the impossible they delivered. Yet their colossal contributions were marginalized to a mere footnote. Consequently, at the age of 12, I decided to boycott visiting Golden Spike National Historic Site (now Golden Spike National Historical Park) at Promontory Summit until the Chinese railroad workers were properly recognized or I had the opportunity to help tell their story by widening this particular lens of history.

Fast forwarding to 2017, I was appointed by Utah Governor Gary Herbert to be a member of the Spike 150 Commission and subsequently a board member of the Spike 150 Foundation, which were created by the State of Utah to oversee the sesquicentennial celebration festivities. By utilizing partnerships within the Utah community such as the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association, we curated the most extensive and comprehensive celebration of the Chinese railroad worker in the history of the Golden Spike.

Our primary order of business was to ensure the Chinese railroad workers’ rightful place at Promontory Summit.  Not only were they missing from the Champagne shot in 1869 but at the centennial celebration in 1969, Philip Choy of the Chinese Historical Society of America removed from the agenda at the last minute and without explanation   To rub Great Salt Lake salt into the wound, then Secretary of Transportation, John Volpe, declared  “Who else but Americans could drill ten tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow? … Who else but Americans could have laid ten miles of track in 12 hours?”  These were done mostly by the Chinese who could not become Americans.

Colonel John Young and his wife, Mary Young, the only descendant of a Chinese railroad worker present at the centennial, had accompanied Philip Choy to Promontory Summit. A half century later their daughter, Connie Young Yu, finally had the chance to speak at Promontory Summit on behalf of the Chinese railroad worker descendants alleviating 50 years of heartache. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao later spoke of how the Chinese who did the yeoman’s work were denied American citizenship.

In order to not have another generation of Utah students oblivious of the contributions of the Chinese railroad workers, I created and taught a lesson plan to nearly 1,200 elementary students and 200 teachers during the past school year.  Spike 150 along with the Utah State Board of Education also developed new curriculum to be permanently part of the Utah studies curriculum.

Most people are surprised when I tell them that I am not a descendant of a Chinese railroad worker and that I self-identify as Taiwanese American.  Why then would a Taiwanese American devote so much time and effort to tell the story of the Chinese railroad worker?

Max Chang and Connie Young Yu at the Promontory Summit in May 2019

As Spike 150 Keynote speaker, Jon Meacham, eloquently explains, “Our common welfare depends not on what separates but on what unifies us.”

The Chinese railroad worker literally and figuratively paved the path for Asian Americans to come to America.  Just years after being an indispensable part of the workforce that built the Transcontinental Railroad, the Chinese were scapegoats for economic and labor woes, denied citizenship, subject to anti-miscegenation laws and eventually became the first and only race to be excluded from immigrating to the United States with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

Flaunting the celebratory and flouting the dolorous can no longer be the de-facto history lesson rubric.  America must come to terms with the mistakes, unintended consequences and collateral damage that inevitably come with our successes.

Asian Americans must also realize that despite having a plethora of self-identifying groups under the diversely rich Asian American umbrella, we are still generally collectively seen without differentiation by the rest of America.  Perpetual foreigners in our own country.

Although certain institutionalized actions have negatively affected only particular Asian American groups, they could have been easily applied to the aggregate.  To stand by and allow history to be expunged is to risk another exclusion act, internment and other discriminatory laws and legislation based on one’s heritage, ancestry or religious beliefs.

That is why I, a Taiwanese American, needed to tell the story of the Chinese railroad worker. Our common welfare depends on it.

Max Chang teaching a 4th-grade class in Utah

Max Chang was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah and is considered one of the first, if not first, Taiwanese American born in Utah.  Max is a Board Member of the Spike 150 Foundation which oversaw the sesquicentennial celebration of the completion of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.

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