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Chinese Laborers on a Handcar

Chinese laborers on handcar, Central Pacific
Three Chinese men in laborers' clothing atop a handcar, with a well-dressed young American male standing on the ground at the right. The expressions on the faces of the Chinese and the American demonstrate that this was a posed photo, probably made for the benefit of the American. The photo was taken during construction of the Central Pacific between Bakersfield and Los Angeles. Chinese immigrant workers played a critical role in constructing America's railoads in the late 19th century, but photographs of them in the workplace are relatively rare. The figure on the right on the handcar wears Chinese dress, in part; the other two Chinese wear hybrid western dress. The American standing on the ground wears "dandified" clothes. Late 19th century photographs juxtaposing immigrants or Native Americans with European Americans appear fairly commonly, but like this they frequently exhibit signs of being contrived. The expression on the American's face contrasts markedly with the laughing smiles worn by the Chinese. They seem to have posed knowingly for an American who wanted his picture taken with "exotics." The composition is routine; the subject matter is not.
Source Oakland Museum of California
Coverage Spatial, probably near Los Angeles; temporal, 1876
Rights Oakland Museum of California
Date Created 1876
Resource Type
Extent Not available
Depicted Railroad
Location north of Los Angeles, California
Depicted Occupation
Image Type Workers in landscape
Comments The museum attributes this photograph to Andrew J. Russell because it was given by the Southern Pacific Railroad in the context of a Russell collection. However, the dates of the photograph and Russell's work in California lend doubt to the attribution. In 1876, which seems the correct date for the picture, Russell was working for "Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly," and it is unlikely that Leslie's would have sent him to California to create a contrived image like this one.
Collection Gift of Southern Pacific Railroad
Image ID H69.459.80
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