MOCA Program Highlights Chinese Railroad Workers

Chinese railroad workers (Photo courtesy of MOCA via World Journal)

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad which many Chinese laborers helped build. The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) celebrates the anniversary with “MOCA Spike 150 – Running Forward With Our Stories,” a yearlong initiative that aims to mobilize more than 1,500 runners across the country for a relay run totaling exceeding 15,000 miles. Meanwhile the organization will also tell more than 150 stories of Chinese immigrants and organize about 15 special events to highlight the contribution of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. The program started on April 13 with a ceremony in New York in which more than a hundred Chinese ran seven miles along the route of the first Chinatown mini-marathon more than 40 years ago.

MOCA President Nancy Yao Maasbach crosses the finish line in Chinatown. (Photo by Chen Zhang via World Journal)

At 9 a.m., MOCA President Nancy Yao Maasbach, co-chair Jonathan Chu and more than a hundred other runners sprinted out from MOCA in Chinatown and ran along the route of the Chinatown mini-marathon, which was held in 1976 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of U.S. independence, before they looped back to the finish line at MOCA. Thus, the curtain of “MOCA Spike 150” was raised.

Maasbach said that in the mid-1800s, commercial interests prompted the U.S. to build a railroad across the country to connect the East and West coasts in order to better develop the West. The railroad was built simultaneously from the two coasts toward a central connection point. Twelve-thousand laborers from China participated in the construction amid a harsh environment, and they played a significant role in the final completion of the railroad. “These Chinese laborers were hardworking, strictly followed instructions and were paid very low wages,” Maasbach said.

Celebrating after the driving of the golden spike in Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869. (Photo by Andrew Russell)

On May 10, 1869, the two parts of the railroad met in Promontory, Utah, and a symbolic gold spike was hammered in to mark its completion. But in the iconic photo of men brandishing champagne to celebrate, no Chinese worker was allowed to be in the frame. The little-known piece of history finally emerged 150 years later. In February, a resolution was introduced in Congress that called for the issuing of a stamp to commemorate Chinese laborers’ contribution to the railroad.

Maasbach said that MOCA will call for Chinese living around the country to join the relay run which will cover more than 15,000 miles and culminate in the NYC Marathon on Nov. 3. The organizer has also started collecting some 150 stories of Chinese immigrants for the initiative. More information can be found at mocaspike150.org.

Chu was the first runner to cross the finish line on April 13. He said running is a good way to remind the younger generation of Chinese of the suffering and endurance experienced by their ancestors as they set roots in this land, and only when young people remember the history can they build a better future.

Zhongmin Deng and his wife Minzhao Gao also participated in the run. Gao said her parents were also cheap laborers when they came to the U.S. from Fuzhou, China, more than 30 years ago. She added that younger generation Chinese should take it as their responsibility to record and tell the stories of the contribution of their ancestors.

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