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Interview with Ed Shew, author of Chinese Brothers, American Sons

Ed Shew was born in 1949 in St. Louis, Missouri (USA), the son of Chinese parents.

His peasant father immigrated from Guangdong province in southern China. His mother, whose parents ran a Chinese hand laundry, was born in St. Louis’ Chinatown (also known as Hop Alley), which was leveled in the mid-1960s for construction of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball stadium. Ed grew up in the city of St. Louis and is married with two sons. Moving to be closer to some of their grandchildren, he and his wife Jo Ann now live just west of St. Louis in St. Charles County, Missouri. They visited China in 2012. Ed’s lasting memory is from rural southern China, witnessing the breathtaking natural scenery of the mountain-side, jade- and emerald-colored, terraced rice fields. They have been farmed for centuries and many still with plow-pulling water buffalo. In his spare time, Ed is engaged in social justice activities for his church and the community. In addition, he’s a devoted fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.

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Where does the idea for the book come from?

I cannot say that a light bulb went off, and I was duly inspired. However, while reading about Chinese history in the United States, I unexpectedly discovered that no first-hand account describing the life of a Chinese worker of the Transcontinental Railroad has ever been found. Historians have searched this nation and the winding road back to China, to the roots of these forgotten, invisible men. Many were literate, yet not a scrap of their writing remains. 

Being an American of Chinese ancestry, I had heard a bit about the many Chinese migrants who toiled in perilous conditions to help construct America’s first Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s. But I wanted to find out more. 

I decided to write a story of two brothers, Li Chang and Li Yu, who could mirror somewhat my relationship with my older and only brother, John. I also wanted to showcase the importance of food, because few other cultures are as food-oriented as the Chinese, my family included. Another element to the book is a homage to my wife Jo Ann in the form of the never-ending love story between Li Yu and his love, at first sight, Wang Wei. 

Illustration of Wang Wei. Artist: John Shew

How did you proceed to find information? How long did it take you to make this volume? Where did you start from?

Now with a creative impulse, and after early retirement in July 2011, with a notion to keep myself busy, and with no intention to ever publish, I decided to write a book about the Chinese experience in America. I understood that race had to be an integral part of the story of where we have been as a country, and where we need to go. 

One of the first things I did was to purchase a book detailing how to write a first novel in six months. Thereafter, I searched for books, videos, websites, etc. detailing: Chinese history especially in the 1850s, why the Chinese came to this new land of America and their lives as gold miners and the inhumanity of life in California. 

I explored life in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the “why” of the Transcontinental Railroad, the railroad recruitment of the Chinese, the conquering of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and its Summit Tunnel, the Forty-Mile Desert, the Chinese strike, the Ten-Mile Day and the driving in of the Golden Spike signifying the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Slow forward to the spring of 2019, six months became almost eight years. Finally, my wife Jo Ann put her foot down. Enough with the encouragement, she ultimately insisted I find a “professional” to look at this manuscript, an unpublished work. Shaken, I finally found someone, Graham Earnshaw of Earnshaw Books in Hong Kong. The official release date of Chinese Brothers, American Sons is June 1, 2020.

Who are Li Yu and Li Chang? 

As I researched this railroad-building era, I learned more about the many Chinese who came over during the Gold Rush in the 1850s. Who knew at least 20 percent of the miners were Chinese? I didn’t. I then decided to weave together a story, a historical novel, about two adventurous Chinese brothers, the eldest, slightly built Li Chang, a philosopher and peasant turned cook, and his 16-year old, muscular brother Li Yu, a peasant and would-be writer and poet. 

They leave their families, and Li Yu’s pregnant wife, Sun Wei, in China, and come to America in 1854 in search of Gold Mountain. I wanted to create a vehicle to explore their hardships and the discrimination they faced, but also to explore their joys and sorrows, their relationship with each other, and their growing love for America even as they faced the constant pull to return to China, to the families they continued to support financially. 

Publisher: Earnshaw Books

I investigated what their hopes and dreams might have been, and took them to their opening a restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown through to the hammering-in of the Golden Spike, the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. Throw in a few Chinese food references and the importance of the Chinese food culture, some preaching from a Confucian pulpit, elements of human trafficking, and a dash of a love story, and you have Chinese Brothers, American Sons.

The Li brothers are somewhat based upon my brother and me. In the beginning, Li Yu looks up to Li Chang; by the end of the book, Li Chang now looks up to his younger brother Li Yu. I still look up to my brother; perhaps, he looks up to me, also.

