Stanford University’s History Is Inextricably Linked with Asian American History
And it’s time for the University to acknowledge it
This op-ed was collaboratively composed by a multi-generational coalition that includes Doug Chan, Kevin Fan Hsu, Katie Gee Salisbury, Jacob Wang, and Connie Young Yu.
There’s nothing like the feeling of entering Stanford University through the majestic, tree-lined approach of Palm Drive. More than 130 years ago, a Chinese man named Jim Mok and a team of Chinese gardeners employed by the Stanfords labored together to plant the 166 palm trees that would one day become emblematic of the University.(1)
In fact, hundreds of Chinese workers also leveled the terrain, laid building foundations and set up other vital physical infrastructure (including the subterranean steam tunnels) needed for a functioning university campus.(2) More than 100 of these workers were still employed in the 1890s, when the first students matriculated and graduated.(3) The fascinating history of Chinese laborers on campus has been unearthed by a dedicated group of Stanford archaeologists working at the Arboretum archaeological site on campus, yet their stories (like too many others) remain largely unknown to students, faculty and alumni — and as a result, uncelebrated.
It is time for the University to definitively acknowledge the contributions of Chinese Americans in its founding and most formative years. We are grateful to the faculty and student researchers who have meticulously documented many of these stories, but it is the University’s responsibility as an institution to publicize this history both within the Stanford community and in the public sphere.
From its inception, Stanford University has benefited from the contributions of Asian Americans, including these unsung Chinese workers. Even so, the institution’s relationship with Chinese Americans in particular has been anything but straightforward. In light of recent celebrations of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, it is appropriate to pause and critically examine Stanford’s complicated legacy — that of Leland Stanford Sr. the man, as well as the institution he and his wife Jane founded to honor their son, Leland Jr.
Leland Stanford Sr. amassed his vast fortune by presiding over the Central Pacific Railroad, as one of the Big Four robber barons leading the organization. Chinese laborers, primarily from Guangdong, constituted 90% of the company’s workforce. They were often assigned the most dangerous work, such as setting off explosives and digging tunnels through unyielding granite.(4) When the transcontinental railroad that linked the nation’s two coasts was completed in 1869, it was largely due to these workers’ blood, sweat and tears, despite being compensated significantly less than white laborers.
Yet as Professor Gordon Chang describes, Leland Stanford’s attitude toward the Chinese was “tense, ambivalent and complex.”(5) Stanford the politician pandered to nativists and embraced anti-Chinese hate as a matter of political expediency. In his inaugural speech as Governor of California in January 1862, he said:
“To my mind it is clear, that the settlement among us of an inferior race is to be discouraged by every legitimate means. Asia, with her numberless millions, sends to our shores the dregs of her population. … There can be no doubt but that the presence among us of numbers of degraded and distinct people must exercise a deleterious influence upon the superior race, and to a certain extent, repel desirable immigration.”(6)
Within a couple years, Stanford’s own Central Pacific Railroad Company would be hiring the same despised Chinese labor. Through interactions with his employees, Stanford revised his earlier opinions of the Chinese and admitted that they were intelligent, hardworking and loyal servants.(7) Yet as a newly elected U.S. Senator from California, he spoke to Congress in support of additional legislation to curtail the Chinese presence in America, declaring, “Chinamen have played an important part in the development of that section of the country by the work they have done in the building up of railroads and in other improvements, as well as manufactures; but the limit of their usefulness has been reached. Not only should no more be allowed to come into the country, but those now here should be gradually returned.”(8)
This ambivalence manifested throughout his politics, as he publicly called for federal restrictions on Chinese immigration, endorsed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barring Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States and affirmed the 1892 Geary Act extending these restrictions.(9) At the same time, Chinese workers operated and maintained his family properties, including a vineyard, the Stanford mansion atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill (at the time, the “largest private residence” in the state) and the Palo Alto stock farm that eventually became the campus of Stanford University.(10)
During this period when anti-Chinese hatred festered in the country, Leland and Jane Stanford did what they could to protect their Chinese employees from outside intimidation and harassment. They even leased some of their land to workers like Jim Mok, who used it to cultivate and sell chrysanthemums to students to earn a bit of extra income. For the Big Game of 1895, a profusion of “football mums” colored the stands. Stanford students wore large, festive chrysanthemums in red hues pinned to their jackets, while Cal students wore yellow ones, creating a tradition that endured for decades to come.(11)
Since its early days, Stanford University has admitted Japanese and Chinese students. But this admission was often met with overt racism, reminding us that entrance to an elite institution does not equate to inclusion. When a Chinese freshman attempted to move into the dorms at Encina Hall in 1918, he was bodily thrown out by white students. The outraged Chinese community rallied to fund the construction of a clubhouse on campus, where Chinese students could live while studying at Stanford. Chinese students and members of the Chinese business community worked together to buy a house on campus and rebuild it. Originally located on Salvatierra, where the Stanford Law School stands today, the Chinese Clubhouse was torn down in 1971 to make way for more University construction. Just as much of Asian American history has been papered over, the community’s tangible heritage on campus was demolished.
