The Silent Spikes:Chinese Laborers and the Construction of North American Railroads(Revised Edition)

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In the 1860s and 1880s, the transcontinental Pacific Railroads had been completed in the United States and Canada, which stood as eternal monuments of both countries in their march toward modernization, national unity and ethnic harmony. The construction of both railroads depended upon the great efforts of pioneering Chinese laborers who had come to North America one century and a half ago. It was this brave, industrious, economic, and quiet labor force that had made indelible contributions to the completion of the two Pacific Railroads.

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This album contains many precious historical pictures and much detailed descriptions. It realistically depicts the miserable experience of the tens of thousands of overseas Chinese laborers and explores the life of Chinese laborers, ranging from their struggle for survival to their final taking roots in North American societies. It illuminates the enormous contributions of Chinese laborers in the building of North American civilizations.

About Author

Huang Annian is a Professor of Beijing Normal University. He was born in 1936 in Wujin County, Jiangsu Province. In 1958, he graduated from the History Department of Beijing Normal University. He has long been engaged in the teaching and research of US history and modern world history. He has written, compiled and translated more than 30 publications, mainly including The Silent Spikes, Chinese Laborers and the Construction of North American Railroads (Beijing: China Intercontinental Press,2006; with both Chinese and English versions; The Spikes No Longer Remain Silent: Chinese Laborers and the Construction of North American Railroads (Shenyang: Baishan Publishing House, 2010, Simplified Chinese Edition; Taipei: Airiti Press, 2014, Traditional Chinese Enlarged Edition); Old Topics and New Challenges: The Rise of the United States and Contemporary America (Beijing: China Legal Publishing House, 2009); Contemporary American Social Security Policies (Beijing: China Social Sciences Press, 1998); Fifty Year of Contemporary World,1945-1995 (Chengdu: Sichuan People’s Publishing House, 1997); Essays on American Social and Economic History (Taiyuan: Shanxi Education Publishing House, 1993); The Rise of the United States: The United States from 17th Century through 19th Century (Beijing: China Social Sciences Press, 1992); The United States in the 20th Century (Shijiazhuang: Hebei People’s Publishing House, 1987); From Battleground to the Field of History: Anthology Marking 90th Birthday of Deng Shusheng (Beijing: China Legal Publishing House, 2012); American Chronicles: American Life in the Eye of a Chinese Scholar (Beijing: Culture and Art Publishing House, 2005); Footsteps of the Silent Spikes (Beijing: China Railway Publishing House, 2015;coauthor with Li Ju). In addition, Professor Huang has published over 300 academic papers. He once served as Vice President of American History Research Association of China (1993-2008) and Secretary General of the Association (1990-1996), the International Contributing Editor of The Journal of American History (published in the US) (1992-2008), and Secretary General of History Research Association of Beijing. Currently, he serves as an adviser of American History Research Association of China (2008-present) and an executive council member of Chinese Association of American Studies. Since 1991, he has been to the United States for six times for academic visits or inspection, with a cumulative duration of stay of 4 years.

Table of Contents
Ⅰ.Voyage across the Pacific Ocean and the Pursuit of Golden Mountain Dreams
Ⅱ.The Vanguard in the Construction of the American Pacific Railroad
1.The Unprecedented Central Pacific Railroad
2.Chinese Laborers and the Construction of the Central Pacific Railroad
3.The Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad
4.The Hard Lives of Chinese Laborers
Ⅲ.The Vanguard in the Construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway
Ⅳ.Unselfish Contributions and Immortal Monuments
Appendix Ⅰ Sources of the Pictures
Appendix Ⅱ Selected Bibliography
Sample Pages Preview

