Chinese writers of North America railroad period

A friend of mine said of up to 50,000 Chinese railroad workers coming to North America not a single one even wrote as much as a diary or journal, even though thousands were literate.
Is this the same for those early Chinese settlers to Taiwan?

There were chinese language newspapers in northern California by the mid 1800s. See for example this website: … China_News

In Asian American Literature, Elaine Kim mentions that autobiographical and popular fiction genres were largely unknown to early 19th century Asian American immigrants:

True or not, we have only the newspapers Old Gringo mentioned and precious little else.

The thing to remember is that from the mid to late 18th century, Chinese in America generally thought of themselves as sojourners. They never planned to stay: they just wanted to make their money and get out. The discovery of gold brought the first major waves of Chinese to “Gold Mountain,” aka America, in the 1850s but they were quickly driven out of the mines (tax laws, exclusionary legislation, and the fact that Chinese laborers were routinely robbed, beaten, mutilated, and murdered – Chinatowns were set up primarily for self-protection). They ended up going into laundries (1 in 4 Chinese in America ca 1900 was in the laundry business), restaurants, fishing, and railroad construction. “Crocker’s Pets” (that’s the name people gave to the Chinese hired by Charles Crocker to work the railroad) made up the majority of railroad workers on the Central Pacific in the 1860s. Want to get an idea of how hard they worked? In April 1865, a track-laying contest was held, and the Central Pacific crew of 848 Chinese workers sets a record by laying ten miles of track in 12 hours (that’s 25,800 railroad ties, 3,520 lengths of rail, and 55,000 spikes). The work was dangerous too, especially with all that blasting: 500-1,000 Chinese died in the Sierra Nevada alone. Railroad work probably didn’t leave a whole lot of time for writing.

There was lots of writing about Chinese, though (esp. in Harte and Bierce and others deeply concerned with “the yellow peril”). It was the desire to correct stereotypes of Chinese that eventually prompted the first wave of Chinese American writing, like Lee Yan Phou’s When I Was a Boy in China (1887), Wu Tingfang’s America through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat (1914), Lin Yutang’s My Country and My People (1937), Pardee Lowe’s Father and Glorious Descendant (1943), and Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter (1945). Autobiography didn’t become the dominant form until much later. Of course all this was in English. If memory serves, Xiao-huang Yin’s Chinese American Literature Since the 1850s (2000) has a chapter on American literature in Chinese. Without question, the most well known collection is Lai, Yung, and Lim’s Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940 (1980): a collection of Chinese poetry carved into the walls of the Angel Island detention center.

BTW, here’s another interesting fact. Out of 45,000 Chinese immigrants from 1848-54, 16 were women – until 1900 the number of women in the Chinese American community never topped 7%.

Nice work on the references, smell the glove.

I guess they were just too damned busy ekeing out a living and trying to stay alive.

From the Wiki for Chinaman’s chance:

Unrelated, but I heard this phrase for the first time quite recently. For me it’s just so damned visual. Now, whenever I see an untidy gaggle of Chinese I can’t help but laugh.

Chinese fire drill:

[quote]The term is alleged to have originated in the early 1900s, during a naval incident wherein a ship manned by British officers and a Chinese crew set up a fire drill for fighting a fire in the engine room. In the event of a fire the crew was to form a bucket brigade, drawing water from the starboard side, taking it to the engine room and throwing it on the “fire.” Because water would accumulate in the engine room, another crew was to take the excess thrown water and haul it back up to the main deck, and then heave it over the port side (in order to bail it out).

When the drill was called the first moments went according to plan, but then orders became confused in translation. The crew for the bucket brigade began drawing the water from the starboard side, running over to the port side, and then throwing the water over, and so by-passing the engine room completely. Thus the expression “Chinese Fire Drill” entered our lexicon as meaning a large confused action by individuals accomplishing nothing. [/quote]


The work was dangerous too, especially with all that blasting: 500-1,000 Chinese died in the Sierra Nevada alone. Railroad work probably didn’t leave a whole lot of time for writing.


Thanks for the informative reply STG! The first part sounds like a possible reason for lack of writing. But the dangerous busy work wouldn’t explain why nothing was written once they retired. For example, P.O.W’s writing their experiences after being released…loads of such books around.
Part of it I think is they just don’t have the same curiosity of things that other cultures have which you can see in the way they travel for holidays etc…

I imagine most went back to China and left their coolie life behind them, if they could. And not many anthropologists among them I suppose.

In the Australian goldfields the Chinese rotated in and out for periods of ten years in highly efficient teams organised from southern China. A cook who also worked a market garden and made extra loot for the team by sellling the surplus and prepared meals - the first Chinese restaurants; a couple of tunnelers or miners; a laundry guy who also ran the first Chinese laundries and then a trader or traders. By contrast the European miners were usually in pairs and highly inefficient, as they’d end up handing everything over to the Chinese - laundry, food, transferring money and buying/funding equipment.

