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California, China and railroads -- history pulls a switcheroo

April 15, 2013|By Patt Morrison
  • California Gov. Jerry Brown at the opening of the new California-China Office of Trade and Investment in Shanghai.
California Gov. Jerry Brown at the opening of the new California-China… (Associated Press )

A century and some change ago, more than a quarter of a million Chinese lived in California, most of them men and many of them veterans of the Gold Rush, and of the mining and railroad boom that followed.

They were barred from owning property and from marrying, from doing much of anything save working, often at the skimpiest of wages and in the most squalid of conditions -- in life and in death, as the recent discovery of a neglected 19th century potter’s field of Chinese workers’ skeletal remains in Los Angeles attested.

Over the door of a state office building in Sacramento is carved a phrase from a poem, a line that goes, “Bring me men to match my mountains.” Chinese immigrant men shared in that vision -- they called California “Gold Mountain” -- but not so much in its fruits.

The treatment of the immigrant Chinese in the United States is a story told well and extensively elsewhere. But there’s a new twist to that old relationship.

Chinese laborers made the transcontinental and California railroads possible. Which is what started me musing over Gov. Jerry Brown’s trade mission to China.

Brown is undertaking a salesman’s and a diplomat's job, pitching China to buy into California wine and California technology. And he took a five-hour bullet-train ride from Beijing to Shanghai for two reasons -- to persuade the home-front in California of the merits of high-speed rail, and to persuade the Chinese to come aboard and invest in California’s high-speed rail system.

It was endorsed by voters in 2008, but cost, politics and lawsuits have shoved the project onto a siding, and in any case it needs more than taxpayer money to fulfill its mandate.

“People here do stuff,” Brown said on the Chinese train trip. “They don’t sit around and mope and process and navel-gaze.”

To one crowd of Chinese at a Beijing hotel, he declared, “I know you’re all here because you’re going to make a lot of money in California!”

I was struck at the parallels and the paradox of his appeal.

One of Brown’s great-grandfathers, August Schuckman, came overland to California in 1852, the same year some 20,000 Chinese arrived. Some of them may have worked in Colusa County, where Brown still owns a share of land that his great-grandfather bought.

Now, 150 years later, Brown may be making his case to some of the relatives of the men who helped to build California, men who came here from China for that very reason -- “to make a lot of money in California.”

Apart from the allure of high-speed rail to future California travelers, there's the wonderful symmetry for historians, the turnabout of roles from the 19th century to the 21st.

Brown is inviting the Chinese to make the great switcheroo happen, to become not the laborers this time but the investors in yet another monumental railroad project.


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