Work: Railways

"Chinaman section gang"

Wong Suk's stories took place in rail camps; he told us how he survived climbing up sheer mountain cliffs, how one limb after another got broken; and how he told us about fights he had with white demons in lumber mills, late at night, by campfires, when all the men were surrounded by the flowing needle eyes of wild animals.

from The Jade Peony , p. 60, by Wayson Choy

 

 

Because Canada needed a railway that could tie it from one side of the country to the other, the government needed a railway from Port Moody to Eagle Pass, near Revelstoke, British Columbia. Not only was the land in this area was mountainous and rocky, making the work difficult and dangerous, workers were often in short supply. The Chinese cleared and graded the railway's roadbed by blasting tunnels through the rock. There were landslides and dynamite blasts that killed many on top of the numerous worksite accidents.

Although Chinese played a key role in building the western stretch of the railway, they earned between $1 and $2.50 per day. Unlike their fellow white railroad workers, the Chinese had to pay for their own food, clothing, transportation to the job site, mail, and medical care, leaving barely enough money to send home. Chinese workers were delegated the most dangerous construction jobs, such as working with explosives. Not only did families of those killed workers not receive any compensation, they were not even notified of the deaths. Sadly, many of these Chinese men spent their remaining years in lonely and poor conditions because those who did survive working on the CPR often did not have enough money to return to their families in China.

The Chinese railway workers lived in poor conditions, often in camps, sleeping in tents or boxcars. Often doing their own cooking over open outdoor fires, these Chinese men primarily ate a diet of rice, dried salmon and tea. Because most could not afford fresh fruit and vegetables, many of the men suffered from scurvy, an agonizing disease caused by a diet lacking in vitamin C. Because there was no proper medical care, many Chinese workers depended on herbal cures to help them.

Due to these poor living conditions, many Chinese workers became ill. In the frosty winters of British Columbia, open fires were the only way of keeping warm. Whenever the workers put down more tracks, the camps had to be moved further down the line. When it was time to move camp, the Chinese workers would take down their tents, pack their belongings and move everything to the next camp, often hiking over 40 kilometres.

In 1923 Canada also imposed a suspension on Chinese immigration but not before employing approximately 15,000 Chinese to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway.
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