The Europeans in Australia reacted, eventually, with riots and murders. A famous incident being the battles at Lambing Flats..


Ah, HGC, the “Chinaman’s chance” - a subject near and dear to my heart. At the risk of going off topic from strictly speaking about Chinese writing in America, maybe it’s worth saying a bit more about the early Chinese “immigrants”. Here’s part of a timeline I put together some time ago on the history of Chinese in America up to around the railroad era:

Gold discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California. Lured by the promise of quick riches, Chinese arrive from the Guangzhou (Canton) area: America becomes as “Gold Mountain” in Chinese (“old gold mountain” is the present day Mandarin name for San Francisco). Trans-Pacific crossings average 62 days, and Chinese arrive on the “credit ticket” system, where transport costs are repaid out of earnings) - the ships were likened to slave vessels. Chinese miners are noted for ingenuity in constructing wing dams.

Chinese attend California Admission Day festivities and memorial services for Zachary Taylor. From Alta California: “The China Boys will yet vote at the same polls, study at the same schools, and bow as the same altar as our countrymen." Chinese come to America for economic reasons (not as immigrants) as well as to escape floods, drought, famine, and the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864, 25 million killed) in China. By 1851, there are 4,000 Chinese in California.

There are 25,000 Chinese in California. Hostility against the Chinese in California begins. California Governor John Bigler calls the Chinese a danger to the welfare of the state. Foreign Miner’s Tax Law enacted at $3/month: Chinese miners (who earned an avg. $6/month) are the target, and are all but driven out of the mines.

On the Robert Browne (headed for San Francisco from Amoy), members of the crew amuse themselves by cutting off the queues of Chinese passengers: passengers rebel, the captain and officers are killed. After fifty days, The Libertad arrives in San Francisco from Hong Kong with 100 of its 500 passengers dead. People v. Hall rules that Chinese, blacks, and Indians can’t give testimony against whites. Chinese are not allowed to join unions or own farms.

“Hundreds of Chinamen have been slaughtered in cold blood in the last five years by the desperadoes that infest our state. The murder of Chinamen was almost of daily occurrence; yet in all this time we have heard of but two or three cases where guilty parties were brought to justice” (Shasta Republican, 12/18). Towns in Agua Fria Creek give Chinese ten days to leave their towns or be subject to 39 lashes / forced removal. Former miners begin to move into different fields: primarily laundries (formerly sent to Honolulu at exorbitant cost), restaurants (ironically popular with white miners), and fishing.

Chinese are excluded from public schools in San Francisco. “Then let us keep our public schools free from the intrusion of the inferior races … let us preserve our Caucasian blood pure. We want no mongrel race of moral and mental hybrids” (San Francisco Bulletin). “The Chinese School” is created, but closes in 1870.

Chinese American population of US is 34,933 out of 31.4 million: there are 2,719 Chinese in San Francisco. Using fine mesh nets imported from China, Chinese shrimp fishermen help California to become one of the top shrimp-producing states. In 1875, an ordinance is passed specifying the size of mesh in fishing nets to prevent the importation of Chinese fishing nets. A $4/month tax is levied on Chinese fishermen in California.

“Eighty-eight Chinamen are known to have been murdered by white people, eleven of which number are known to have been murdered by collectors of Foreign-Miner’s License Tax - sworn officers of the law. But two of the murderers have been convicted and hanged” (Committee to the State Legislature). Joaquin Murieta and henchmen kill Chinese “as hunters kill a covey of quail,” tying them together by their queues and slitting their throats: the saying “a Chinaman’s chance” (no chance at all) becomes popular.

12,000 of 14,000 railroad workers are Chinese. Chinese fishermen are clubbed, robbed, branded and mutilated: “There was apparently no other motive for this atrocity than the brutal instinct of the young ruffians who perpetrated it. Such boys are constantly hanging about our wharves, eager to glut their cruelty on any Chinaman who must pass” (San Francisco Times 7/30).

The anti-Chinese movement, though, came to a head in the Workingmen’s Part of California (whose motto was “The Chinese Must Go!”) - they eventually succeeded in pressuring Washington to pass the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which was extended again in 1892, made permanent in 1904, and repealed in 1965. Images of the day speak for themselves:

Workingmen’s Party ticket and ad:

The stereotypical view of “Chinese cheap labor” (note that none of the Caucasians are working):

What happens if you let the Chinese into your home (gosh, they’re cute at first):

And a quaint depiction of a Chinatown riot (many were raided and set on fire in the late 1800s, with their occupants beaten, raped, and murdered):

It’s not quite the picture of history you get from Jackie Chan in “Shanghai Noon.” And it’s little wonder that not a lot of writing went on.

