The official photograph of the “Golden Spike” ceremony taken at Promontory Point celebrating the completion of the transcontinental railroad is perhaps best known today for its failure to depict the Chinese workers who built it. In Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad, Manu Karuka demonstrates how the photograph marks as well the conspicuous absence of the Indigenous peoples whose land was expropriated for the project of westward expansion. Their erasure from the historical record was no accident. In many cases, their lives were brutally lost for the sake of this imperial project. Empire’s Tracks brilliantly traces the imperial origins of US nation-building, making the case that the US has always been more of an empire than a nation. The American revolutionary project was a settler colonial project predicated on American continental imperialism, one that extends to the globe today and threatens to transform the “entire world into Indian country.”1
Empire’s Tracks emphasizes the ways in which imperialism was necessary for capitalist development. Here, infrastructure played a key role in administering control, the circulation of capital, and the rise of corporate finance, which would continue to feed the imperial war machine. What Karuka calls the “war-finance nexus,” the basis of ongoing US imperialism, emerged in the form of the railroad. Railroad colonialism forged the linkages between the military functions of the state and finance capitalism, enabling territorial expansion through corporate financing, infrastructural logistics, unfree labor, and state violence. As a war economy, the US continues to rely on militarization to monopolize and secure land and infrastructure around the world. By exploiting racial, religious, and tribal differences, the US war economy extracts value everywhere it goes like blood-sucking parasites.
In Empire’s Tracks, Karuka situates the completion of the transcontinental railroad within the larger global context of railroad colonialism. I also find an interesting convergence between the war-finance nexus Karuka describes and the opium trade and wars that were taking place on the other side of the Pacific. Railroad colonialism and the global drug economy may appear to be antitheses in American history: where one represents the beacon of modernization that united the nation, the other represents a vice economy lying in the shadows of legitimate capital. Yet both economies depended on military force for legitimacy and accumulated capital through speculation and financialization. Both bled into the networks and advanced the progress of the other. The railroad would provide the means for westward mobility and a more efficient way of entering the China trade. Famine and political unrest followed in the aftermath of the Opium Wars, compelling Chinese workers to migrate to America where they would supply the cheap labor needed to complete the railroad. Opium traders ended up transporting these coolies.2 Howqua, one of the leading hong merchants in Canton who made part of his fortune through the opium trade, invested in the railroads and other settler colonial enterprises through his mentee John Murray Forbes. If “capitalism . . . began in an imperial mode”3 in the US through the formation of cartels “that suppl[y] a framework for coordination among major monopolist trusts”4 and partitioned the world in the process, many of these cartels were financed initially through the shadow economy of the opium trade. Understood in this sense, might we understand railroad colonialism as the business of money laundering? In lieu of competition, monopoly capitalism leads “to the socialization of production.”5 As such, there is no outside to capital; cartels incorporate the larger economy in a parasitic manner. The cartels perform a legitimizing function for criminal acts. An anticolonial politics would delegitimize and criminalize the claims of the state and corporation, perhaps organized against money laundering defined in the broadest sense.
As devastating as American imperialism is to the Global South and to racialized and Indigenous communities in the US, one hopeful takeaway from Empire’s Tracks is how American imperialism appears to sow the seeds of its own destruction. Empire’s Tracks foregrounds the ways in which the US governs through “modes of reactive anxiety”6 revealing American anxieties about its own legitimacy. US empire is wholly unsustainable if its entire foundation is based on the increasingly speculative and parasitic nature of global capitalism and the specious promise of ever-expanding growth and consumption, a way of life it maintains through war. Left unobstructed, American imperialism will kill us all. From this narrative of railroad colonialism, the reader foresees only one possible outcome: “Decolonization, or mass extinction.”7 Karuka calls upon us to focus “less on modes of production than on modes of relationship.”8 Recentering and re-forming social relations fragmented or obliterated by capital has never been so urgent.
