Secretary Chao's op-ed on the contributions of Chinese railroad workers and Asian American & Pacific Islanders to our nation

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June 5, 2019


Secretary Chao had a special opportunity on May 10, 2019 at Promontory Summit, Utah to pay tribute to the contributions of Chinese railroad workers to the construction of one of America's greatest infrastructure projects, the Transcontinental Railroad, correcting 150 years of neglect.

In her op-ed, the Secretary also highlights the contributions of Asian Pacific Americans today to our country and the establishment of a special initiative, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, chaired by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and herself - to help advance the economic empowerment of Asian American and Pacific Islanders.

With that in mind, we hope you will share this op-ed by Secretary Chao with your network of friends.

All the best to you and your family!

Dominic Bonaduce -
Tim C. Wang -
DOT Office of Public Engagement



Elaine Chao: Chinese workers helped build this

country, let's make them part of our folklore


by Sec. Elaine Chao | June 05, 2019 12:00 AM

Chinese immigrants working on the Transcontinental


(Advisory Council on Historic Preservation)


It’s rare that life hands us the opportunity to add a positive narrative to the history books. But

there was just such an opportunity recently, when I was given a platform at the 150th

Anniversary of the Golden Spike to honor the 12,000 or more workers of Chinese ancestry who

played a key role in building the first transcontinental railroad. These men, nearly 80% of the

workforce of the Central Pacific Railroad, endured merciless, harsh, and dangerous conditions

to build one of the greatest pieces of infrastructure in our country’s history. Digging and

tunneling through the Sierra Nevada mountains with rudimentary tools, many lost their lives.

But instead of gratitude for their sacrifice, state and federal laws were passed preventing men

and women of Chinese ancestry from becoming American citizens or immigrating to the U.S.

So much has changed in the 150 years since. The Chinese exclusion laws have been repealed

and our country has moved forward, becoming the diverse nation it is today. But for more

than a century and a half, the Chinese American community has waited patiently for the

contributions of the Chinese transcontinental railroad workers to be fully acknowledged and



On May 10, 2019, proper recognition finally came. It was a reminder that as our country

becomes more diverse, there is a tremendous hunger out there for the achievements of all the groups who helped make

America great to be recognized and celebrated.


That’s a sentiment I hear more and more from the Asian Pacific American community, which

is one of the fastest growing in this country. In just 50 years, Asian Pacific Americans have

gone from approximately 1% to nearly 7% of our country’s population. They take pride in the

fact that, with their emphasis on strong families, education, and hard work, Asian Pacific

Americans are contributing much to the growth and strength of our country. Just look at the

unemployment rate for Asian Pacific Americans: an astonishingly low 2.2%. Many Asian Pacific

Americans find great comfort that someone in the president’s Cabinet looks like them and

shares their journey.


Yet for all their success, Asian Pacific Americans can still feel uncomfortable. At the Golden

Spike ceremonies, I heard from Asian Americans who felt that for too long their ancestors’

contributions have been relegated to a mere footnote in history. Popular culture does not

always make the distinction between Chinese Americans (who were either born here or made

the free choice to become American citizens) and Chinese nationals. Other Asian Americans

are increasingly dismayed at quota systems designed to limit their children’s access to a firstclass

education. To a community that has experienced so many historical obstacles to

becoming full-fledged Americans, these developments have the all-too-familiar ring of the



This administration is leading by establishing a special initiative, the White House Initiative on

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (of which I am co-chair) to help advance the economic

empowerment of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. An executive order has also been

issued affirming the principle that access to higher education must respect merit, and not

diminish those who have sacrificed, invested in themselves, and achieved academic

excellence. These actions address deep aspirations within the Asian Pacific American



But there is always more that can be done. Recognizing the seminal contribution of the

Chinese transcontinental railroad workers is a good start to a more inclusive history. My hope

is that their astounding achievement will become part of American folklore, known to every

schoolchild and every American, in recognition of the vast and wonderful coat of many colors

that makes our nation great.


Elaine Chao is secretary of transportation.