A headshot of Julia Lee against a background of foliage

By Lilibeth Garcia

The most famous photograph to come out of 19th-century America is commonly known as the “Champagne Photo.” In the shot, dozens of railroad workers are gathered at a site where two trains meet, and in the center, mounted atop the cowcatchers, two engineers hold out bottles of champagne in celebration of a remarkable feat: the completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad.

But there’s something missing in the iconic image. Although most of the laborers who built the railroad were Chinese, the photograph features not a single Chinese person. The celebratory event – held in Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869 – drew a crowd of over 1,000 people, including Chinese railroad workers. Like most of the photos and stories from that time, Chinese railroad workers were kept out of the frame.

“What does it mean that Chinese people were not memorialized in the most famous photograph of the most large-scale national project in U.S. history?” asks Julia H. Lee, chair and associate professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Irvine. In her recently published book The Racial Railroad (NYU Press, 2022), she searches for the answer.

In The Racial Railroad, Lee analyzes literature, art, photographs, music videos and films about trains to explore questions of racial subjectivity, community and conflict. Spanning the 19th through 21st centuries, The Racial Railroad covers the Chinese labor that constructed the Transcontinental Railroad; the experiences of African Americans in Jim Crow train cars; the representation of the train from a migrant perspective in works like “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” from the "Hamilton" mixtape; and the use of trains in films like Bong Joon Ho’s “Snowpiercer,” which takes place in a post-apocalyptic train that stratifies its guests by economic class.

Lee has been working on the book for 15 years – ever since she came upon the topic while conducting research for her dissertation.

Although she is core faculty in UCI’s Department of Asian American studies, her academic roots are in literary studies. She earned a B.A. in English from Amherst College and a Ph.D. in English from UCLA. She didn’t discover that Asian American and African American studies were established academic disciplines until graduate school.

“In many ways, I feel like my undergraduate education kind of failed me,” she says. Now she’s on a mission to ensure that stories from racially marginalized communities, like the representation of Chinese railroad laborers, are front and center in her undergraduate and graduate teaching.

Hired by the Central Pacific Company, Chinese railroad workers in the 19th century had either already been in the U.S. working in gold mines or were brought from China for the project. Because of the nature of their backbreaking and dangerous work, they didn’t have a lot of opportunities to write their experiences in journals, let alone in fiction or poetry, or to create art. Their stories have not only been lost to time, but they have also been deliberately erased.

There are no first-person accounts that scholars can go back to and research to write their narratives, but there are many imaginative works that Chinese American writers and artists have created to memorialize the lives of the Chinese railroad workers. “I think it's important to question historical archives and think more broadly about ways that we can engage with these experiences and people whose lives have been erased from history,” says Lee.

The exclusion of Chinese workers from American lore exemplifies a larger point about race in this country. In The Racial Railroad she explores how the train has also been critical in the formation and perception of racial identity.

In the late 19th century, the way the average American experienced space and time took a radical turn. To get from point A to point B, people could only go as fast as their feet could run, or as far as a horse could carry them. With the advent of the railroad, the world became vaster and faster. People could sit back and fly 30 to 40 miles an hour. Places that had once been inaccessible or unimaginable were available. It was a shift akin to the dramatic and irreversible way the internet has also changed perceptions of time and space in the 21st century, Lee explains.

Railroads emerged alongside the industrial revolution and the nation’s ascension into global dominance. The train become the literal vehicle for Manifest Destiny, she writes, capturing not just a zeal for adventure and freedom, but also the inequities, hierarchies and injustices that founded and continue to define the U.S.

“Even though the train has often been an instrument of violence and exclusion, writers and artists from these communities also have a deep attachment to the railroad, and they continually come back to it as a way of thinking about their own racialized subjectivity within the country and about others who are marginalized or excluded or in some way erased,” she says.

“While it has been an instrument for all these terrible things, it also offers the possibility of resistance or push back. That's what I think the book is about: the ways in which artists, writers, songwriters, painters and photographers have used the train to repurpose and resist the ways that it's been used against them.”

Asian American Studies