AMC’s “Hell on Wheels” Series About Transcontinental Railroad Leaves Out Chinese Immigrants

I am currently addicted to Westerns the way I was addicted to Naruto and ninjas a few years back, and that includes Western TV series of course.  The first one I started out with was the late 80’s Young Riders, and next I devoured the late 90’s Magnificent Seven. It was nice to see the progression from the 80’s western series of zero Asian American representation to the 90’s series where there was a whole episode dedicated to Chinese Americans. So when 8Asians community member nannaia told me about controversy over AMC’s new series premiering on November 6, Hell on Wheels, I was super excited to see a new Western TV show. I was also disappointed that in focusing on the mobile tent city following the construction of the transcontinental railroad, creator/producer Joe Gayton (in his words) has “excised” the Chinese from the story.

Also upsetting was his answer to the question of why the Chinese immigrants were left out. According to Lisa de Moraes’ Washington Post article,  Gayton states, “[O]ne of the things that really caught me is, just, it’s just so American, the idea of a tent city that packs up and moves, you know.” Is that why he didn’t include the Chinese Americans? I’m really trying hard not to read into this response too much, but it really felt like he just revealed that he believes the concept of “American” is not compatible with Chinese immigrants. I’m hoping that just came out all wrong, or maybe it came out more right than intended.

Well, it’s definitely hard for me, being a modern ethnic Chinese immigrant from Taiwan who grew up and was naturalized as an American, raised on steak and milk just as much as pig ears and chicken feet, to speak for the “American-ness” of Chinese immigrants from the 1800s…so I’ll just let one of them speak for themselves.

Here’s Norman Asing on May 15, 1852 (note the pre-civil-war, pre-railroad date) responding to an accusation by California Goveror John Bigler that the Chinese were not able to assimilate as Americans:

Sir: I am a Chinaman, a republican, and a lover of free institutions; am much attached to the principles of the government of the United States… The effect of your late message has been thus far to prejudice the public mind against my people, to enable those who wait the opportunity to hunt them down, and rob them of the rewards of their toil… You argue that this is a republic of a particular race — that the Constitution of the United States admits of no asylum to any other than the pale face. This proposition is false to the extreme, and you know it. The declaration of your independence, and all the acts of your government, your people, and your history are all against you.

Amen brother.

Anyways, I’m going to try to be open-minded and say, “Hey, it’s a TV series. So there are no Chinese in the pilot episode. They’ve got time.” I also feel like I’m imposing upon someone else’s TV show, crying foul over lack of Asian American representation and trying to hijack someone else’s story for my own socio-political agenda. Plus, the story is focused on the Union Pacific (east to west), not the Central Pacific (west to east), and the majority if not all of the Chinese railroad workers were of course on the Central side, coming from the west.

But I also know that the Union Pacific is headed on a crash course with the Central Pacific, with major fights and even bombings between workers on both sides to erupt, and one of the main characters of “Hell on Wheels”, Union Pacific vice president Thomas Durant (played by Colm Meaney for all you fellow Star Trek TNG fans), will make a bet of $10,000 against Central Pacific’s chief contractor that the Chinese workers couldn’t lay ten miles in a day.

So thanks to Chapter 5 of Iris Chang’s book “The Chinese in America“, here’s the series finale spoiler:

“On the day of the contest, the Central Pacific had eight Irish workers unload materials while the Chinese spiked, gauged, and bolted the track, laying it down as fast as a man could walk. They broke the Union Pacific record by completing more than ten miles of track within twelve hours and forty-five minutes.”

I’ll be watching that episode with a celebratory bucket of chicken feet.



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