“Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad” by Gordon H Chang

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Here is the most comprehensive account you are ever likely to find of the building of the western section of America’s transcontinental railway. Gordon Chang has certainly set himself a difficult task, as he seeks to document the daily life of the roughly 20,000 Chinese who contributed to building the Central Pacific section of American’s first transcontinental line in the late 1860s.

Chang begins his tale in the Toih Saan region of China’s Guangdong Province, the source of the overwhelming majority the workers, describing the everyday life of those tempted to seek their fortunes in America. They were, almost to a man, peasant farmers who migrated or were recruited to California specifically to build the railway. How they were assigned to work gangs and the resulting inter-clan relations would be very interesting to understand, but this was apparently the province of the Chinese gang bosses and no source material has yet been found.

Very few of those arriving could write more than a few Chinese characters, and on arrival they went straight to the camps where they associated almost exclusively with others like themselves. Not one in a thousand had any opportunity to learn even pidgin English until they (some of them) took other employment after the railroad’s completion. Chang explains how this left the way open for the 10% of non-Chinese (overwhelmingly Irish immigrants) to occupy most of the skilled, better-paid jobs. The managers were completely unable to communicate with the Chinese navvies except through a very, very few bilingual gang bosses, so any complicated work such as carpentry had to be assigned to workers the managers could talk to. An interesting corollary is that the managers never knew even the names of the vast majority of their Chinese staff. Pay was remitted to the gang bosses, who distributed it to the workers.

The “ghosts” of the title is alliterative but not particularly literally appropriate. There were certainly many fatalities, but Chang can present no accurate figures because the workers were hired indirectly through recruiters and not as individuals. The remains of many of those who died were shipped back to China as custom demanded, but the data are sparse. In terms of Chinese belief, the ghosts are those whose remains were never recovered. About them, little can be said. Even their number is unknown, let alone any names. But the Chinese workers insisted on being paid in gold. Those who died suddenly presumably left small hidden stashes of gold all along the line which must persist even today.

 

Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, Gordon H Chang (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2019)
Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, Gordon H Chang (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2019)

Chang’s intention is to tell the story from the perspective of the Chinese navvies who did 90% of the work, though in that he’s severely handicapped by a lack of first-person source material. Chang hopefully asserts that, “… recovery of a lost past is possible if imaginative efforts are made to understand the rich and expansive historical materials that do exist.”

Chang at one point describes his subjects as literate, but that’s surely an exaggeration. Before on-screen composition, even Chinese college graduates lost much of their ability to write easily in Chinese after just a few years in another culture. Chang and his colleagues still ardently seek a navvie’s preserved diary, but that seems far-fetched. A bundle of letters transcribed on behalf of a navvie by a series of professional scribes is probably the best they can realistically hope for.

Chang lapses into imagined episodes and dialogue here and there, but his account is for the most part dispassionate and even scholarly. For Professor Chang is indeed a scholar—a professor of history at Stanford and the curator of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America archive. As a result, perhaps 10% of the text consists of quotes from period documents, especially newspaper reports and company correspondence. With such sources, Chang perforce devotes considerable attention to living conditions, diet, cultural observances and even recreation (primarily gambling, apparently) but rather less to the geography and geology which were probably preoccupations of the subjects at the time. But Chang’s account certainly does document some enlightening statistics.

The story is also illustrated with a collection of 19th-century photographs, invariably posed, as the technology of the day was unable to freeze motion. As reproduced in the text, most of these are of little interest, but the painting on the dust jacket by Mian Situ is truly spectacular. Chinese laborers break rocks far above a rushing river with rock chips flying.

Strangely, Prof Chang renders any Chinese terms in Mandarin, a language none of his subjects would have spoken, and using a Latin orthography developed by the communists a century later. Not perhaps what one might expect from a specialist scholar. But overall, Ghosts of Gold Mountain is an engrossing account which will interest any student of Chinese or American history.


Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People’s Republic.