Anna Chen's writing - Coolie


A novel in progress about some of the thousands of Chinese workers who built the transcontinental Central Pacific railroad in the 1860s through hostile terrain, and the strike that won them pride and a moment of solidarity with their white fellow labourers.

After slavery in the South, the steady extermination of the Native Americans, and the savage treatment of the Mexicans and Irish, the Chinese are the latest people to undergo extraordinary hardship in the creation of modern America. Between 1864 and 1869, thousands of Chinese sign up for Theodore Judah's engineering feat of the century. This iron road is to link east and west coasts through the construction of the continent's first pan-American railroad, and eventually join the Union Pacific leg at Utah.

Among the young men shipped in from China by the Central Pacific Railroad company are Li, the gentle English-speaking son of a Cantonese clerk, and his friends who are hoping to make their fortunes. They toil for lower wages and under worse conditions than their white counterparts through the unyielding granite of California's Sierra Nevada mountains and the deserts beyond, through baking heat and sixty-foot snowdrifts. Twelve hundred of them will not survive the ordeal.

Danny is a sparky Irish youth, the "runt of the litter" and one of two thousand Irish workers on the railroad, who befriends Li. Merciless bullying by Shaw, a brutal foreman, awakens a sense of rebellion in the friends and unites them in their efforts to be treated as human beings. Li unexpectedly finds love when he is drawn to the Princess, one of the handful of Chinese prostitutes working the goldrush towns, but Shaw has other plans.

The sheer hard work of all the workers makes millionaires of the Central Pacific Railroad's Big Four Bosses who play the Irish and Chinese against each other and keep the fledgling labour movement in check. Denied the fruits of the very labour which had helped carve out a whole new era for the north American continent, the Chinese are robbed, murdered and even excluded from the final ceremony celebrating the completion of the railroad.

When four thousand Chinese go on strike things will never be the same.


I first learnt about the Chinese railroad workers in 1993 when I was working with the late sinologist and author, Martin Booth, on his screenplay, Celestial Cowboys, a fictionalised account of Chinese cowboys in the Wild West, for Film Fatale.

My subsequent research uncovered an exciting episode in which thousands of Chinese workers went on strike, reversing the myth that the Chinese are incapable of fighting for their rights. I incorporated this incident into my rewrite of Martin's screenplay in 1994, gaining interest from Stephen King's UK agent in the process, and then decided to fully pursue the subject in a novel.

Having a father who was a militant labour activist, it was important to me to put down a marker and write about those 4,000 forgotten heroes who asserted their humanity in a formative event in modern American history. This is a project I will be returning to soon.