"Chinese and the Iron Road — Building the Transcontinental Railroad" explores the work of an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Chinese workers who completed the massive western segment of the world's first transcontinental railroad through the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains from 1865 to 1869. The exhibit was created by the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University and the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco and was paid for by the Adrian Arima and Monica Yeung Arima Fund. The Bill Lane Center for the American West co-sponsored the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, which worked to find the stories of thousands of Chinese migrants who worked on the railroad.
The seven colorful panels on display for the public in front of Arima's home, located at 1052 Bryant St., are part of a 60-panel exhibition that is traveling the United States. The exhibition highlights Chinese immigrants' many contributions to the nation's development.
Arima became aware of gaps in the history curriculum when her son was in elementary school. A reading selection talked about the transcontinental railroad, but it didn't mention the Chinese workers who built it, she said.
"Ultimately, our goal is that the K-12 educational system should include Asian American history," she said, along with studies about Mexican, Black and Native American history. "History is very important. I know Asians were a small percentage of the early population, but they did contribute a lot to this area."
The former Fry's Electronics building at 340 Portage Ave. in Palo Alto was once the Bayside Cannery, the world's third largest canner of fruits and vegetables, and was owned by Thomas Foon Chew, according to a city-commissioned historic report.
Chinese workers also helped build Stanford University, planted the trees along Palm Drive and created early vineyards in Silicon Valley, she noted.
The Chinese railroad workers' story also has a page in Palo Alto's history: Leland Stanford was one of the "Big Four" who owned the Central Pacific Railroad, for whom the Chinese laborers worked.
The seven panels show through photographs, maps, documents and news articles the Chinese laborers' work, harrowing conditions and accomplishments. It also includes images by photographer Li Ju, who visited the sites along the first transcontinental railroad route six times starting in 2012 to recreate the images he found in period photographs.
Facing perilous work and racism
The laborers' task was often perilous. Six Chinese men were killed in an explosion at a camp in Colfax in 1866; multiple Chinese laborers were killed in 1867 during an avalanche as they worked to open a track through Emigrant Gap, according to news stories on one panel. Workers died from falls, landslides, Native American raids, blasting accidents and disease.
Yet, the Chinese laborers performed extraordinary feats. They dug out the 1,695-foot-long Summit Tunnel through solid granite, at an oxygen-starving altitude of 7,042 feet. They laid more than 10 miles of track in one day, a record that has not been topped in railroad construction. They continued to build other railways across the nation after their work on the transcontinental was completed, developing the nation's transportation backbone.
They also faced fierce racism and sinophobia on and off the job. Chinese workers were forced to pay for their own food, lodging and tools while their non-Chinese counterparts were not, and they were paid less.
After the railroad's completion, racial hostility and white workers' fears of having to compete for jobs resulted in violence and anti-Chinese riots, including attacks at an 1877 labor rally in San Francisco. During the Los Angeles Chinese massacre of 1871, an estimated 500 white and Hispanic Americans attacked, robbed and killed ethnic Chinese residents in their neighborhood, murdering about 10% of the then-small population, according to multiple historical sources.
Bowing to this pressure, the U.S. Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The law banned entry for 10 years to virtually all Chinese immigrants and limited the ability of those who traveled to their home country to return to the U.S.
Arima, an engineer by training and a semiretired real estate agent, said that the railroad workers' exhibit is a way for people to get to know and appreciate that Chinese Americans — and all Asian Americans — have the same values as every other group of Americans. It's a message that's been particularly important as violence and hostility toward Asian Americans has again risen in the past few years.
"People need to identify with you. You crack the egg and whether the egg is brown, white, green, blue or any other color (outside), the egg yolk still looks the same," she said.
"People need to be proud of their contributions. I'm very proud of these guys," she said of the railroad workers.
What's surprised Arima is how many railroad and historical museums have neglected to include the Chinese railroad workers' story. The California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento didn't have representation of the Chinese workers in its exhibits. With Arima's help, the museum now has a large section dedicated to the Chinese workers and an online digital exhibit. The Niles Canyon Railway's Sunol train depot also has exhibited panels since 2018.
Arima is also lobbying the Smithsonian Institution.
"It has a transportation exhibit, but it starts in 1870, and the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. Such important transportation history is totally ignored — a major part of American transportation history," she said. "I want to make sure there's a balance. It's not about the Chinese; it's to educate the 97% or 98% of non-Chinese who didn't know this history."
So far, the 60-panel exhibit has traveled to museums, libraries and multiple cities including Boston, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C. This week, it is on display at the city of Seattle's city hall, she said.
The panels are only one part of the Chinese rail workers' project. Fees from exhibition of the panels go to the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE) at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, which has created lessons for high school students and teacher training based on research from the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project.
A book, "The Chinese and the Iron Road — Building the Transcontinental Railroad," written by Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, co-directors of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford, was published in 2019.
For Arima, the quest to continue telling the stories of Asian Americans in the United States won't end with the railroad workers project.
"For my next project, I want to work on the canning industry," she said.
The exhibit at Arima's house, a nod to Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, will be on display through May 21.