Great stuff SMG.


Here’s some more from the thinking men’s rags of the day. I’m almost sure you have them, but just in case.

Punch and in Australia the Bulletin are great for this sort of research. Both are still alive and well.


:bravo: Thanks, I hadn’t seen those! Most of the ones I have come from The Wasp. Here’s an 1876 Wasp cartoon mocking the views of Reverends Otis Gibson and August Loomis, two vocal supporters of the Chinese:

Advertisements of the day also paint an interesting picture. When Chinese cigar makers began using English brand names (Heaven forbid!) in the 1870s, incensed white cigar makers responded with labels like this one:

Here’s an ad from the Business Directory of Seattle and Vancouver, 1879:

And there are plenty of real photographs out there too. Here’s a photo of a white woman posing for a quaint photo with some of the exotic Chinese detainees in the Angel Island detention center:

And here’s one of a bunch of whites coming out to gawk at a funeral in Chinatown ca 1900.

At at least one of these “spectacles,” whites gleefully rushed in and grabbed trinkets and funerary stuff, in the process knocking the coffin over and spilling the body out into the street.

Well, maybe a reason the Chinese laborers on the railroad didn’t keep journals or diaries while building the railroads was because of the so-called Chinese fatalistic nature. Or maybe they kept journals and diaries and yet, being fatalistic, they either burned them or had them buried with them when they died. Perhaps they never paused and reflected upon what role they, or these journals, might play in world history. But I doubt if that the reason they didn’t keep journals or diaries,as STG, states, had a lot todo with being too busy eeking out a living. They probably were, by nature, just simple minded non-reflective, non intellectual laborers.not a single Jack London among them.

I imagine most went back to China and left their coolie life behind them, if they could. And not many anthropologists among them I suppose.

I wouldn’t consider keeping a simple diary or journal comparable with anthropology.
In any case it’s apparent that due to the abuse they suffored at the hands of Whitey they didn’t have much time for anything accept trying to keep alive I guess.

And so back to my other original question; without such abuse going on in other countries where they settled I’ll assume quite a bit more writing must have gone on then. Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and of course here in Taiwan where I’d expect there to be the most from that period.
Where could I pick up such books on day to day accounts of things written by Chinese in early Taiwan? I’d love to find some which have been translated into English but for some reason most of what I see was done by the Dutch, Spanish and Japanese. The book by the Scotsman, Pickering, for example was a nice little read.

It is important to not turn these discussions into “Kung Fu” t.v. show episodes. The Chinese in California were not these passive peace loving creatures set upon by the evil white people until Kwai Chang Caine wandered into town to save them. The California Chinese were equally quick to turn violent towards each other (Weaverville Chinese War of 1854 for example). And ethnic feuds among the Chinese were common.

Put simply Chinese could be and were as racist, violent and greedy as anyone else in “Old California” including the Anglos, the Mexicans, the Chileans and everyone else who ended up in California.

You mean as is portrayed in this photo (Circa 2005) of Thai railroad workers who rioted in Kaohsiung over poor living conditions very similar to those endured by Chinese who built the railroads in California?

Note the cramped living conditions in which the coolies have no fans to keep cool as their employers and government officials want to cut down on costs.This is the way life was back in “05”.

those are interesting photos back in 2005…I’m also curious, can anybody tell me who the best fiction novelists are in Taiwan… any translations into English? Also I’d like to read anything anybody here wrote here regarding the Japanese occupation or even the Nationalist occupation of Taiwan… but not a later day historical account, but rather a personal account- like Anne Frank’s… anything out there? Like Napoleon said: “History is a recording of events that never happened, written by people who were never there.” looking for first hand stuff- already read Mackay’s book- the missionary. Great accounts of the landscape ,huts, people, and roads…

I don’t know about that, if anything I’d blame the groups that contracted the workers. Remember, these were largely organised in southern China. What sort of conditions do you think prevailed among Chinese labourers in China at that time, or even until the very present?

Reminds me of the oft claimed white man forcing opium on Chinese. Yes, the English delivered loads of opium to wharehouses in Canton, but it was local dealers that got it up country and into a million hovels. It was also rapacious landlords that forced peasant farmers to turn their crops over to opium, not whitey. Opium was also freely available in the west, but nothing like the problems that later befell China occurred.

Scratch another nationailtsic lie about the whiteman in Asia I say.

Here’s a list from a frequent poster on this site:

You’d do well to get yourself a copy of John Ross’ brilliant meander through Taiwan past and present in Formosan Odyssey: Taiwan Past and Present, by John Ross. He references a considerable bevy of sources you can check out later.

A review from

And one from Brad Winterton in the Taipei Times.