In the middle of the nineteenth century the United States was a prosperous and vibrantly developing country. However, in the presumptuous and isolated Qing Dynasty, it was very unusual for Xu Jiyu, the distinguished scholar of enlightenment of modern China, to eulogize American spirit in his A Short History of the Maritime Routes. Most Chinese people knew very little about the United States. In 1840s Americans pushed westward very rapidly. After the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848 the United States extended its boundaries to the Pacific coast. In 1848 gold was found near Sacramento, California, and the era of Gold Rush dawned. Then the construction of the Pacific Railroad was started. Hordes of Gold seekers and laborers swarmed into California from everywhere. After the Civil War the United States had an urgent demand for cheap labor because of the rapid progress of industrialization. And after the Opium War China suffered national humiliations from Western powers and was in severe turmoil. The peasants at the bottom of society were plunged into untold sufferings, and the tales of Golden Mountain fabricated by the American merchants greatly appealed to them. Many impoverished peasants from Southern China contracted as coolies, boarded the barques, and after two or three months of voyage on the churning Pacific Ocean, with hunger, lack of water, filthy air, and diseases always threatening their lives, they finally arrived in San Francisco, California to pursue the Golden Mountain Dreams.
The historians disagree on the number of Chinese in California in 1850s and 1860s. However, they do agree that Chinese are the earliest immigrants from Asia and has a very high proportion among the population of California. Among the early Chinese immigrants, there were recruited laborers, kidnapped “pigs” (which refers to those who had been forced to sell themselves to do hard manual labor in overseas countries. They were known as “pigs” because they seemed to be pigs to be slaughtered – the compiler), merchants, partisans, servants, peasants, and fishermen, etc. Most of them were coolies from Taishan, Xinhui, Kaiping, Enping and other districts of Guangdong Province. When they set their feet on America, they originally chose to live in San Francisco and other towns in Northern California. They were pioneers of the first wave of Chinese immigration. In San Francisco and Sacramento, Chinese immigrants congregated in certain parts of the towns because of differences in language and social customs with White Americans. The earliest Chinatowns thus came into being. Chinese newcomers worked in various occupations like mining, railroad building, cigar making, shoemaking, woolen industry, garment industry, textiles, farming, land reclamation, grapes growing, fishing, street vending, and restaurants, etc., and had made great contributions to the building of American West and the newly-developed California. According to the estimation of the Secretary of Labor of California in 1866, the number of Chinese who were engaged in gardening in California had reached 30,000, which was 87.6% of all California gardeners. In Sacramento, 86% of all farm labors in the town were Chinese. Some American officials testified, “Without Chinese, the development of American West was unthinkable.” “Chinese taught Americans to plant and breed fruit trees, and to harvest crops.” “Chinese turned the wilderness into farms, and turned California into a garden and an orchard.” “Without the industry of Chinese laborers, the opening up and development of California will be delayed for scores of years.” Chinese workers had become the major work force of cigar making, woolen industry, textiles, and shoemaking in California. According to statistics, 50% of the workers in California factories were Chinese in 1872. One insightful observer commented, “Without Chinese labor, the manufactures of California can not survive for a day.” Between 1850 and 1870 half of the revenue of California was from taxations on Chinese workers. “In the mines, on the farms, and in the factories of California, it is most ideal to hire Chinese. If the more demanding White workers are employed instead of Chinese workers, the work will have to stop.” Zhang Zhidong, the Governor-General of Guangdong and Guangxi of the Qing Dynasty, said in a written statement submitted to the Qing government, “The towns of San Francisco have recruited industrious and frugal Chinese laborers to work at the mines and build the railroads. The profits that the American merchants have fleeced from Chinese workers has reached hundreds of billions.” As Liang Qichao pointed out in his Travel to the New Continent, the prosperity of California was “actually what our people have created by blood and sweats.” All these confirmed Chinese laborers significant contributions to the development of American economy.
However, the Chinese laborers in California had led a very miserable life. Even they wrung gold in abandoned mines by White Americans, they had to pay a mining tax. The miners in China Camps lived in shacks with terrible environment and sanitation. Besides mining, railroad building and farming, laundry, restaurants, barbershops, and groceries were the major means of subsistence for Chinese Americans in late nineteenth century. The work in these trades was strenuous, dull, long in work hours, and low in wages. When Chinese workers came to the Golden Mountains to pursue their dreams, the Civil War was still raging. A few Chinese who had been in the United States for a long period had fought in the Union army in the war against the Southern slavocracy to disintegrate the country.