As to the Chinese railroad workers, I am grateful to have the chance to give a voice to those whose labor on the Transcontinental Railroad helped to shape the physical and social landscape of the American West. But the story does not end there, as the book’s epilogue reveals.

Around 1850, China was experiencing one of its most difficult moments, including famines, rebellions, and the opium wars which created the ideal conditions for discontent and widespread despair. What did America represent for ordinary Chinese citizens? 

In the midst of the discontent and widespread despair, a Cantonese nursery rhyme of the era expressed the collective longings of entire families and the ordinary Chinese citizen: 

Swallows and magpies, flying in glee: 
Greetings for the New Year. 
Daddy has gone to Gold Mountain to earn money. 
He will earn gold and silver, Ten thousand taels. 
When he returns, 
We will build a house and buy farmland.

Was there gold everywhere? On the streets, in the hills, mountains, rivers, and valleys? Gold just waiting to be picked up? That was the hope of many Chinese immigrants, many of them countryside peasants who spent their lives, generation after generation, in nonstop and backbreaking labor. In times of famine, people ate little more than a bit of rice to sustain them. Most lived and died and gained little knowledge of life beyond their village.

The ordinary Chinese citizen, the inland peasant, and the coastal coolie yearned to escape from famine, and war and the tax collector. But how? Nowhere was the urgency to leave greater than in the province of Kwangtung on the southern coast. With no food and no other options, many Chinese decided to leave China for the dream of Gold Mountain.

Gold Mountain was California. When gold was discovered there in 1848, a Chinese resident in California, one of the fifty Chinese there at the time, shared the news via letter with a friend in Canton. Soon the region hummed with excitement, and people talked of nothing else. If only they could reach Gold Mountain, perhaps all their problems would be solved. 

Most people in Kwangtung province had only a dim concept of America. Almost no one had met anyone from America or any foreigner at all. Their only perception of white people was often the rumors of blue-eyed barbarian missionaries kidnapping and eating Chinese children. But survival and a sense of adventure were stronger than the fear of the unknown. 

The promise of gold ignited the imaginations of the poverty-stricken people of southern China. Hope soared among the poor. They decided they could briefly go to Gold Mountain, then return rich enough to ensure a new standard of living for themselves and their families. A handful of gold might be all that was needed to start anew, to purchase some land that would free them from the tyranny of rent, to build a house, to hire tutors for their children so they could pass the imperial examinations and become Mandarins. In short, to achieve the prosperity and status that was denied them solely by their birth as a peasant or “coolie.” 

 Frantically, men in the region of Canton decided to leave. They borrowed money from friends and relatives, sold off their water buffalo, or signed with a responsible immigration broker, called a towkay, who paid for their passage in exchange for a share of their future earnings in America. It sometimes took up to five years to repay. 

Knowing the young men who left for Gold Mountain might be gone for many months, if not years, the community knew it was important to bond each man to his home village. Most importantly, the purpose of his trip was to earn money to bring back home. Therefore, it was customary to marry him off to a local woman and to encourage him to father a child in the months or even weeks before he left. This step—the creation of a new family—had two purposes: an obligation for him to send back remittances, and a guarantee for him to preserve the ancestral bloodline. 

On coming to America, the peasants of Kwangtung province and the city dwellers of Canton were not the passive and defenseless coolies they were often portrayed to be. They were not simpletons tricked by fast-talking labor contractors and “shanghaied” onto the ships against their will. They were mostly adventurers, young men mostly in their teens to mid-20s. And they came to Gold Mountain not in fear and servility, but with the courage and boldness that inspired immigrants from Europe. 

The mining life, hard as it was, promised rewards. They were hoping that $200 or $300 could be amassed—enough by the standards of Kwangtung for a return home and a luxury retirement.


What were the major cultural differences that two Chinese peasants could find between China and America at the time? 

China was a land where elders were respected and one’s betters were revered. America, by contrast, was untamed. Anything went. Li Chang challenged Li Yu: “Cooperate with others to accomplish a common purpose. If people see they have the same goals as you, they will be on your side. And also, if you just learn a single trick, Li Yu, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of people. You can never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view until you climb inside of their skin and walk around in it.” 

“Our Chinese culture tells us that speaking out is rude and not knowing one’s place, especially to someone in authority.” But Li You learned, “Individualism is a part of American culture, and assertiveness is necessary for communicating and getting what we want.” 

