‘Ghosts of Gold Mountain’

 

Gordon H. Chang, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 312 pages, $28. Shortly after the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869, the construction foreman of the Central Pacific Railroad held a celebratory meal in his private railcar. On hand were a few Chinese workers, invited to stand in for thousands who had assembled the line. The guests cheered the Chinese. The good feelings would not last, though. As Gordon H. Chang relates in “Ghosts of Gold Mountain,” the “Railroad Chinese” and their countrymen soon became the most despised group in the West, before being largely forgotten. Chang’s book is a moving effort to recover their stories and honor their indispensable contribution to the building of modern America. Chang’s most dramatic passages focus on the work itself. The Central Pacific faced daunting topographical challenges, particularly in the Sierra Nevadas. It was there, starting in 1865, that Chinese laborers spent more than two years of brutal, nonstop toil to build the Summit Tunnel, with several hundred perishing. The poignancy of such stories has preoccupied Chang since he was a child, and so in 2012 he and several colleagues established the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford. The researchers have combed through archives and interviewed descendants of the workers, for whom — like the author — the story is deeply personal. “The labor of the Railroad Chinese,” Chang declares, is “the purchase of, and the irrefutable claim to, American place and identity.”

NEW YORK TIMES