Courtesy photo
A sculpture depicting a Chinese worker on the first transcontinental railroad wil be presented to the state of Utah on Monday, May 14, 2012.
We're proud of their contribution to the United States. —Margaret Yee

SALT LAKE CITY — Margaret Yee's ancestors were among thousands of Chinese immigrants who forged the transcontinental railroad that was completed with the driving of the golden spike at Promontory on May 10, 1869.

Her great-grandfather on her mother's side, Ng Shee, was a railroad worker, and her grandfather on her father's side, Wong Wah Yu, worked as a cook on the Central Pacific Railroad.

"We're proud of their contribution to the United States," Yee said. "Our ancestors' hard work and what they contributed, we can never, never forget."

But the historic celebratory photo from that day the Central Pacific and Union Pacific came together doesn't include her relatives or any Chinese workers, a fact not lost on Yee. Chinese workers, she said, were not only discriminated against — they were paid one-third that of their Irish counterparts — but forgotten when the job was done.

"We feel it is really unfair," said Yee, who served as the Asian affairs adviser for two Utah governors. "We had to do something about it."

On Monday, a delegation from mainland China will be at the state Capitol for a cultural exchange with Utah officials. Renowned Chinese artist Xikun Yuan will present to the state a sculpture depicting a Chinese railroad worker with his wife and child. Yuan served as the cultural ambassador for the 2008 Olympics and established the Jintal Art Museum in Beijing.

"It think this is a significant event," said Eric Cheng, who initiated efforts to bring the delegation to Utah and serves on the planning committee.

While in Utah, the delegation will meet with officials and Chinese employees at the Utah Department of Transportation, where Cheng works as the chief railroad engineer. The group also will visit with the local Chinese community.

The Chinese delegation's trip coincided with a National Train Day event in Los Angeles on Saturday and Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. The group will also travel to Chicago for a cultural exchange.

In "Asian Americans in Utah — A Living History," Cheng writes that connecting of the railroads at Promontory marked the beginning rather than the culmination of the Chinese presence in the state. The Chinese population grew steadily over the years.

Two years after breaking ground for the transcontinental railroad in 1863, only 50 miles of track had been laid. A Central Pacific executive suggested using Chinese workers. Initially, 50 were hired for a trial period. The experiment proved successful and eventually 12,000 to 14,000 worked on the line. Some settled in Utah, while others moved to other states or returned to China.

On the 100-year anniversary of the completion of the railroad, a plaque was erected at the Golden Spike Historical Monument honoring Chinese workers. It reads: "To commemorate the centennial of the first transcontinental railroad in America and to pay tribute to the Chinese workers whose indomitable courage made it possible."

The monument held its annual re-enactment of the historic day last week.

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