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Asian Americans railing against Chinaman's Arch

Published September 12, 2005 12:44 am

Offensive term: Railroad workers' descendents and other Asian Americans lobby for new name
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Karen Kwan doesn't know the full name of her great-great-great-great grandfather, an immigrant from Canton, China, who helped build America's transcontinental railroad.

But she knows this: He and the thousands of other Chinese who blasted their way through the Sierra Nevada and laid track through the deserts of Nevada and northern Utah deserve more respect than the name "Chinaman's Arch" given a limestone formation at Golden Spike National Historic Site.

"Would I want my great-grandfather called 'Chinaman?' " asks Kwan, who teaches psychology at Salt Lake Community College. "It elicits these images of the bucktoothed ancient. . . . They're really negative images of the foreigner, the inscrutable."

The Utah Organization of Chinese Americans has submitted an application to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names seeking to change the arch's name to Chinese Arch.

"It's a way for us to pay homage to those who sacrificed a great deal," says Michael Kwan, Karen's brother and a justice court judge in Taylorsville.

The National Park Service does not oppose the name change, and Box Elder County commissioners support it. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., whose office is handling such matters until the first-year governor reconstitutes the Utah Committee on Geographic Names, has not yet weighed in.

If there is no opposition, the U.S. panel could vote on the application by year's end, according to Roger Payne, executive secretary of the Reston, Va.-based board.

The federal panel doesn't really care what names are used for geographic features. It just wants to ensure consistency for public safety, Payne says. However, the board does encourage applications to replace disparaging names.

And Chinaman's Arch is plainly that, says Jeanny Wang, chairwoman of the Utah Organization of Chinese Americans.

"Our understanding was the arch was named in honor of the Chinese railroad workers. This is a term that does not honor them." Just how the 6-foot-by-20-foot rock arch came by its name is not recorded, says Melissa Cobern, chief ranger at the Golden Spike National Historic Site, 25 miles northwest of Brigham City.

Area residents in their 80s and 90s tell Cobern the arch has had that name for as long as they can remember.

It may have been named for the 11,000-plus Chinese workers who drove the teams, drilled through rock and hammered the spikes for 700 miles of Central Pacific rail from Sacramento, Calif., to Promontory. They outnumbered the CP's Irish laborers by 9 to 1.

The rail met the Union Pacific line from the east on May 10, 1869, at what is now the 2,700-acre national historic site, opening the West to commerce.

Or, says Cobern, the arch might commemorate the Chinese who later lived in nearby camps and maintained the rails for Central Pacific.

"Some of that has been lost to history," Cobern says.

Kwan says she first became aware of the arch's name during the 130th celebration of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. The arch is marked with an interpretive sign on the east motor route through the historic site.

In the years since that 1999 celebration, several books have been published highlighting the contributions of the "faceless" Chinese workers.

The historic site itself has created an exhibit that includes Chinese coins, gaming pieces, a ginger container and soy sauce jar. Previously, only a plaque commemorated the laborers.

In 2001, the Chinese American community began planning a campaign to change the arch's name, Kwan says.

The Organization of Chinese Americans staged its national convention in Salt Lake City, and hundreds of members drove to Promontory to visit the historic site.

At the suggestion of a member, who is a photographer, they arrayed themselves around the train engine for a group photo, in solidarity with the Chinese workers who 132 years earlier were excluded from the pictures marking the historic moment.

Chinese workers were present May 10, 1869, and indeed hammered the last spikes partway so visiting dignitaries could complete the task easily. Before the celebration was over, they were cheered in the rail car of the Central Pacific's project superintendent, who invited several Chinese to dine with him.

An estimated 1,300 Chinese workers had died in the dangerous, four-year endeavor. Some froze in the mountains of California, some fell to their deaths as they were suspended from ropes to chisel away at rock and others perished in the black-powder blasts to remove rock.

But the famous photo from that day does not show the Chinese, Kwan notes.

The Chinese American community hopes the arch soon will have a new name, though a proposal to change the name of Chink Peak in Idaho to China Peak took two years because of opposition.

"We're not counting our blessings yet," Kwan says.

kmoulton@sltrib.com