While thousands of miles of railroad tracks sutured the Eastern and Western US, they disrupted existing modes of relationships, trade networks, and the migratory patterns of wildlife. On a global scale, railroads “constricted people and goods within a special imperial network, producing economies of isolation.”9 Modes of relationships that facilitated the growth and movement of capital—that is, relationships that divided people of color—were the modi operandi. Empire’s Tracks elucidates how the end of slavery coincided with and indeed propelled territorial expansion: “The dissolution of the slave property claim . . . would pair with the expansion of real estate claims that originate in theft, occupation, and genocide.”10 Where Indigenous peoples lost their lands and lives, cheap Chinese labor built the infrastructure necessary for industrial capitalism, and a system of slave owner credit and Black indebtedness financed it. White supremacy, or what Karuka describes as shareholder whiteness, “a form of property” that was “progressively abstracted from the possibility of owning slaves, to a more generalized share in the dividends arising from Black suffering,”11 enriched whites by cannibalizing on both the oppression and the segregation of racialized and Indigenous communities. As such, little could be found about Indigenous interactions with Chinese workers from the historical archives except through scattered records of rumor.
Empire’s Tracks turns historiography as an imperial mode of knowledge production on its head by giving the lie to an empiricism that is in fact “grounded in rumors masquerading as facts.”12 Countersovereignty, the manner in which white settlers recognized and reacted to “Indigenous collective life”13 to make room for the claims of the “settler sovereign,”14 was itself based on rumors (of, for instance, Indigenous culture). Colonialism stands on shaky grounds. Though an “anticolonial approach to U.S. history calls for rumor control,”15 as Karuka contends, “speculation as a method” also helps the historian “map a field of possible interactions between Chinese migrants and Paiutes.”16 Empire’s Tracks attempts not only to outline the historiography of railroad colonialism—and the grounds on which this historiography could be written—but also to excavate the social relations that were damaged, rearranged, newly conceived, and foreclosed in the wake of continental expansion. Other than the rumor shared by Charles Crocker that the Chinese were spreading about Native cannibalism of Chinese workers, we get little sense of the Indigenous interactions with the Chinese, speculative or otherwise. Arriving at a structural account of racial triangulation or the structural apparatuses of isolating and dividing communities is a good place to start.
Taking Karuka’s idea of speculation as a method seriously, I want to use the rest of this review to ask what the politics and practices of interrelation between Chinese and Indigenous communities might look like. Insofar as railroad colonialism is built on fictitious claims—of countersovereignty, finance capital, and whiteness—I turn to the resources of fiction to speculate on what might have been. In Sammo Hung’s Once upon a Time in China and America, the sixth part of a film series featuring the legendary folk hero Wong Fei Hong, Wong travels to the American frontier to visit a branch of the Po Chi Lam clinic but loses his memory after an injury resulting from an attack by hostile Indians.17 A friendly Indigenous tribe saves him; when he wakes up, he finds himself dressed in stereotypical Native garb and is given the name “Yellow.” After defending his rescuers against an enemy group, he earns their respect. In the end, when Wong and his compatriots are in trouble, his new friends come to his rescue again. To be sure, the film does traffic in problematic racial essentialisms. It is also a highly speculative account of a Chinese-Indigenous encounter. The film draws an analogy between Chinese and Indigenous experiences of displacement, which may be discomforting given the incommensurability of those experiences. Wong is a visitor in a new land and knows only a few English phrases—“who, what, where, when.” This establishes how confounded he is with questions of identity, place, and history, a situation that is compounded by his amnesia. He says to one of his Native friends, “At least you know this is your home.” His friend responds, “We were forced from our land.” Wong’s sense of displacement does not stem only from amnesia and travel but also from the experience of being swindled by white settlers, harkening back to the unequal treaties China signed with the West.18 It is this shared sense of injustice and the need to defend their land that forms the bonds of their friendship and alliance. Early in the film, Wong saves a young white American and says to his companion, “What is better than saving another person?” to which she responds, “Saving yourself?” Her response to Wong’s naiveté alludes to the ongoing genocide of Indigenous people and forewarns of the impending massacre of the Chinese. Their aid may very well be repaid by murder.
