I am sure you have read about the Chinese railroad workers when you were in grade school. You may vaguely remember something about the Chinese workers being shipped over from China to help build the railroad tracks going from towns in California out to Nevada around the 1860s. Is some of this coming back to you? Are you thinking, “Oh yeah, I remember Mrs. Olson my fifth-grade social studies teacher blabbing on about that,” but you were probably never told the real story behind what is printed in school textbooks.
The real story beyond what is printed in most textbooks is hiring the Chinese began as an experiment in January 1865 after an advertisement promoting job openings aimed for 5,000 new workers resulted in only a few hundred new hires. Those who did take the jobs only did for a short time and then headed off to Nevada for better wages and/or in hopes of striking it rich with the silver and gold mining. It was suggested to them by the director of Central Pacific Railroad that they hire Chinese workers. He had worked with the Chinese workers earlier on the California Central Railroad and the San Jose Railroad. After a certain amount of opposition from some anti-Chinese sentiment groups, such as construction superintendent James Strobridge indicating that he did not feel the Chinese would be strong enough nor did he feel the whites would wish to live alongside Chinese, the Central Pacific experiment moved forward by employing 50 Chinese workers in 1865. They were among the 50,000 to 60,000 Chinese living in California that year. The experiment was a success, and so 50 more Chinese workers were hired, but the labor pool soon ran out. Thus, arrangements were made to hire Chinese workers and have them brought in directly from China. Beginning in July of 1865, Chinese workers came by boat to work on the railroad.
Up until now, you are probably thinking, “Yeah, that’s what Mrs. Olson taught me in my fifth grade social studies class,” but what Mrs. Olson did not teach you nor what you most likely did not read in your textbook is how poorly the Chinese were treated or they were discriminated against. I’ll bet you did not hear the story of how they were whipped if they tried to leave to find better employment elsewhere. I am betting you did not hear the story of how Central Pacific Railroad had 80% – 90% Chinese workers who were paid $31-$35 per month and their competitor Union Pacific had mostly white railroad workers who were getting $40 per month and that is not even taking into account lodging, food and tools that the Chinese had to pay for out of their own pockets whereas the whites at Union Pacific did not have to pay for such things. Did Mrs. Olson tell you any of those stories? I am betting she did not.
Written by Vicki Lynn Mooney and Beth Mathews, one feature film known as Midnight Shanghai with Executive Producers Ricky Lee & Richard Beal and Producers Wana Choy & Gary Hall tells the real truth about the Chinese railroad workers. This feature film appears starring Royd McCarish, Carmen Dahlmen, Leilei Chen, Ricky Lee, Wanna Choy, Kirta Chen, and Carma Havrey.
The Town of Gabriella was the film location for some of the filming of this feature film and it was a delight to have been a huge part of the telling of the truth of how the Chinese railroad workers were really treated during the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad. Last year in 2017, saw the 150th anniversary of the eight day strike held by the Chinese railroad workers demanding fair treatment and it was in 2017 that the Town of Gabriella was honored to have been one of the locations for the filming of Midnight Shanghai. Many of our local talent were among the actors and actresses who appeared in the filming of Midnight Shanghai, such as David Hight, James Blackburn and Earl Watters.