The Chinese in the West: How Railroad Coolies Ate

Chinese Rail Workers
Chinese Rail Workers

Until our own times, the nineteenth century saw some of the most profound changes in social structure and population movements in the history of the world. How people fed themselves also changed as people migrated from continent to continent.

Boarding houses became extremely common and popular beginning in the nineteenth, thanks to this movement of people across the continent of the United States.

Many types of boarding houses sprang up to provide accommodations for various groups of people. Some groups, however, were excluded. Among those were the Chinese who built the railroads linking the east and west coasts.

The following, taken from a rather long account by one of “Crocker’s Pets” from the “Golden Spike Era”, 1869-1899, recalls the way in which the Chinese coolies ate during the time they helped build the railroads in the western United States, most working for the Central Pacific Railroad Company. In the beginning, most came from Canton; by 1882, with the Chinese Exclusion Act, thousands of Chinese lived in the United States. After that anti-immigration law, the Chinese no longer could work in the mines or, ironically, with the railroads. So they became cooks and opened many restaurants.  Remember that most of the Chinese in the United States at the time were poor men with no knowledge of the refined cooking of courtly China.

The cooks built their own type outdoor ovens in the dirt banks alongside the sidetrack and their stake pots spit alongside their bunk cars where they did most of their cooking when the weather permitted. Each cook would have the use of a very big iron kettle hanging over an open fire and into it they would dump a couple of measures of Chinese unhulled brown rice, Chinese noodles, bamboo sprouts and dried seaweed, different chinese seasonings and American chickens cut up into small pieces including, heads, legs, and all plus more water than what would seem necessary and still the kettle would be only half full. When the cook stirred up the fire the concoction began to boil then the rice would begin to swell until finally the kettle would be nearly full of steaming nearly dry brown rice with the cut up chickens all through it.

Brown Rice
Brown Rice

The brown rice might not have been their first choice, but the price was right for the Chinese, who still had wives and children back in China.

The Chinese propensity for eating every part of an animal becomes apparent in this part of the account, where the speaker, an American, mentions not being able to eat the chicken heads he might find in his rice:

Each Chinaman would have take his big blue bowl and ladle it full of this mixture and deftly entwine his chopsticks between his fingers and string the mixture into his mouth in one continuous operation, while in the meantime he would be drinking his cup of tea and still more tea. I was the curious watching kid so the cook would ladle up a little bowl full for me (Little Wah Lee) and hand me a pair of chopsticks and with them I would eat like the rest of my buddies but I never could get the knack so I ended up eating with my fingers which would make a Chinamen laugh and I would get no tea. If I got a chicken head in my rice I could not eat it due to some kind of American prejudice so in the future the cook would see that I got no chicken heads.

Chinese Railroad Workers
Chinese Railroad Workers

Like so many exiles and expatriates elsewhere in the world [think of the British in East Africa], the Chinese wanted to eat their own familiar food. The railroad companies accommodated them. (In Canada, the workers ate mostly rice and dried salmon; unsurprisingly, they suffered from scurvy because they could not afford to eat fresh fruits and vegetables).

Nearly all the food the Chinaman ate came from China, with the exception of American chickens, so about once a week a supply car would come from San Francisco and would be set out on the back sidetrack and all the cooks would come with their long tote poles or tote bars which were long sticks about 8 feet long with a notch near the each end and a padded shoulder near the middle. They would hand a box of supplies on one end and maybe a bamboo fiber sack of brown rice or raw brown sugar balanced on the other end. They would shoulder the tote pole near it’s [sic] middle and trot off to their car direct from China via ship and C.P. supply car. The woven bamboo paper lined rice sacks were about 16 inches in diameter and about 3 feet high with Chinese writing all over them of which I once had a souvenir but cannot locate in now. Each full sack would weigh from 60 to 100 pounds according to what foodstuff was within it.

Most people of the day didn’t realize, or care about, the culture and the place these Chinese people had left. But some did:

It should be remembered that China had a very old civilization and had gunpowder long before Western Europe had entered the feudal [sic] of Middle Ages.

Chinese Railroad 3For more on the Chinese journey in America, see:

Andrew Coe. Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States. (2009)

Jennifer 8. Lee. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. (2008)

Jean Pfaelzer. Driven Out: The Forgotten War against Chinese Americans. (2008)

J. A. G. Roberts. China to Chinatown: Chinese Food in the West (Globalities) (2004)

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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