While representations of Indigenous-Chinese encounters are few, another film that may shed light on these relationships is The Battle of Ono, a collaborative effort between Taiwanese director King Hu and Asian American playwright David Henry Hwang.19 Hwang deploys a common trope found in martial arts films where the martial artist, and in this case Taiping revolutionary, leaves the world of jianghu20 and enters the world of alienated labor to become a coolie. Like many Chinese migrants and Indigenous peoples, the martial artist’s imbrication in alienated labor stems from displacement. In America, the coolies endure wage theft and decide to try their hand at gold mining but are ultimately cheated out of their gold claims and driven out of town (Igo). They set up shop in a new town, Ono, and are made aware of an impending massacre that settlers have planned against the Chinese. They defend their town by setting up an elaborate booby trap for the white settlers, staged as an intricate battle scene in the last third of the screenplay. To be successful, the coolies had to reactivate the relations of the martial world. I read this battle as both a labor struggle (an insistence on the right to define work) and a fight against displacement. The defense of Igo Ono promises freedom from exploited labor. The names of the two towns, Igo and Ono, are attributed to expressions made by the Chinese in response to the forces of displacement (“I go” and “Oh no”).21 Other sources claim these may have been Native American names.22 If an anticolonial politics call for us to reactivate Indigenous interrelations, then perhaps reactivating the relations of jianghu would present one way toward liberation. But more significantly, the screenplay invites us to ponder the genealogies of displacement that took place at Igo Ono. “Struggles for self-determination,” Karuka reminds us, “revolve around land relations.”23 But what is our relationship to the land? How serious are we about abolishing the property relation and real estate claims? Chinatown sits on approximately 492 acres of Indigenous land in Manhattan and has been fighting against gentrification for decades. Now as then, working-class tenants want some guarantee against displacement and exploitation. What Empire’s Tracks demonstrates so well is how necessary it is to rethink our contemporary claims to land and how those claims define our relations to labor as well.
I wish to end by recalling a trip I took last year as part of a tour to visit the “iconic sites of Chinese railroad workers.”24 On Donner Summit, we marveled at the China Wall, a ravine that is painstakingly hand filled by rocks. Right next to it is a gorgeous field of Native American petroglyphs. None of the people who built these monuments are alive today to tell us their stories, but their copresence urges us to ask questions about genealogies of place and social relations. We may never recover these histories, but they may help us think about our possible futures together. As we returned to the Bay Area, Paradise caught on fire and choked us in smoke. Now as I’m sitting here writing this review during Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E)’s capital strike,25 I take the warning “Decolonization, or mass extinction” to heart. Now would be a good time to initiate new relations between immigrant and Indigenous communities where none may have existed before.
Amy Lee is a PhD candidate in the English department at UC Berkeley. Her dissertation looks at how contemporary anglophone writers have repurposed nineteenth-century figures such as the coolie and opium, which emblematized China’s emergence on the world stage, to understand racial capitalism and uneven development today. She has published articles on Hong Kong television, diasporic media geographies and global Chinatown, and the work of Hong Kong filmmaker Evans Chan.
1. Manu Karuka, Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019), 195.
2. Karuka, 93.
3. Karuka, 176.
4. Karuka, 177.
5. Karuka, 179.
6. Karuka, 12.
7. Karuka, 200.
8. Karuka, 184.
9. Karuka, 41.
10. Karuka, 69.
11. Karuka, 159.
12. Karuka, 7.
13. Karuka, xii.
14. Karuka, 2.
15. Karuka, 6.
16. Karuka, 3.
17. Sammo Hung, dir., Once upon a Time in China and America (1997; Hong Kong: China Star Entertainment Group, 2001), DVD.
18. The film can also be read as a commentary on the uncertain status of Hong Kong, which was ceded to the British in the Treaty of Nanking of 1842 and was on the verge of being returned to China in 1997.
19. The film was never produced, but several drafts of the screenplay still exist. I will be referring to “Draft of screenplay Igo and Ono by David Henry Hwang,” 1982, M0636, Box 10, Folder 10, David Henry Hwang papers, Stanford University Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford, CA.
20. Literally, the world of “rivers and lakes.” It is the world of the martial arts community and in many cases outlaw societies.
21. George Wang, “King Hu in Hollywood: Making the Battle of Ono,” Asian Cinema 29, no. 1 (2018), 37–61.
22. Frank K. Gallant, A Place Called Peculiar: Stories about Unusual American Place-Names (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2012), 26.
23. Karuka, Empire’s Tracks, 196.
24. This was a tour organized by the US-China Railroad Friendship Association. The tour was called “Return to Gold Mountain.” For more information, please see https://www.uschinarfa.org/?page_id=1224.
25. Kevin A. Young, Tarun Banerjee, and Michael Schwartz, “Capital Strikes as a Corporate Political Strategy: The Structural Power of Business in the Obama Era,” Politics & Society 46, no. 1 (2018), 3–28.