Most Americans in the 1850s had scarcely a clue what to make of the Chinese. Prior to the Gold Rush, few Americans had ever encountered a Chinese outside the pages of Marco Polo. As a people, the Chinese were almost as exotic as aliens from another planet. The majority of Chinese, of course, were non-Christians, which made them immediately suspect in an era in America when even Catholics were eyed with suspicion. 

Many of the Chinese spoke little or no English, and although this by itself did not distinguish them from thousands of Chileans and Mexicans and French and Belgians in California, the Chinese language and especially the Chinese script was downright bizarre next to the speech and writing of Mother Europe. Chinese dress and hairstyle—the long pigtails, or queues—evoked endless comment, and made the Chinese easily recognizable at a distance. Their use of opium put additional distance between the Chinese and others in California while alcohol was their drug of choice.

Stranger still, and more suspect, were the odd ways in which the Chinese ate food. They ate dog meat! And it was said that the Celestials devoured mice and rats, too. They refused to eat the normal diet of beans and beef that the white miners consumed. Instead, they imported food from China: dried oysters, dried fish, dried abalone, dried fruits, dried mushrooms, dried seaweed, dried crackers and candies, and an endless variety of roasted, sweet and sour, and dried meats, poultry, and pork, rice, and teas. These feasts of “Un-Christian foods” prepared by their own cooks and the brewing of barrels of tea to be served all day long in tiny cups such as “ladies see fit to use” had the Yankees imagining dark, mysterious rituals. 

In an era when racial thinking was unabashed and nearly universal, most whites had no difficulty classing the Chinese as inherently inferior. White miners generally viewed Chinese miners with disdain and contempt, and some with hatred. 

The white 49ers, as the miners were called, saw a lack of “manhood” in the men from Kwangtung province not only in their diminutive size but in the ways they dressed and bathed. In the rugged frontier camps, after work, the Chinese miners religiously washed in hot bathtubs made from whiskey kegs. 

“Look at them midgets, wouldja? Gettin’ all soaped up like a buncha women. Yeah, those monkeys sure do smell purty with all that flower water,” taunted the white miners.

Without women, most miners were forced for the first time to perform all domestic chores for themselves: cooking, washing, housekeeping, and sewing repairs in their tattered clothing. Chinese men saw an opportunity in these economic activities deemed undesirable by white men. Setting up makeshift restaurants to sell hot cooked food, taking care of children, and doing laundry — all services that were traditionally considered women’s work — these occupations created a stereotype of the Chinese as servile that would persist long into the future.

The book takes place during a 15-year period spanning the Gold Rush and the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. How do national events reflect the fate of individuals? 

These early Chinese immigrants were greeted with hatred, widespread discrimination, and even deadly violence. Chinese immigrants were viewed with suspicion as low-skilled, sub-standard cheap labor, and reviled as wholly foreign. 

The anti-Chinese sentiment was quickly codified into California’s local and state policies during the 1850s and 1860s. In 1854, the California Supreme Court, in the most significant government action against the Chinese, ruled in People v. Hall that the Chinese were barred from testifying against whites in court. 

These laws restricted Chinese workers’ freedoms and severely restricted the ways they could earn a living. Barred from most common jobs or owning land, Chinese workers—who were predominantly men—were forced into making it on their own doing what American men saw as women’s work, such as laundry and cooking food.

In the early 1860s with the country in the civil war, the discussions in California and in the halls of Congress about what to do with the Chinese had a little immediate impact on the daily life of Chinese Americans. For most of them, the right to suffrage or election to public office was the last thing on their minds; their ambition was not to be part of the governing class but to just earn a living.

A turning point was the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1861. Lincoln was adamant in his belief that the railroad was absolutely necessary, despite the naysayers arguing about who would pay for it and who would build it. The new line would encourage communities and outposts on the frontier, provide settlers with safe, dependable, and affordable passage westwards. Most importantly, it would tie the new states of California and Oregon, rich with natural resources and trade potential, to the rest of the country. A Transcontinental Railroad would bring the entire nation closer together, would make Americans across the continent feel like one person. That was what Lincoln hoped. And indeed, “Abraham’s faith moved mountains,” as one political pundit said.

At the peak of the Civil War, with unity on President Abraham Lincoln’s mind, he sought a way to connect and secure the great expanse of the nation, to make it one, from sea to shining sea. The answer was the Transcontinental Railroad. 

