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In Production - 2000

"The American people know that the Chinese people built the railroad. And often that's the one and only thing they know. And that's exactly the problem." - Professor Patricia Limerick

Chinese railroad campThe third program in the series begins in the 1860s and ends in the 1930s when other key Asian groups--Japanese, Asian Indians, Koreans and Filipinos--have arrived and settled in America, and the second generation of Chinese immigrants is establishing itself.

Program 3 starts with a revealing look at the Chinese role and sacrifices in building the western half of the monumental Transcontinental Railroad. Their actual experience is a part of our history which is not commonly known today. Here, the Chinese were 80 - 90% of the workforce and built one of the most difficult parts of the railroad, over the Sierra Nevada mountain range. They were forced to work from sun up to sun down, labor in very dangerous conditions, and sleep in tents in the middle of winter, without any protection against the cold or avalanches which swept whole camps down mountainsides.

"That famous picture for the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad where the Golden Spike is about to be hammered in....Many have noted that the Chinese are not there. So you have what seems to be a strange and sad irony that the Chinese did the labor and they're not in the picture." - Professor Patricia Limerick

Railroad workersIn the decade following their completion of the railroad, Chinese labor was no longer critical in the west. Paradoxically, the completion of the railroad made it possible for competing white labor to come from other parts of the country and world. These workers acted on their assumptions of white superiority by "righteously" displacing, replacing or expelling the "heathen foreigners" from any occupation they wanted, including ones that the "foreigners" had pioneered.

With a nationwide depression in the 1870s - 1890s as the backdrop, the film will show how anti-Chinese sentiment grew as Chinese laborers were cast as scapegoats for these economic troubles. During this period there were also mounting labor troubles, and the Chinese were repeatedly used as replacement labor, creating further resentment. We see how Chinese labor was specifically useful to business owners because it combined two qualities: the Chinese were disciplined but subordinated, and they were racially unacceptable to white labor unions, with whom they therefore would never be joined. Furthermore, they were also legally rendered "perpetual foreigners", without any political power to protest or contest the terms or conditions of their employment.

"The employers of various large industries...were incredibly canny and thoughtful about dividing the labor force. And so, they very consciously, intentionally used Chinese people as strikebreakers, knowing that that will infuriate and mortify white workers, that that will drive them into outraged and self-destructive behavior." - Professor Patricia Limerick

As a result of their status, Chinese laborers became quite useful to various companies, who brought them into several regions of the country specifically where there were labor troubles: into Louisiana cotton plantations to "discipline" freed blacks; into Belleville, New Jersey, laundries to counter "uppity" Irish washerwomen; into a North Adams, Massachusetts, shoe factory to break a strike; and into the coal mines at Rock Springs, Wyoming, to counter the union organizing actions of the Knights of Labor. This strategic positioning and movement of cheap labor also helped disperse the Chinese geographically across the United States.

Outbreaks of anti-Chinese hatred, riots and violent expulsions became common all over the west. The film chronicles the worst incident: the infamous massacre of Chinese coal miners at Rock Springs, Wyoming. Mine owner Union Pacific brought the Chinese into Rock Springs as strike breakers in 1875. Ten years later, Chinese coal miners reaped the harvest of the hatred that had been building against them when an angry mob shot them down by the dozens and burned their village to the ground. President Grover Cleveland called out Federal troops to restore peace, and later paid reparations to the Chinese from the town.

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Sneak peek at Loni Ding's new short documentary, Mamie Tape vs. the Board of Education
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