Chinese Railroad Workers History Center opens in SF Chinatown to recognize stories of laborers

BySuzanne Phan KGO logo
Thursday, May 11, 2023
Chinese Railroad Workers History Center opens in SF Chinatown
As part of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, a new museum dedicated to Chinese railroad workers in SF's Chinatown just opened.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- During the 1860s, thousands of Chinese laborers helped connect parts of the U.S. through the transcontinental railroad -- many of them were never formally recognized for that tremendous achievement.

Wednesday, as part of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, a brand new museum dedicated to Chinese railroad workers in San Francisco's Chinatown just opened.

It's a monumental day for the Chinese community. The Chinese Railroad Workers History Center on Kearny Street in SF is now open.

"The center's purpose is not to forget the Chinese railroad workers contribution to this country," said Florence Fang, Founder of the Chinese Railroad Workers History Center. "The center's goal is to give a voice to the voiceless."

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"Their contributions cannot be overstated and yet their contributions have been largely overlooked throughout American history," said Jim Wunderman, the event emcee and Bay Area Council President. "This museum is a really important step toward rectifying that through exhibits, artifacts and replicas of the trains."

The opening of the new museum and community center coincides with an important day: the 154th anniversary of the Golden Spike -- the completion of the first transcontinental railroad.

"The anniversary of the Golden Spike brings together all the different cultures from the east and the west. It's not just there in the U.S.. It's also the east and the west with China and here in the United States as well," said Benjamin Yee, Planning Commissioner for City of Fremont.

Yee is the great-grandson of a railroad worker.

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"My great-grandfather lived to be 114. So he was alive long enough for me to hear his stories," Yee said.

"These workers faced immense challenges and incredible levels of discrimination. They received 30 to 50 percent lower wages than white workers for the same job," said Wunderman. "They were given the most difficult and dangerous work including tunneling and the ease of explosives."

Connie Young Yu's great-grandfather also helped build the railroad when he arrived in 1866.

"My great grandfather, I-Wong Sang, was one of the Chinese railroad workers that helped build the Central Pacific. He came to San Francisco, worked on the railroad, risking life and limb," said Yu.

Yu explained how difficult life was for Chinese workers.

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"The Chinese workers were never honored. They were never allowed to be citizens of the United States. They were excluded," said Yu. "They were denied rights of citizenship. It took years of struggle. The Chinese Exclusion Act lasted for 61 years. It was not repealed until 1943."

Many say the story of the Chinese railroad worker needs to be recognized and remembered.

"This history was obliterated. It has taken decades to bring this history back together, that Chinese were part of building America."

Yu applauds the new historical center in Chinatown.

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"It's tremendous that the monument and museum is here on Kearny Street," said Yu. "This is where the Chinese first came. Where they got their foothold in America. Chinese workers came before California was a state."

For many, this new Chinese Railroad Workers History Center represents resiliency. And, they say it bridges the past to the future.

"Especially in this moment where many of us are challenged with Asian hate, we need to be able to stand together and say in solidarity and say we are not the foreigner, not the perpetual foreigner, not the model minority. That we are American history," said Lily Mei, Mayor of the City Fremont.

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