CHINESE ROOTS IN KIDS' BOOK
AUTHOR TELLS STORY OF IMMIGRANT RAILROAD BUILDERS
The creation of the Trans-Continental Railroad, the first rail line to span the United States from coast to coast, was also a pivotal event in the history of Chinese immigration to this country. Just as the American Civil War was ending, thousands of men fled the crushing famine and poverty of China to take jobs building the railroad. According to one historian, at one point two-thirds of the more than 4,000 men laying the track were Chinese.
There are myriad books on the subject. This story is about one of the most recent. "Coolies," a children's book, was published last year by Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Putnam Books. It's the first book by author, Yin.
It's the story of two brothers who leave China for a job on the railroad in the "Golden Mountain," which is what Chinese laborers called the U.S.
The book has won a Parents Choice Foundation Gold Award and the International Reading Association book award for its 31-year-old author. Pretty good for a first book, one that was years in the making. And to think it all started with a television show - "Little House on the Prairie" to be exact. "I was just a kid, watching 'Little House,' and it was about the railroad," Yin said. "At the back of this crowd of workers there was one Chinese man. I noticed him because there weren't many Chinese people on television."
That sighting sparked Yin's obsession to find out more about the workers. Like many first-generation Americans, Yin - born on the lower East Side, near Avenue D and Houston St. - a child of Chinese immigrant parents, had not exactly been raised in her parents' culture. "I was not raised around Chinese people," Yin, said. "Most of our neighbors were Hispanic. So I didn't know anything about Chinese workers and the railroad. I don't think many people of my generation knew much about it."
The desire to know more about them stayed with Yin through Murry Bergtraum High while she earned a degree in finance from Baruch College, and through five years of writing financial reports for Wall Street companies. She left that job when the career of her husband, Chris Soentpiet, as a children's book illustrator began to take off. She now manages his career full-time - Chris is an award-winning illustrator who also was the subject of a Daily News Great Person profile.
Travel and research
Managing her husband's career also presented Yin with opportunities to work on her project. A business trip to China allowed time to research the immigrant wave from that continent.
Another trip to the West Coast included a stop at the Golden Spike Museum in Promontory, Utah, where researchers gave Yin even more information.
For example, two huge work crews - one starting from the West Coast, another from the East - built the Transcontinental Railroad. The two lines met at Promontory, where a ceremonial golden spike was used to make the final connection.
That intense research allowed Yin to get the details right. For instance, Chinese workers wore dark clothing because only royalty was allowed to wear bright colors. And most were delivered to the West Coast by clipper ship, not the steamships usually seen in movies about that period.
Yin said she and editor Patricia Lee Gauch had a hard time keeping "Coolies" as the title, because the term is sometimes considered derogatory. A family affair 'I don't feel we should be ashamed of the name," Yin said. "That is what they were called. I'm Chinese, and I tell you it is not derogatory."
Of course, Chris provided the detailed illustrations for her tome. But "Coolies" is even more of a family affair.
Chris Soentpiet used models as studies for his illustrations. Scattered throughout the book are illustrations of various Soentpiet and Lau - Yin's maiden name - relatives. Yin was the model for the woman watching a clipper ship being loaded. Yin is following "Coolies" with another book, again illustrated by her husband, to be released later this year. That one, "Dear Santa: Please Come to the 19th Floor," is due out this fall. "I'm just happy to be published," Yin said. "Now I just hope some director like Ang Lee decides to make a movie from the book."
SIDEBAR: A SAMPLING OF YIN'S WORK. An excerpt from "Coolies" by Yin: Chinese laborers had been hired by the Central Pacific Railroad Company to build railroad tracks headed east. Irish railroad workers had been hired by the Union Pacific Railroad Company, and starting from Omaha, Nebraska, they headed west. When the two railroad companies met in Utah, passengers and cargo would be able to cross the continent in days instead of months. The bosses hired by Central Pacific did not believe the Chinese could endure the building of the railroad - on average they were skinny and looked upon as mere weaklings. The bosses made fun of their straw hats, pajama-like clothes and even their long queues, braids which they wore down the center of their backs. "Coolies," they were called. Lowly workers.