Click here to buy a book:Click here to buy

The Dance and the Railroad

David Henry Hwang

THE DANCE AND THE RAILROAD tells the story of two Chinese labourers working on the Transcontinental Railroad and marks a historical episode in American history.

For several years, thousands of Chinese and Irish immigrants laboured through mountain snow and desert sand to complete the Transcontinental Railroad. The building of this huge stretch of track would span the North American continent. Congress provided for two companies to execute the job. The Union Pacific would build westwards from Omaha, Nebraska, and the Central Pacific, eastwards from Sacramento, California. The two lines would meet each other above the Great Salt Lake.

The majority of the workers on the Union Pacific were Irish, whereas most of the workers on the Central Pacific were Chinese. In the middle of the nineteenth century, economic and social conditions compelled many Chinese to emigrate, in order to earn overseas the means of supporting their family. The first wave of Chinese immigrants to America came in the 1850's, attracted by the promise of wealth in the gold mines of California.

Work began on the Central Pacific in 1863. Administering the project was Charles Crocker. His work crews were at first young Irish immigrants, but as the nature of the project became more arduous, it became difficult to find Irish immigrants, who preferred mining or farming to working on the railroad. It was this desperation over lack of manpower which drove Crocker and his construction boss J. H. Strobridge to seek to employ Chinese labour, already present in California. The Chinese proved to be an invaluable workforce. They performed every task with ease and skill and there was nothing that they would not turn their hands to. It was soon realised that to complete the railroad in the scheduled timescale, Chinese labour was essential. Thus Crocker began recruiting in China itself.

Soon ten out of twelve men working on the Central Pacific were Chinese. They worked in gangs of twelve to twenty men. Working hours were from sunrise to sunset, a day of 12 or more hours. In the beginning the Chinese were paid less than the white employees, but after strikes and negotiations they achieved the same rate. However, unlike the white employees, who were given food and housing in addition to their pay, the Chinese had to feed and house themselves. This saved the Central Pacific enough money to make the cost of hiring Chinese labour about two-thirds the price of white labour.

The task of building from the West Coast through dense canyons and planes was formidable. Handcarts, mule carts, picks, shovels and gunpowder for blasting were the tools of the trade. They chopped and shovelled their way around the face of the massive granite wall. When there was no longer any surface for them to stand on, they were swung out into empty spaces by ropes suspended from the high cliffs.

The winters were often brutal, with temperatures sometimes dropping to 50 degrees below zero. The Chinese would still carry on working using gunpowder to blast the ice. They worked in snow up to their knees, or even their waists. One historian on the Pacific railroad commented: "No white man would ever have endured the conditions that the Chinese laboured under."

On May 10 1869 at Promontory Point in Utah, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific met, as the last tie was laid to complete the first transcontinental railroad in North America. The photograph of the meeting of these two railroads is one of the most famous pictures in American history books. However, nowhere can you see a Chinese person. Yet no group of workers did more to build that railroad.

One hundred years later, in 1969, America celebrated the anniversary of the completion of the railroad. The US Secretary of Transportation, speaking for himself and the President, gave a speech in honour of the magnificent achievement. But he never once mentioned the Chinese-American workers!

More information at