The Chinese version of The Silent Spikes, Chinese Laborers and the Construction of North American Railroads that I compiled was published in 2006 by China Intercontinental Press, and the English version translated by Dr. Zhang Juguo was simultaneously rolled out. The completion of the construction of the transcontinental Pacific Railroad is an important milestone of modern America that is undergoing seismic changes and is a significant event in the initiation period of China-US and China-Canada economic and cultural exchanges and economic globalization of modern world. It's necessary to carry out an in-depth study of the role of Chinese railroad workers in constructing railroad in North America no matter it's out of historical or realistic considerations or out of the considerations of academic research and cultural exchanges.
My study of Chinese railroad workers in the United States began from 1979, a year in which China and the United States established official diplomatic relations. During the year, issue 6 of World History published my paper "Foreign Immigrants and the Development of the United States". In 1992, China Social Sciences Press published my book The Rise of the United States, which contains sections on the important contributions of foreign immigrants to the United States. In 1998, at an international academic conference held in Shanghai, I presented the paper entitled "The Completion of the Central Pacific Railroad and the Contribution of Chinese Railroad Workers in the United States", which was later published in full in Issue 2 of the Journal of Hebei Normal University in 1999.
The reason that I have used "the silent spikes" as the title of the book is that Chinese railroad workers in North America have paved the way and laid the foundation for the modernization of the United States, and they have played the role of the inconspicuous spikes on the railroad. Meanwhile, the Chinese railroad workers are a voiceless disadvantaged group and are China's first generation of migrant workers across the oceans. In the United States, they lead a hard life, and work in perilous environment. They suffer discrimination and various unfair treatments and have no right to discourse in the United States. Even today, they are almost passed into oblivion and have not attracted sufficient attention. The group is worthy of our attention, but as a matter of fact, the general public and the academia have not paid sufficient attention to the group.
Today, we are obligated to let the "spikes" no longer remain voiceless. In recent years, a great number of media have begun to pay attention to Chinese railroad workers in North America. What the people most concern include how these ordinary Chinese migrant workers migrated to the United States and other countries of the world in 19th century; how different American social groups viewed Chinese migrant workers in the country; how these migrant workers gradually adapted themselves to American life and work; how these obscure migrant workers from China contributed to the development of American society and how they gradually integrated themselves in American society and meanwhile managed to maintain their ethnic characteristics. The study of these issues may provide reference and inspiration for developing China-US relations and for the exchanges between the people of the two countries. The study of Chinese railroad workers in North America helps us identify an overlapped point in the development of culture and history.
Since 2012, China and the United States have respectively launched the research project of Chinese railroad workers in North America, which is led by Stanford University on US side and collaborated by Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of Guangdong Province, several universities and the hometowns of overseas Chinese on China's side. I myself am only a volunteer who has retired for many years and has been enthusiastically participating in and promoting the project. In September 2013, an international roundtable symposium was held in Taipei in order to promote coordinated research between the US and China, and in September 2014, an "International Symposium on Chinese Railroad Workers in North American and Social Development of the Hometown of Overseas Chinese from Guangdong" was held in Guangzhou.
Today, it has been a decade since the publication of The Silent Spikes. The book is sold out at both the brick-and-mortar bookstores and online bookstores, but the academic researchers and people from all walks of life still hope to buy it. In Taiwan, Hong Kong and Guangdong, many scholars ask me for this book. Therefore, no matter from the perspective of history or reality or from the perspective of academic research or cultural exchanges, it's the right time for China Intercontinental Press to revise and reprint this book.
When this book was published in 2006, due to the limitation of space, only 210 pictures were selected from more than 1,000 pictures. More than 30 pictures are added to this revised edition, including some pictures I had to give up in the first edition and some valuable pictures that I found later, in order to meet the need of the researchers and readers to the maximum extent. The newly added pictures include: the deed collected by Wuyi Overseas Chinese Museum of a Chinese worker who bought money to purchase steamer ticket to the United States in Sixth Year of Xianfeng Emperor (1856); an IOU (Rang Tie) of a Chinese worker who bought money to fund his passage to the US to pan for gold in the First Year of Tongzhi Emperor (1862); passport of the Eighth Year of Guangxu Emperor of Qing Dynasty (1882) held by a Chinese worker to the US named Huang Huarao; IOU (1898), passport (1900) and genealogy of Zhou Yunzhong who bought money to buy the steamer ticket to the US; Jiangmen municipality-level Cultural Relic Protected Unit Jinniu Mountain Overseas Chinese Burial Ground; Jiangmen Xinhui District District-level Cultural Relic Protected Unit Huang Keng Haihuai Overseas Chinese Burial Ground; and some precious photos taken by freelance photographer Li Ju along the Central Pacific Railroad built by Chinese workers.
The publication of the revised edition of The Silent Spikes will help the general public understand the exchanges between the peoples of the United States and China, and meet the need to publicize the historical contributions of Chinese railroad workers and promote the spirit of Chinese nation. As was pointed out by President Xi Jinping in September 2015, when he visited the United States, Chinese Americans have been tenaciously striving to start a career in arduous situation, and have made tremendous contribution to the prosperity of the United States, thereby wining respect from American people. One hundred and half a century ago, tens of thousands of Chinese workers traversed across the oceans, came to the United States, and participated in the construction of America's Pacific Railroad, which pave the strategic way to American west and became a monument of the spirit of struggle, enterprise and dedication of Chinese Americans.
It is worth mentioning that photographer Li Ju has inspected the route of the Central Pacific Railroad for three times, and proposed suggestions for revising the descriptions of several pictures in this book. Out of respect for Mr. Li's opinions based on field trip, I have made corresponding changes in the process of revising this book.

Huang Annian

The Silent Spikes:Chinese Laborers and the Construction of North American Railroads(Revised Edition)