The antagonism toward the Chinese on the West Coast was not broadly reflected in the corridors of federal power. Many in Washington saw the Chinese as a valuable source of manpower. The war coincided with Lincoln’s vision to construct a Transcontinental Railroad, and American capitalists, while initially skeptical, eventually eyed the industrious Chinese as labor for one of the most ambitious engineering feats in history.

The prevalent view was that there were not enough workingmen to do all the labor of building a new country. Some of the consternation came from the civil war which would decide whether or not black people would continue to work for nothing. The surrender at Appomattox in April 1865 ended the civil war and nixed the idea of using Confederate prisoners, so the Central Pacific distributed handbills all over northern California advertising for 5,000 workers immediately. White laborers came and went. The Chinese tunneled through granite mountains and laid tracks through the burning desert. Twelve-hundred lost their lives in the railroad’s western construction.


In the common American historical conscience, is the contribution made by the Sino-American community clear?

The importance of the Transcontinental Railroad in American history is well-known. The completion of the railroad was transformative, shortening travel time between New York and San Francisco from up to six months to less than a week. It opened up the West to increased development, helping ensure the economic dominance of the United States into the twentieth century. However, less recognition is paid to thousands of Chinese immigrants who built it. Just how important were Chinese immigrants to the completion of the railroad? 

It was only after the Central Pacific Railroad failed to find enough white workers that it decided to experiment with Chinese workers. And as work on the railroad continued, other workers quit because of dangerous working conditions or left to try and strike it rich in the silver mines found along the way. Eventually, Chinese workers became the only reliable source of labor with which to build the railroad. 

By the time of its completion and opening on May 10, 1869, 90 percent of the Central Pacific workers who built the western part of the railroad were Chinese immigrants. In its retelling for many years afterward, the Chinese were openly discriminated against, vilified, and forgotten.

Yet despite their significant contributions, the position of Chinese immigrants in the United States did not improve after the railroad was completed. Instead, with an economic crisis looming over the country in the 1870s, anti-Chinese sentiment increased and Chinese workers were scapegoated by populist politicians for various social and economic ills. Anti-Chinese sentiment eventually reached its peak with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which effectively banned all Chinese immigration and denied all Chinese (and eventually all Asian) immigrants the opportunity to gain U.S. citizenship. It was not until the Immigration and Naturalization Act in 1965 that the severe restrictions were lifted, and racial and country of origin quotas were rescinded.

On his tour of America in 1879, the Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson traveled to California in a third-class “immigrant” car on the Union Pacific Railroad. He grew troubled by the segregation of the Chinese railroad men in a separate car, but even more disturbing to him was the attitude of the white passengers toward those who had helped build the railroad they were traveling upon—“the stupid ill-feeling,” he called it. Of these white Americans’ conceptions of the Chinese railroad men, Stevenson wrote: “They never seemed to have looked at them, listened to them, or thought of them, but hated them a priori.”

In 1969, at the 100th anniversary of its completion then-Secretary of Transportation John Volpe praised the Americans who built the railroad, totally ignoring the contribution of the 12,000 Chinese railroad workers. “Who else but Americans could drill 10 tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow?” asked Volpe in his keynote address. “Who else but Americans could have laid ten miles of track in 12 hours?”

However, on Oct. 11, 2011, the United States apologized for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The resolution also apologizes for other anti-Chinese legislation enacted in the subsequent 60 years and put the Senate on record as affirming for Chinese and other Asian immigrants the same civil rights afforded other nationalities.

The common man/woman on the street may not know of the Chinese contributions to the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. It took a while, but the tide is turning somewhat. For example, Stanford University’s Chinese Railroad Workers’ Project (CRRW) has bolstered America’s historical conscience, helped by the digital revolution. Material — including hundreds of 19th-century newspapers, documents, and other records — were scanned and digitized for use by scholars In the United States and China who were then able to communicate with their peers electronically, oftentimes across countries.

The ongoing, years-long project also benefited from a change in atmosphere. Interest in and support for efforts to recover the history of marginalized people have grown significantly.

According to the Census, there were just over 100,000 Chinese Americans in 1890. Today, there are over five million of Chinese descent living in the United States; two million U.S.-born Chinese, many of whom descended from that early wave of Chinese immigrants to California. The story of Chinese Americans is one of overcoming exclusion and discrimination in the nineteenth century to becoming integral to American society and to the economy today. 

However, there is the misconception that all Chinese in America have high-income jobs. For every physician or doctor, there is an equal number who are a waiter or a waitress. For every Information/Technology job there is a greater number of cooks/chefs, cashiers, and sales workers when combined.

