Ging Cui, Wong Fook, and Lee Shao, three of the eight Chinese workers who put the last rail in place, on a float at 50th Anniversary celebration in 1919. Photograph courtesy Amon Carter Museum of American Art Archives, Fort Worth, Texas.

SF Public Library Exhibit Honors Chinese Rail Workers

On view January 19 through May 22, 2022, Silent Spikes: Following in the Footprints of Chinese Railroad Workers, a new, detailed exhibit at the San Francisco Main Library, honors Chinese railroad workers who helped build the Central Pacific western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Their story is told through historical images and contemporary photos from a variety of sources. Chief among them are those by Beijing-based freelance photographer Li Ju that chronicle the route from Sacramento to Promontory Summit, Utah. The images underscore the tremendous achievement of the largely anonymous 12,000-20,000 Chinese construction workers who connected the United States from west to east.

A retired engineer, Li Ju was inspired by two photographers of the Old West, Alfred Hart and Andrew Russell, to trace its exact route, recreating each of their historic photos from the same precise location and angle.

Since 2012, he has crossed the Pacific Ocean nine times to reclaim the images first captured in the 1860s by Hart and Russell. This exhibit not only includes the original 1860s photos of Russell and Hart and Mr. Li’s modern pictures of the route, but it also includes photos documenting the efforts of Chinese Americans today who are successfully restoring the central role of Chinese immigrants in the building of America.

It was compiled by the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association (CRWDA) and supported here in San Francisco, by the Chinatown Historical and Cultural Association. An original Chinese translation was prepared especially for San Francisco Public Library’s exhibit by the CRWDA and the Chinatown History and Culture Association (CHCA).