Manu Karuka begins Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad with a familiar scene in the history of the transcontinental railroad: the ceremonial joining of the two rail lines on the tenth day of May 1869. “Americans had assembled at a place they recently christened ‘Promontory Point,’” he writes, “in a territory they claimed to control under the name of Utah” (xi).1 Here Karuka unravels the time and place of the nation’s becoming. In the wake of the Civil War, the completion of the transcontinental railroad was celebrated as the symbolic unification of the country, a moment in which the nation—at long last—was made whole. Against the prevailing narrative of the transcontinental railroad’s completion, Karuka unsutures the ties that bind the United States. Empire’s Tracks exposes these historical truths by centering analyses of continental imperialism and racial capitalism. These processes proceed by what Karuka calls countersovereignty, a mode of colonial authority reactive and responsive to the persistence of Indigenous lifeworlds.
Drawing on Indigenous feminist epistemologies, historical materialism, and ecocriticism, Karuka’s timely work also builds upon and develops a growing body of scholarship in Asian Pacific American Studies. In reorienting the history of the transcontinental railroad, Empire’s Tracks expands the field’s study of imperialism in the “age of empires” and the US colonial territories of Hawai’i, Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico.2 In centering capitalism and settler colonialism, the book also joins burgeoning scholarship such as Iyko Day’s Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism (2016). Moving from colonial outpost, Empire’s Tracks resituates the colonial project in the heart of the continental United States and at a pivotal moment of the nation’s imagined community. From this vantage point, the historiography of nineteenth-century US immigration history unfolds against the confluence of continental imperialism and what Karuka calls the war finance nexus.
In building the transcontinental railroad, Karuka suggests that the Chinese immigrant worker was reified as an instrument of continental imperialism. His personhood was reduced to a fungible tool of capital, paving the way for Western expansion and the dispossession of Indigenous lands and ecologies (82). In my own research, these racial logics of capital were palpable in the photographic archive. I collected many of these images as the former research director of Stanford University’s Chinese Railroad Workers (CRW) in North America Project, a collaborative research initiative led by Stanford professors Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin.
Over seven years, Stanford’s CRW project developed into an international research collaboration, bringing together scholars across North America and Asia to conduct research and produce scholarship on the history of the Chinese railroad workers. A collection of the project’s participants’ research was published in The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad (2019).
My essay in The Chinese and the Iron Road looks at the photographers who were among the corps of explorers sent by the federal government to survey the land as speculators prospected the futures of colonialism. Eager to placate government investors and the public, the Central Pacific Railroad hired a photographer, Alfred A. Hart, to follow the construction routes and capture the building of rails. His images, over four hundred negatives taken over the five years of the railroad’s construction, form a significant portion of the transcontinental railroad archive. Most of Hart’s photographs captured Chinese workers scaled alongside tools and machines to demonstrate their productivity. Snow Plow, at Cisco, for instance, placed the Chinese laborer against the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains and a snowplow, illustrating the size of the machine and the scale of the building effort. Two workers are depicted in the photograph, yet it is captioned Snow Plow, with no reference to the workers.3
In moving along the routes of the transcontinental railroad’s construction, Hart also produced several photographs capturing Paiute and Shoshone. Hart took the photographs as the construction effort moved through Truckee into the deserts near Reno. Other images were produced closer to Promontory, Utah, as the workers veered up to Ten Mile Canyon. Hart never kept a work log, so the specific context of the images remains unclear. Scene at Depot portrays the Indigenous presence at a train station, yet not much can be gleaned from the frame. Other images such as Piute Indians, at Reno and Piute Squaws and Children, at Reno show the Paiute posed in photographic portraits, suggesting Hart’s orchestration of a colonialist gaze.4
The intertwined trajectories of Indigenous and Asian American histories are significant developments in Empire’s Tracks. Less concerned about encounters between Chinese and Indigenous people, Karuka instead reveals the intertwined processes of continental imperialism and the United States’ early efforts to restrict racialized immigration. Before the construction of the transcontinental railroad even began, state legislatures were debating the question of Chinese labor. In 1862, as is widely known, California levied monthly taxes on Chinese mining for gold. Congress had also passed early restrictions on the mobility of “coolies” before the Burlingame Treaty bestowed “most favored nation” status on China, thereby opening labor pathways for the railroad companies. Undergirded not only by the emerging anti-Chinese movement, these laws that historians often cite as precursors to the 1882 federal exclusion law were also animated by the racial logics regulating the mobility and commerce of Indigenous people. California’s law to procure tax revenue from Chinese miners, as Karuka notes, echoed earlier laws such as the 1847 law requiring Indigenous people’s employers to secure certificates for those who wished to trade in California’s towns (83). Indeed, the passage of laws against Indigenous modes of relationship were some of the first laws passed in the era of the California gold rush (84).
