Wednesday, January 13, 2021

History of -- and by -- Chinese railroad workers

For almost 140 years, the voices of the thousands of Chinese who built the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) have been silent.

That's a statement that strikes me as true. In all the writing about the building of the CPR, even by those who wished to say something vivid and detailed about the lives and perspectives of its labour force, first- person testimonies have been scarce. That's the case for labourers of European and North American origins, but even more so for the imported Chinese work force. Even those who may have wished to overcome the neglect and disparagement of the Chinese workers in railroad history, I think, have been hardpressed to present much in the way of first hand accounts. 

But here is a new source. The quotation at the top is from a review by May Q. Wong in the Ormsby Review of the recently published Diary of Dukesang Wong: A Voice from Gold Mountain by Dukesang Wong, translated by his granddaughter Wanda Joy Hoe, in a new publication edited by David McIlwraith.

Editor McIlwraith notes that "pervasive myths tend to dissuade the searcher: the Chinese were illiterate, the Chinese didn’t keep diaries, their diaries could not have survived the decades, it was all destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, and so on." But Dukesang Wong's diary exists, and it is an important find. He was there, and he took notes:

Autumn 1881 — The people working with me are good, strong men. There are many of us working here, but the laying of the railroad progresses very slowly. It seems we move two stones a day!  
Early autumn 1883 — My soul cries out…. Many of our people have been so very ill for such a long time, and there has been no medicine nor good food to give them. Even the strongest of us are weak without medicine to fight against these diseases, which spread very rapidly…. These are troubled times for us Chinese.

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