Historians Still Uncovering Details of 150-Year-Old Chinese Railroad Strike

One hundred fifty years ago, an event occurred that became a part of American history still studied by academics today: Countless Chinese railroad workers for the Central Pacific Railroad stopped going to work.

“It’s significant because this was the first major strike that any Chinese group ever did. There were earlier strikes, but this was a major one, which involved 2,000 Chinese who struck for one week,” said Chinese-American historian SueFawn Chung, who is professor emerita of the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

Railroad work

Chung recently discovered an old newspaper article that gave a description of an explosion two days before the start of the strike, which may have sparked it.

“The Chinese were working on the railroad and it was very dangerous,” Chung said. “There were explosions. There were accidents. There were deaths all around. This particular one was so horrific that the Chinese had to pick up the body parts of horses and white supervisors and other fellow Chinese people.”

The Chinese workers wanted more pay, shorter working hours and better working conditions. While historians have long thought the workers did not receive what they wanted and returned to work, after not receiving food from their bosses for a week, Chung made a new connection in another newspaper article.

“But a month later, they got their, at least their wage increase that they wanted from $35 to $40 a month. It was sort of the Chinese system of ‘save face.’ ‘OK, we’ll let you save face by saying we didn’t accomplish anything, but you’ll give us the $5 increase a month, and we will have won,’ but of course no one publicized the fact that they got the $5 a month increase.”

Watch: Historians Uncovering Details of 150-Year-Old Chinese Strike

Family histories

As historians look for new details about the Chinese railroad workers, descendants also have been doing their own digging into the past.

One of the descendants of a railroad worker is San Diego physician Russell Low, who believes his great-grandfather, Lai Wah Huang, and Huang’s brother, Jick Wah, took part in the strike. Like most of the Chinese railroad workers, Low’s ancestors came to the U.S. from China’s Guangdong province and helped build the railroad that would link the western part of the United States to the East.

“My family took part in the building, not only of the West, but really the building of America. That railroad that he helped to build really united our country, and it was probably one of the most important achievements for America in the 19th century and we took part in that,” Low said.

Low said Jick Wah Huang lost an eye in a blasting accident. After building the railroad, he went to Montana and opened a dry goods store. Low’s great-grandfather, Lai Wah Huang, became successful in the cigar industry in San Francisco. He met and married Tom Ying at a time when Chinese women were rare in the United States.

“She was brought here as a child slave. She came to this country when she was 9 years of age, and she was forced to work in servitude as a slave for a very rich family,” said Low, who described how his great-grandmother was treated badly before escaping her servitude. She and her husband had five children.

“So you went from a railroad worker and a slave girl to the first Chinese (American) graduating (with an engineering degree) from UC Berkley,” said Low of one of his grand uncles.

“So you went from a railroad worker and a slave girl to the first Chinese graduating from UC Berkley,” said Low of one of his granduncles.

​Numerous descendants

The descendants of Huang number 100. They include war heroes, such as Low’s father, who received a Silver Star for his actions in the World War II.

“If you think about what binds these railroad worker descendants together, and we’ve all met each other, I think it’s this courage of the ancestors,” Low said. “These young men who built that railroad had the right stuff, a determination where they never quit … you had to adapt. They knew how to learn so they could bend like a supple willow tree and never break.”

Low said these characteristics have been passed down through the generations as the legacy of the railroad workers who left their homes for the unknown in hopes of a better life.

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