Friday, May 25, 2012

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
Leadership, Diversity, Harmony - Gateway to Success

The Dr. Fox statue of a Chinese worker sits outside the Auburn, California, Chamber of Commerce building as storm clouds and rain create a rainbow in the background.
Fox created the statue, according to the plaque, as "a tribute to the historical significance of the Chinese worker in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad through the Sierra Mountains of California."

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (
APAHM) is celebrated in May to commemorate the contributions of people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent in the United States. Congress passed a joint Congressional Resolution in 1978 to commemorate Asian American Heritage Week during the first week of May. This date was chosen because two important anniversaries occurred during this time: the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants in America on May 7, 1843 and the completion of the transcontinental railroad (by many Chinese laborers) on May 10, 1869. In 1990 Congress voted to expand it from a week to a month long celebration and in May 1992, the month of May was permanently designated as “Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

Who are the Americans of Asian or Pacific Islander descent? (APA's) There are 28 Asian and 19 Pacific Islander subgroups and they make up a population of almost 15 million residents.There are a total of 2.7 million Chinese , making Chinese the leading Asian group

There are so many people and courageous deeds that I could write about to honor this topic but my mind continues to dwell on the Chinese contribution in the 1800’s as the railroad tracks were laid, one by one, by thousands of workers and eventually completed. The United States was changed forever

Recently the Colfax Area Historical Society placed a monument along Highway 174 at Cape Horn, near Colfax, California to recognize the efforts of the Chinese in laying the tracks that linked the east and west coasts for the first time. With the California Gold Rush and the opening of the West came an increased interest in building a transcontinental railroad. To this end, the Central Pacific Railroad Company was established, and construction of the route East from Sacramento began in 1863. Labor and financial problems were persistent, resulting in only 50 miles of track being laid in the first two years. Although the company needed over 5,000 workers, it only had 600 on the payroll by 1864.

Chinese labor was suggested, as they had already helped build the California Central Railroad, and the San Jose Railway. The first Chinese were hired in 1865 at approximately $28 per month to do the very dangerous work of blasting and laying ties over the treacherous terrain of the high Sierras. They lived in simple housing and cooked their own meals, often consisting of fish, dried oysters and fruit, mushrooms and seaweed.

To conquer the many sheer embankments, the Chinese workers used techniques they had learned in China. Ropes from the top of cliffs in baskets lowered them down and while suspended, they chipped away at the granite and planted explosives that were used to blast tunnels. Many workers risked their lives and unknown numbers perished in the harsh winters and dangerous conditions.

By the summer of 1868, 4,000 workers, two thirds of which were Chinese, had built the transcontinental railroad over the Sierras and into the interior plains. The project was completed on May 10, 1869.

Without the efforts of the Chinese workers in the building of America's railroads, the development and progress as a nation would have been delayed by years. Their toil in severe weather, cruel working conditions and for meager wages cannot be under appreciated. Our sentiments and thanks go out to the entire Chinese-American community for its ancestors' contribution to the building of this country, the United States of America.

Once the railroad was completed Chinese immigrants found work in a variety of industries, from making shoes and sewing clothes to rolling cigars. Since language barriers and racial discrimination barred them from many established trades, however, they often created opportunities for themselves and launched new businesses. Many of the shops, restaurants, and laundries in the growing mining towns of California were operated by Chinese immigrants.

I have travelled by train, from west to east, across the United States on several occasions and I have always appreciated their existence. When one learns about the blood, sweat and tears that went into the construction I have an even greater appreciation for those who pioneered in those early days.

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month – I challenge you to turn to your history books and learn more about, and give honor to, this wonderful culture.

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