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San Francisco has new center to remember Chinese railroad workers

By LIA ZHU in San Francisco | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-05-12 10:47

Florence Fang (sixth from left), founder of the Chinese Railroad Workers History Center, along with elected officials and community leaders celebrate the 154th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. LIA ZHU / CHINA DAILY

Residents of San Francisco and visitors now have a place to learn and study the largely forgotten history of Chinese workers who helped build the US' first transcontinental railroad.

The Chinese Railroad Workers History Center, near the southern entrance of San Francisco's Chinatown, is expected to serve as a "multifunctional gathering place" for people to learn about Chinese Americans' heritage in the US, according to the founder, Florence Fang, a Chinese community leader in the Bay Area.

"The center's purpose is to remember the Chinese railroad workers' contribution to this country; the goal is to give voice to the voiceless, and the spirit is to remember the past and inspire the future," said Fang.

The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, originally known as the Pacific Railroad, was completed on May 10, 1869. It was considered one of the most remarkable engineering feats of the 19th century. The railroad profoundly changed the nation as it not only expanded the American economy but also instilled national confidence.

Nearly 12,000 Chinese joined the railroad workforce; however, they dealt with prejudice, isolation and dangerous working conditions. Nearly 1,200 of them died from work accidents, avalanches and explosions while toiling in the Sierra Nevada.

The Chinese workers, who made up more than 80 percent of the railroad workforce, were soon despised in the country and then largely forgotten after the tracks' completion.

"What is important to remember is the sweat and the tears and sometimes the lives of the Chinese immigrants who built the most treacherous, difficult part of the Transcontinental Railroad," said California Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, "Now it will be enshrined in history along with so many other incredibly important contributions of Chinese Americans."

Kounalakis and other elected officials in the state and the city joined community leaders on Wednesday at the center to commemorate the 154th anniversary of the completion of the railroad and pay tribute to the Chinese workers.

Aaron Peskin, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, praised the railroad as an inextricable link to the "ethos of San Francisco".

This center joins several other institutions in San Francisco, like the Chinese Historical Society and the Chinese Culture Center, to attract visitors and to teach Chinese American history and culture, said Peskin.

"It comes at a critical time for us. It comes as Chinatown and the home of San Francisco have experienced three very difficult years, Chinatown in particular, not only with the economic harms, but with the rise of Asian hate," he said.

"The center will help teach future generations and make San Francisco proud," said Peskin, "It will help boost the economy of Chinatown."

California Governor Gavin Newsom said in a written message that the completion of the railroad — a historical feat — was made possible by "the thousands of immigrant Chinese laborers who risked and sacrificed their lives to transform American history into what we know today".

"Our nation is defined by the backbreaking work Chinese immigrants contributed to our country, with the Transcontinental Railroad completely transforming the economic export of Western resources to Eastern markets. The driving down of the ceremonial Golden Spike not only marked the beginning of a new technological era, but it symbolized the impact Chinese immigrants made on the development of this country," said the governor.

The center is under construction, with rooms in the basement for hosting classes or seminars. After completion, it will be open to the public, said a staff member of the center who did not provide a timeline for opening.

"You have no idea how few people, even those living in the city, fully know what the Chinese went through," said former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown.

"I'm certain that this center will be incredibly educational, as well as entertainment. I suspect that every school in San Francisco, no matter at which grade, at some point during the course of the school year will make this one of the stops when the school leaves to teach on the outside. You are providing all of us and all the children of the city with this opportunity," he said.

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