Chinese take center stage in productions that recall their contributions to the transcontinental railroad

(Photo courtesy Pan Asian Repertory Theatre) Playwright Richard Chang as the title character in “Citizen Wong.”

A half-century ago, the Chinese community was all but ignored at the 100th anniversary celebration of the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

The descendants of the Chinese immigrants who made up most of the Central Pacific’s workforce were determined that wasn’t going to happen again. The Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association (CRWDA) is sponsoring exhibits, lectures, a conference and a pair of stage productions — “The Dance and the Railroad” at the Salt Lake Acting Company, and “Gold Mountain” in Salt Lake City and Ogden. And a third production is coming to Utah as part of the Spike 150 celebration — “Citizen Wong,” which is sponsored by the Lawrence T. & Janet T. Dee Foundation, with special support from Lucy and Victor Kan.

“Our story is being told this time,” said Michael Kwan, president of the CRWDA. “We’re telling our story ourselves.”

“The Dance and the Railroad” and “Gold Mountain” are both specific to the Chinese experience in the building of the railroad. “Citizen Wong” speaks more broadly to the experience of Chinese immigrants in the 19th century.

“This is the sort of thing we didn’t see 50 years ago,” Kwan said.

At the 100th anniversary celebration in 1969, representatives of the the Chinese Historical Society of San Francisco — which had raised funds for a commemorative plaque to be placed in Utah — were pushed to the end of a very long program “and not much attention was given to them, and they felt insulted,” said Stanford history professor Gordon H. Chang, the author of two books about the Chinese who also made up most of the Central Pacific’s workforce on the railroad.

And the keynote speaker at the event, then-Secretary of Transportation John Volpe, said, “Who else but Americans could drill 10 tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow? Who else but Americans could chisel through solid granite? Who else but Americans could lay 10 miles of track in 12 hours?”

“He kept using the term ‘Americans,’ when the Chinese could not become American citizens by federal law,” Chang said. “So his speech, if you listen to it, you would not know the Chinese were there at all.

“The irony is that the railroad is traditionally celebrated as a great national accomplishment. It helped bind the nation together. And yet the western portion was completed by Chinese who could not become American citizens.”

The San Francisco Chronicle’s story about the event was headlined “The Forgotten Men at Golden Spike Ceremony,” and it went on to report that Volpe “succeeded in infuriating the Chinese delegation from San Francisco by wholly ignoring the 12,000 Chinese who helped build the Central Pacific over the Sierra to Promontory.” It said representatives of that delegation and the Republic of China sat “in stony silence” during Volpe’s speech.

“That’s why we’ve worked so hard this year. That’s why we’re sponsoring exhibits and lectures and these [stage] productions,” said Kwan, a Taylorsville Justice Court judge whose great-great-grandfather worked to build the railroad. “We want to celebrate our ancestors’ contributions.”

“The Dance and the Railroad” • David Henry Hwang’s 1981 play — commissioned by the Department of Education — focuses on two young, Chinese laborers who came to America to work on the railroad and are caught up in an 1867 strike.

The workforce has been treated like slaves by the “white devils,” and workers are demanding better pay and shorter hours.

After three years of back-breaking labor, 21-year-old Lone (Tobias C. Wong) is disillusioned and cynical; he refers to his fellow laborers who send all their money back to family in China as “dead men,” and escapes through his love of Chinese opera. Eighteen-year-old Ma (Whit K. Lee), newly arrived from China, still holds onto idealism and believes he can make his fortune in America. They communicate with each other (and the audience) largely through dance, acrobatics and martial arts as they try to hold onto their ethnic identity.

Salt Lake Acting Company’s May 6 performance will include a panel with Hwang; Jason Ma, who wrote “Gold Mountain”; and Utah poet laureate Paisley Rekdal.

The Monday, May 6, performance is sold out. Tickets remain for the performance on Tuesday, May 7.

Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for students and are available at saltlakeactingcompany.org; by calling 801-363-7522; or at the box office (168 W. 500 North). Student tickets are available by phone only.

“Citizen Wong” • This new play by Richard Chang — performed by New York’s Pan Asian Repertory Theatre — is based on the life of Wong Chin Fu, a naturalized American activist, journalist and lecturer who has been described as the Chinese-American Martin Luther King Jr.

Chang said he wants the play “to decisively smash stereotypes, shatter bigoted arguments about minorities and women, and create a paradigm shift. All this, in the spirit of Wong Chin Foo, who deserves his rightful place in American and Chinese history.”

The play is set after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, when Chinese workers became the scapegoats in an economic downturn. Accused of stealing jobs, they faced discrimination and violence — attacked by mobs and lynched.

Xenophobia swept across the country and became the law of the land when the Page Act barred Chinese women from immigrating to the United States in 1875 and the 1882 Exclusion Act barred all immigration from China — the first American law targeting a specific nationality/ethnic group.

“Citizen Wong” mixes historical fact with a fictionalized romance between Wong and an American suffragette.

The Pan Asian Repertory Theatre will perform “Citizen Wong” in three Utah cities; admission is free.

Ogden — Tuesday, May 7, 6:30 p.m. at Union Station, 2501 Wall Ave.

Orem — Wednesday, May 8, 7 p.m., Noorda Center for the Performing Arts at Utah Valley University, 800 W. University Parkway

Salt Lake City — Thursday, May 9, 7 p.m.; Salt Lake City Library, 210 E. 400 South

“Gold Mountain” • Jason Ma wrote the book, music and lyrics for this original musical, a love story that “celebrates the striving immigrant spirit, the redemptive power of love, and the ultimate nobility of self-sacrifice among a team of Chinese railroad workers.”

The semi-staged concert presentation will feature an all-Asian American cast, with Broadway star Ali Ewoldt (“The Phantom of the Opera”) and Jonny Lee Jr. in the lead roles.

The Monday, May 6, and Tuesday, May 7, performances at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City are sold out. Tickets remain for the performances at Ogden’s Peery’s Egyptian Theater (2415 Washington Blvd.) on Friday, May 10, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, May 11, at 2 p.m.

Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for children 3-1, seniors 55+ and members of the military. They’re available at all Smith’s Tix locations; at smithstix.com; by calling 801-689-8700 or at the Peery’s Egyptian Theater box office.

Working on the Railroad: Chinese Workers & America’s First Transcontinental Line • Stanford University history professor Gordon H. Chang, the author of “Chinese Railroad Workers” and “Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad,” which will be published in May, presents the most documented account of the Chinese workers’ history of completing the transcontinental rail line.

Wednesday, May 8, at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Drive. Free admission.

Find details on other events, including the CRWDA’s May 8-11 conference, at spike150.org.