Unlike the earliest Chinese immigrants who came from Taishan, a region of Cantonese-speaking Guangdong province, Chinese immigrants today are much more diverse in terms of their language, skills, and education.

Many Americans still hold the view that the Chinese are taking American jobs rather than the white CEOs of American companies who are farming out its jobs to China and elsewhere. And, even prior to the coronavirus and amid these economic concerns, unfavorable opinions of China have reached a 14-year high. Today, 60% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of China, up from 47% in 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. 

Native American communities, of course, were also forcibly displaced by the railroad and the westward expansion it enabled.

What was the cultural atmosphere in the first Chinese communities in America?

Tradition generally kept married women at home in China, caring for their children and their in-laws, and because single women did not travel alone, Chinatowns were largely bachelor societies.

In most cultures, eating was a social as well as a nutritional experience. But food occupied an even more important place in Chinese culture, which for millennia revered its cuisine as not just biological necessity but an exalted art form. At these restaurants, lonely immigrants, mainly Chinese men forgot, if only for an evening, that they were thousands of miles from their families back home. 

The Chinese also opened curio stores, enticing white miners to trade gold dust for a variety of collectibles: porcelain vases, carved ivory and jade art, Oriental chess pieces, ink brush scroll paintings, fans, shawls, and teapots. 

As a group, the Chinese were mostly tenants, not homeowners, renting from white landlords who preferred Chinese because of their willingness to pay more than whites. For example, one house rented to a white man for $200 a month (an exorbitantly high figure at that time) went to a Chinese for $500 a month.

However, a sophisticated Chinese community soon appeared with apothecaries, herbalists, butchers, boarding homes, wood yards, tailors, silversmiths, bakers, carvers, engravers, interpreters, and brokers for U.S. merchants.

Chinese immigrants also hungered for art and entertainment. Visiting troupes from Kwangtung province performed Cantonese operas there, performances that could last for weeks, attended by both Chinese and curious whites. At these performances, Chinese far from home lost themselves in heroic stories of the past, forgetting for a short while, for some, their demeaning roles in everyday life and how far they had to go to achieve their dreams. 

As Chinatowns grew, they began to be hemmed in by other neighborhoods. The streets and lanes became increasingly dark and twisted. Whites were both fascinated and repelled by the dim alleys. The alleys were home to tearooms, as well as gambling houses, where the Chinese residents spent their limited work-free hours playing Chinese games such as mahjong and fan-tan, along with dominoes, dice, and poker, which they had learned from Americans. 

Opium was used among the Chinese, but because of the urgent need to save money to send home, most of the newcomers took narcotics only on Sundays and other nonworking times. Supplying the lonely bachelor society with drugs and prostitutes was the province of the secret societies known as tongs. The word originally means “hall,” or organization and tongs were known to exist in San Francisco as early as 1852. They also served as illicit versions of the Chinese Six Companies, offering members financial aid and protection not available elsewhere for housing and business problems. 

NOTE: San Francisco’s Chinatown in San Francisco, California, is the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest Chinese enclave outside Asia. It is also the oldest and largest of the four notable Chinese enclaves within San Francisco. Since its establishment in 1848, it has been highly important and influential in the history and culture of ethnic Chinese immigrants in North America. Chinatown is an enclave that continues to retain its own customs, languages, places of worship, social clubs, and identity. There are two hospitals, several parks and squares, numerous churches, a post office, and other infrastructure. Recent immigrants, many of whom are elderly, opt to live in Chinatown because of the availability of affordable housing and their familiarity with the culture. San Francisco’s Chinatown is also renowned as a major tourist attraction, drawing more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge.

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1 thought on “Interview with Ed Shew, author of Chinese Brothers, American Sons”

  1. In-depth interview, by Matteo Damiani, is liken to writing an entire book,! Highly commendable.
    Grateful for allowing Ed Shew, the pleasure of his imaginative mind, which even includes Rosco, a dog, which they were surely tempted to eat during a particular starvation period! Definitely, well defined. Chinese Brothers — American Sons will be included with the historical arcades of the Chinese immigration to America…
    My story documents the Chinese girls left abandoned and other tribulations at a Chinese orphanage, ‘Ming Quong’ in a small town in Los Gatos, California. The assimilation of little girls with rice-bowl haircuts are documented in my 1st book, Chopstick Childhood — a complete difference in Ed Shew’s book to mine…
    Thank you for this honor of voicing my opinion… — Nona Mock Wyman —


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