by Ed Shew
Tens of thousands of men from southern China changed the course of American history with their tireless work in the California gold fields in the 1850s and their crucial contribution in the building of the first Transcontinental Railroad in the following decade. Chinese Brothers, American Sons tells the little-known story of these brave adventurers through the eyes of two brothers, Li Chang and Li Yu, who arrive in San Francisco in 1854 in search of the Gold Mountain. Their hope is to make some money to take back to China, but they also encounter violence and discrimination and, yes, American food.
This apocryphal tale celebrates and illuminates the struggles and achievements of a largely-ignored group in the rich history of the United States of America – the Cantonese men who conquered the toughest part of the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad – the tunnels through the granite of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Despite their efforts, Asian-Americans were the target of racism for a century beyond the opening of the railroad in 1869, and the poison has yet to fully disappear. The author’s own story, of trying to “fit in” to his hometown birthplace of St Louis, is one of the many rich strands to this broad narrative. But the story in the end is one of hope and triumph – the Chinese brothers are no longer invisible, they are now American sons.
“This story reminds the world of an unforgettable feat accomplished by hard-working Chinese from southern China. It makes me proud as someone who was born in China of the same Cantonese stock as the brave souls in this book. I learned so much by reading it, but it is the emotional connection which is unforgettable.” — Margaret Sun, author of Betwixt and Between