Testimony: A Railroad Worker's Memoir

In the latter years, winter cabins were built for Chinese workers.
Chinese coolies worked in terrain like this, near Keefers.
Chinese used baskets to excavate this 17 meter cut at Quoi-ek.

Testimony: A Chinese Railroad Worker’s Memoir


Wong Hau-hon (Huang Hou-han) 黃厚漢 came from Sun-wui (Xin-hui) county in Guangdong province. He wrote this piece in 1926 in Chinese, which was republished in East West 東西報, 1986 November 27, page 9. The article was translated and edited by Him Mark Lai, a prominent Chinese-American historian.

I first came to Canada in 1882 (eighth year of Guang Xu) on a sailing vessel. There were 90 or so fellow Chinese on the same ship. We debarked at Westminster in mid-March.

After a few days ashore, I set out on foot with a group of about 400 Chinese to join the railroad construction crews at Yale. In the daytime, we walked and at night we slept in cloth tents beneath the trees. Those who did not have tents hung up their blankets to act as make-shift shelters.

“After our arrival at Yale, we had worked only two days when the white foreman ordered the gang to which I was assigned to move to North Bend. We started on our way at 7 in the morning; the weather was bad, for it rained all day, and we were all wet and cold. Among our traveling companions there were some arrivals who were unaccustomed to the exposure of the Canadian climate and sickened. Some died as they rested beneath the trees or lay on the ground. When I saw this I felt miserable and sad. Fortunately I was in more robust health and continued my journey until I reached the destination.

“When we arrived at North Bend, we pitched out tents by the river. But the river level rose because of the recent rains and within a week we had to mover our camp three times. The floods also severed the road in several places so that pack trains could not come through. Our food supply was cut off and our store of provisions dwindled.

“Our foreman then ordered us to pack up and return to Yale. So, although already suffering pangs of hunger, we had to start on our way immediately. When we were passing China Bar on the way, many of the Chinese died from an epidemic. As there were no coffins to bury the dead, the bodies were stuffed into rock crevices or beneath the trees to await their arrival. [?] Those whose burials could not wait were buried on the spot in boxes made of crude thin planks hastily fastened together. There were even some who were buried in the ground wrapped only in blankets or grass mats. New graves dotted the landscape and the sight sent chills up and down my spine.

“When we returned to Yale, we worked there for awhile. Then the foreman ordered us to move to Hope. At that time, I belonged to gang No 161. Each gang consisted of about 30 workers and I heard that there were more than 380 gangs.

“The work at Hope was very dangerous. On one occasion, there was a huge rock on the slope of the mountain which stood in the railroad’s path and had to be removed by blasting before the tracks could go through. However, the sides of the rock were nearly perpendicular all around and there was no easy way to reach the top. The workers had to scramble to the top by use of timber scaffolding and by ropes fastened to the rock. After they reached the top, they drilled holes in the rock to hold the dynamite charges.

“I was one of the workers who was assigned the task of drilling. Each morning I climbed the rock and after I had finished the day’s work, I was lowered again by rope. I remember that in blasting this rock, more than 300 barrels of explosives were used.

“When blasting, all of the workers usually hid away in a safe place. But in spite of this there was one, Leung, who was killed. Actually, Leung already had gone behind another hill, where he thought he would be safe. He sat on the hillside and lit his pipe while he waited for the blasting to proceed. Unexpectedly, a huge boulder thrown up by the blast landed on the hillside where Leung was sitting and rolled down the slope, hitting him in the back. We heard a piercing shriek and by the time we reached him, Leung was already dead.

“Another incident occurred about ten to fifteen miles west of Yale. Dynamite was used to blast a rock cave. Twenty charges were placed and ignited, but only eighteen blasts went off. However, the white foreman, thinking that all of the dynamite had went off, ordered the Chinese workers to enter the cave to resume work. Just at that moment, the remaining two charges suddenly exploded. Chinese bodies flew from the cave as if shot from a cannon. Blood and flesh were mixed in a horrible mess. On this occasion, about ten or twenty workers were killed.

“In 1883 I moved from Hope to Thompson River and worked there a month. Fortunately I suffered no accidents. Later I moved again to work in a barren wilderness for more than a year. There, more than a thousand Chinese laborers perished from epidemics. In all, more than 3000 Chinese died during the building of the railroad from diseases and accidents.

“I am now 62 and I have experienced much hardships and difficulties in my life. I am proud of the fact that we Chinese contributed much to the development of transportation in Canada. Yet now the government is enforcing 43 discriminatory immigration regulations against us. The Canadian people surely must have short memories!”

[Credits: The three photographs at the top of this page are from the City of Vancouver Archives. L to R: Can P140, Can P150, Can P145.]

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