Insightfully, Karuka reveals how countersovereignty shaped the very debates over the status of Chinese workers. The construction of the transcontinental railroad developed through webs of interdependence as railroad officials relied on the transnational network of Chinese labor brokers and merchants who procured their laborers and supplied the provisions along the construction route. Because railroad officials regarded Chinese as interchangeable and indistinguishable, they also depended on Chinese foremen to organize the work crews and distribute wages. The anonymity of workers meant that railroad officials had no idea who organized the 1867 labor strike. Their efforts to maintain work levels over a brutal winter season in the Sierra Nevada, as another example, were hampered by the departure of Chinese workers during Lunar New Year, forcing the Central Pacific to accommodate and adapt to its workers’ lifeworlds (87–90).
Consequently, the interdependence of railroad officials also reinforced the exceptional status of Chinese merchants. As Karuka argues, Chinese merchants coproduced labor control and the infrastructure of continental imperialism. In breaking the strike of 1867, it was the Chinese merchants who withheld provisions, threatening to starve the workers in their isolated camps along the Sierra Nevada (94). These outsized power dynamics between laborers and merchants would ultimately become codified in the 1882 law exempting merchants from exclusion.
Chin Gee Hee (also called Chen Yixi) both exemplified and complicated this role of the Chinese merchant. Historian Beth Lew-Williams writes about her relationship with the transcontinental railroad in The Chinese and the Iron Road.5 The details of Chin Gee Hee’s life are instructive here, as he was both laborer and merchant. He worked as an unskilled railroad laborer, miner, logger, launderer, cook, and domestic before establishing a viable business as a labor contractor and merchant for the railroad companies. It was in his role as a domestic for white Christian families that he acquired the language skills to broker the contacts with officials in the railroad and coal-mining companies. Moving laborers across the border after 1882, Chin was a smuggler, defying exclusion while profiting at minimal risk to himself. At the same time, he served as informal representative and advocate while in Seattle, bailing workers out of jail when they were arrested and lodging protests against mistreatment on their behalf.
In the years following the transcontinental railroad’s completion, Chinese workers were driven out by vigilante white settlers. Chased, burned, and lynched, the Chinese were confronted by what Karuka describes as a compulsory colonial violence that renewed the occupation of Indigenous lands. Chin Gee Hee, of course, was not spared. Chin’s efforts to ameliorate anti-Chinese leaders failed when white mobs raided his boardinghouse during Washington State’s 1885–86 purges, resulting in his pregnant wife’s assault and the death of their unborn child. Yet by staying behind while others fled, Chin renewed his efforts to be a future settler.
Finally, the story of Chin Gee Hee remarkably concludes with his ascendance as a railroad capitalist. Having forged ties with railroads across North America, Chin ultimately returned to Taishan to finance and build a rail line. As Lew-Williams chronicles, Chin raised funds from overseas Chinese to subsidize a Chinese-built railroad in a period when China’s rail lines were largely controlled by foreign investors. Confronting China’s “railroad colonialism,” Chin sought a place for Xinning Railroad under the banner of Chinese nationalism and modernity.
These are some of the edges beyond Empire’s Tracks. Nevertheless, Karuka’s work is critically important in resituating the history of the transcontinental railroad and the Chinese workers who built it. Neither national nor even transnational, this history is a colonial one.
Denise Khor is an assistant professor in American studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her research focuses on film and media history, early cinema, nontheatrical exhibition, photography and visual culture, and Asian American and critical ethnic studies. She is completing her first book, Transpacific Convergences: Race, Migration and Japanese American Film Culture before World War II (under contract with University of North Carolina Press).
1. Manu Karuka, Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019). Page references are given in parentheses in the text.
2. A partial list of this work includes Paul A Kramer, Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, & the Philippines (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Keith Camacho and Setshu Shigematsu, eds., Militarized Currents: Toward a Decolonized Future in Asia and the Pacific (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010); Rick Baldoz, The Third Asiatic Invasion: Empire and Migration in Filipino America, 1898–1946 (New York: New York University Press, 2011); Adria L. Imada, Aloha America: Hula Circuits through the U.S. Empire (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012); JoAnna Poblete, Islanders in the Empire: Filipino and Puerto Rican Laborers in Hawaii (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2014); Victor Román Mendoza, Metroimperial Intimacies Fantasy, Racial-Sexual Governance, and the Philippines in U.S. Imperialism, 1899–1913 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015); Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez, Securing Paradise Tourism and Militarism in Hawai’i and the Philippines (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013). For work on Asian settler colonialism, see Candace Fujikane and Jonathan Y. Okamura, Asian Settler Colonialism: From Local Governance to the Habits of Everyday Life in Hawaii (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008); Dean Itsuji Saranillio, Unsustainable Empire: Alternative Histories of Hawai’i Statehood (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018).
3. Denise Khor, “Railroad Frames: Landscapes and the Chinese Railroad Worker in Photography, 1865–1869,” in The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad, ed. Gordon Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019), 194–217.
5. Beth Lew-Williams, “The Remarkable Life of a Sometime Railroad Worker: Chin Gee Hee, 1844–1929,” in The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad, ed. Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019), 329–45.