Banzai you bastards! is an account of a WWII POW in Taiwan.

There’s also Formosa betrayed by an American on the 2-28 and white terror.

As for local writers in translation . . hmmm . . .


The laborers may not have had much time for writing, as Elaine Kim notes the autobiographical and popular fiction genres may have been unknown to them, they may have been fatalistic (but not so much so that they forgot to save money to take home with them), and they may not have been London or Steinbeck - the point is that there’s just no way to know. It’s entirely possible that some Chinese laborers in 1860s America did indeed write diaries or journals (there are extant letters), but in order for us to be reading them today, they would have to have been published - or at least preserved for later publication - and to our knowledge, none were. In like manner, I’ll bet there are lots of modern-day expats in Taiwan who’ve written diaries or journals, but you probably won’t find them on the shelves at Page One. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that American publishers went looking for a Chinese or two who spoke English – and then it was to write something in English about their fantastic, heretofore unimaginable home in the exotic Far East. There is a subgenre of American literature devoted to writings in other languages (whose scholars are not often scholars of English): Spanish is far and away the most common language.

[quote=“Old Gringo”]It is important to not turn these discussions into “Kung Fu” t.v. show episodes. The Chinese in California were not these passive peace loving creatures set upon by the evil white people until Kwai Chang Caine wandered into town to save them. The California Chinese were equally quick to turn violent towards each other (Weaverville Chinese War of 1854 for example). And ethnic feuds among the Chinese were common.

Put simply Chinese could be and were as racist, violent and greedy as anyone else in “Old California” including the Anglos, the Mexicans, the Chileans and everyone else who ended up in California.[/quote]
Of course there were real tongs and highbinders and a degree of intra and interethnic conflict, but does that somehow justify the horrendous treatment of Chinese laborers in nineteenth century California? In like manner, would you say that slave uprisings justified the treatment of slaves, you know, since slaves could also be violent? I might add that Dennis Kearney was Irish – the attitudes of the Workingman’s Party in many ways paralleled nativist sentiment targeting the Irish in America just a few decades earlier; the actions of the anti-Chinese movement, however, were infinitely more brutal. Here are a few good references that cover the subject in far more detail:

Sandmeyer, Elmer Clarence. The Anti-Chinese Movement in California. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1939.
Tong, Benson. The Chinese Americans. Westport: Greenwood P, 2000.
Chen, Jack. The Chinese of America. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980.
Kung, S.W. Chinese in American Life. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1962.
Tsai, Shih-Shan Henry. The Chinese Experience in America. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986.
Mark, Diane Mei Lin and Ginger Chih. A Place Called Chinese America. San Francisco: The Organization of Chinese Americans, 1982.
Dobie, Charles Caldwell. San Francisco’s Chinatown. New York: D. Appleton, 1936.
Lee, Rose Hum. The Chinese in the United States of America. Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP, 1960.
Dicker, Laverne Mau. The Chinese in San Francisco: A Pictorial History. New York: Dover Publications, 1979.
Peffer, George Anthony. If They Don’t Bring Their Women Here. Urbana: U of Chicago P, 1999.
Sung, Betty Lee. Mountain of Gold: The Story of the Chinese in America. New York: Macmillan, 1967.

thanks for the list of books on Taiwan. Another book, published last year, which received a favorable review by B. Winterton, in the Times, was titled “The Trumpeter of Bull Mountain.” Hard to find copies though…but a good read… half of it taking place in Taiwan during the 1990’s…written by an American, W.M Mcclave… it would interesting to uncover an old journal… of a chinese laborer in America. i would think there is at least one diary or journal that has not been discovered… just yet…

I have read that Formosan Odyssey.Also another recent one titled something like Chasing the War God by steven Crook. Both a fun read as well as the Bull Mountain one which I managed to get. An older one written by an American G.I. stationed here–Poo Poo Make Prant Glow is also good. Pioneering Formosa by Pickering and much older is my all time favorite.
Would be nice to see anything like these written by Chinese past or present.

does anybody think, or guess, that Chinese, or Taiwan publishers will ever go out looking for Chinese writers who have something to say about Taiwan, or any place else, or do you think it is only western publishers who go out looking for Chinese writers who have something to say about China… or any place else. There are plenty of books on the market in the USA written by Chinese/ Americans about their life experiences as ethnic minorities in America, and these books are written for a predominately white audience. But not many books, so it seems, written by ethnic minorities about their experiences in Taiwan, are published in Taiwan for the predominately Chinese audience. So does anybody think that Taiwan publishers go out looking for local foreign writers? Are they ever going to go out looking for them, or are they just going to avoid them?

there is the fictionalized diary :"The Journal of Wong Ming Chung: a Chinese miner, California, 1852. written by Larry Yep… not in stock on amazon though- can’t find anything real yet…