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"Chinese Workers' Experience" exhibit sheds light on forgotten history

"Chinese Workers' Experience" exhibit at California State Railroad Museum sheds light on forgotten h
"Chinese Workers' Experience" exhibit at California State Railroad Museum sheds light on forgotten h 02:43

SACRAMENTO -- The California State Railroad Museum's "Chinese Workers' Experience" exhibit tells the stories of Chinese railroad workers who played a fundamental role in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. 

Descendants of these workers were consulted to bring their stories to life. 

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The commemorative month is an opportunity for Americans to recognize the contributions of the AAPI community to their country. 

In Sacramento, this exhibit sheds light on an often-overlooked piece of American history. 

"You can't tell the story of building the Transcontinental Railroad without telling the story of Chinese Railroad Workers," Museum Director Ty Smith said. "They constituted 90 percent of the labor force for the Central Pacific Railroad." 

The innovation was made possible through the blood and sweat of Chinese immigrants. They persevered through harsh conditions such as severe weather and treacherous terrain to complete the project.

"The Chinese railroad workers risked everything … their life and limb," Smith said. 

Throughout history, the contributions of this group have often been skimmed over or erased. This exhibit highlights these forgotten stories. 

Dr. Herbert K. Yee was a pioneer in bringing the exhibit to fruition. The late dentist and philanthropist was honored last year for his contributions to the museum and for highlighting the perseverance of these Chinese immigrants. The exhibit includes a mural of a railroad worker that was painted in his likeness. 

His grandson, Dr. David Yee, spoke to CBS13 about his family's ties to the stories within the exhibit. 

As a descendant of a Chinese railroad worker, the exhibit gave a voice to Yee's family history that has been passed down for generations.

"The contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are an integral part of the American Dream and the American experience," Yee said. 

Yee's ancestor helped build the Transcontinental Railroad but was later killed during a time of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S.

His story planted the seeds for Yee's aunt, Jeanie Jew, to advocate for what we now know as AAPI Heritage Month. 

Jew noticed a lack of recognition for Asian Pacific Americans during the U.S. Bicentennial celebrations of 1976. She spearheaded efforts to designate AAPI Heritage Week which later became a month-long commemoration. Through her efforts, her ancestor's legacy lives on. 

"My Aunt Jeanie feels passionately that not only Asians should understand their own heritage, but that all Americans should know about the contribution and histories of the AAPI experience in the United States," Yee said.

The "Chinese Workers' Experience" exhibit stands on the first floor of the California State Railroad Museum. For Smith, the lessons of this exhibit transcend time. 

"It's a story about progress … sometimes not always neat and linear, sometimes really messy and difficult," Smith said. "It's a story about innovation."

Smith describes the museum as a "keeper of stories." However, he encourages museum-goers to look beyond the walls of the museum building and explore the historic streets of Sacramento that surround it. 

"People think of the California State Railroad Museum as the big brick building at the edge of Old Sacramento," Smith said. "But I think of the museum being outside the walls. The museum is the neighborhood. It's 'Mile marker 0' that you walk by sometimes unwittingly as you go about your day. It's the railroad depot that is still there but crumbling. History happened all around us."

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