by Kai Uchida
Project Website: https://web.stanford.edu/group/chineserailroad/cgi-bin/website/
Digital Materials Repository: https://exhibits.stanford.edu/crrw/browse
Organized in 2012 by Gordon H. Chang and Shelly Fisher Fishkin, The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project is a project organized by scholars at Stanford University and several other schools across the United States, Canada, and China. It is a collective effort by the Asian American Studies community to render visible the stories, histories, and working conditions of Chinese immigrant workers who are primarily responsible for the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Spanning more than 2,000 miles, the Transcontinental Railroad (constructed between 1863-1869) connected the rapidly growing American West to the rest of the developing United States and radically transformed the American industrial economy. The project is broad in scope and includes a scholarly initiative to enrich the historiography of the Chinese Railroad Worker history and Chinese-American histories. There are two prominently featured initiatives that speak to the restorative advocacy work that the project sought to do. The first is the oral history virtual exhibit, and the second is the reconstructed interactive and virtual tour of notable construction sites along the Transcontinental Railroad.
Containing recorded interviews from 32 participants who are direct descendants of Chinese laborers who worked on the railroad, the oral interview series (and the accompanying essay from historian Connie Yu) conducted by the Chinese Railroad Workers Project work functions as a work of outreach in two ways. First, it is an active initiative by Stanford University to invite scholars and independent researchers to use these materials for their own historical research and writing – particularly those residing in China and scholars in the United States working in Asian American Studies and labor history. Because very little was written about or by Chinese migrant workers on the railroad at this time outside of timesheets, disciplinary records, and labor contracts, interviews with descendants provide valuable context and testimony that would otherwise be lost to time. Second, this work of outreach also functions as a gesture from Stanford University to the Chinese-American community in California and North America to discover and share a collective sense of history and ancestry. While this can be interpreted as an ancillary and symbolic overture relative to the mission of the project to spur further research into its repositories, it is notable because Leland Stanford himself was a vocal critic of the Chinese immigrants in the United States, often making racist and disparaging remarks even as he employed them, paying them far less than his already underpaid white laborers. Stanford University would be well aware of its image as an inclusive institution of higher education and how the current views of the university do not reflect those of its founder.
Another way that this project speaks to the renewed scholarly and public interest in social and labor histories manifests in its virtual tour of notable construction sites along the Transcontinental Railroad. Written by Hilton Obenzinger and designed in conjunction with Stephanie Yu and Gabriel Wolfenstein at the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), it is the most public-facing digital exhibit produced by the Chinese Railroad Workers Project. As an exhibition geared more towards public outreach, its interactivity and visuals are immediately striking in their prominence. Featured most visibly through this online exhibit is the interactive overview map, which forges a path through California and the American West and updates in tandem with scrolling through the exhibit page, highlighting salient excavation sites key dates, and difficult construction sites in the development of the railroad that were instrumental to its creation. However, some of the HTML and CSS elements of its web design are rather sloppy and not optimized for easy visibility or navigation. Some of the text of the various photographic captions are hidden behind images, and the overview map – while able to be turned on and off — often takes up too much of the screen to be used in conjunction with the historical commentary and accompanying images. Nonetheless, it is a very impressive piece of visualization and interactive public history. The ways that it reconstructs various sites and provides juxtaposed photographs of past and present-day railroad sites does a wonderful job in illuminating not only the incredible logistics of railroad construction but also the incredibly dangerous and demanding work conditions under which these Chinese laborers operated.
Overall, this project is an extremely effective example of advocacy and outreach work by Stanford. The Chinese Railroad Workers Project of North America reaches its multiple audiences and seeks to engage them in ways that enrich Asian American history, connects with Chinese-American communities, and encourages researchers to use Stanford’s digital repositories. Its oral history exhibit is rich in testimony, and its visual reconstruction of the Transcontinental Railroad – while somewhat flawed in its execution – is an excellent companion to understanding the incredible work, exploitation, and human sacrifice that went into building this feat of infrastructural innovation. Combined with its robust lecture series and a steady stream of publications, it can be considered a successful advocacy project that lasted nearly 8 years.