How do we understand our contemporary politics of race in historical, economical, and political context? How do we make sense of the Chinese Exclusion acts and ongoing racial discrimination? In Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad (HMH, 2019), Dr. Gordon H. Chang recovers the history of how thousands of immigrants from southern China came to work on the Transcontinental Railroad, at the time an essential American infrastructure and the second largest construction project in the world after the Suez Canal. Despite their contribution (they constituted 90% of the Central Pacific Railroad work force), Chinese workers were marginalized politically, socially, and economically in their time -- and in subsequent treatments of American labor and immigration history. But how to recount marginalization without objectifying the Chinese who built the railroads? Chang masterfully presents the story of 20,000 workers as lived experience. The Chinese are presented “not as voiceless objects of interest or docile human tools, but as vital, living, and feeling human beings who made history.” American history -- particularly our understanding of labor, immigration, and racism -- is incomplete without focusing on the Railroad Chinese. The book won The Asian/Pacific American Librarians Award for Literature and The Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book Award.
Dr. Gordon H. Chang is the Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities and Professor of History at Stanford University (the university founded by Leland Stanford, head of the Central Pacific Railroad). He serves as Senior Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education co-directs the Chinese Railroad Workers in North American Project at Stanford. Dr. Chang is the author of Fateful Ties: A History of America's Preoccupation with China (Harvard University Press, 2015) and co-editor of The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad (Stanford University Press 2019) with Shelley Fisher Fishkin.
Daniella Campos assisted with this podcast.
Susan Liebell is an associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Why Diehard Originalists Aren’t Really Originalists recently appeared in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage and “Retreat from the Rule of Law: Locke and the Perils of Stand Your Ground” was published in the Journal of Politics (July 2020). Email her comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet to @SusanLiebell.
Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.