As Asian American alumni, we look upon Stanford with great affection; yet we must also recall the challenges and injustices the AAPI community has overcome to be part of the University. Recognizing past wrongs, while uncovering and celebrating powerful stories of resilience, is not an indictment of our alma mater. Rather, it is a long-overdue reckoning — and an opportunity to initiate healing and forge a stronger sense of collective history. One welcome step would be the installation of a sign on campus to commemorate this history and ensure that it is readily accessible to students, alumni and visitors.
Crucially, we believe that any act commemorating the Chinese in America is also necessarily an act of reconciliation. Thus, the process undertaken is just as important as the end result. This process should be founded on meaningful consultation and active participation of the community being represented. We ask the University to engage with our community and empower us to be co-authors of our own story. Such an approach represents best practices for national parks, historical landmarks and museums across the country and embraces the ethos: Nothing about us, without us.
Stanford administrators can take inspiration from numerous past initiatives honoring Chinese American workers: the Chinese Historical Society of America’s plaque commemorating their critical contribution to the first transcontinental railroad; other markers honoring the Chinese around North America, with text crafted by our communities in both English and Traditional Chinese; or Stanford’s own Market Street Chinatown Archaeological Project in San Jose, led by Archaeology Center Director Barbara Voss. Community leadership made these efforts resonate all the more.
Stanford may be a private institution, but its history constitutes a public legacy. If justice, equity, diversity and inclusion truly matter to Stanford, as Provost Persis Drell asserts, then the University must strive to genuinely engage with the Chinese American community in bringing this history to light.
We urge University leaders to prioritize inclusion and to co-create with communities of color. Avoid tokenistic engagement that does not truly involve communities on matters important to them. Partner with civic groups to develop these narratives into innovative heritage experiences. Through collaboration, the possibilities are boundless.
This op-ed originally appeared in The Stanford Daily. It was collaboratively composed by a multi-generational coalition working to commemorate the diaspora community’s contributions to building the very foundations of Stanford University. It includes the following individuals:
Doug Chan ’76 serves as President of the Chinese Historical Society of America.
Kevin Fan Hsu ’08 M.S. ’11 is the former president of the Stanford Asian Pacific American Alumni Club (SAPAAC). He also holds a master’s in Cultural Heritage Management.
Katie Gee Salisbury ’07 is a writer and photographer based in Brooklyn; she is currently at work on a biography of Anna May Wong, the first Asian American movie star.
Jacob Wang ’72 is a founding board member of the Stanford Asian Pacific American Alumni Club (SAPAAC), as well as a founding member and co-chairperson of the Asian American Student Alliance (AASA) from 1969–72.
Connie Young Yu is the great-granddaughter of a laborer on the Central Pacific. She is the author of Chinatown, San Jose, USA and co-editor of Voices from the Railroad: Stories by Descendants of Chinese Railroad Workers.
We wish to thank the Arboretum Chinese Labor Quarters project for its ongoing efforts, guided by experts such as Barbara Voss, Laura Jones, Julie Cain, Garrett Trask, Christina Hodge, Megan Victor, Christopher Lowman and many others. We are extremely grateful for the Chinese Railroad Workers of North America Project, led by historians Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, with the help of Hilton Obenzinger, Roland Hsu and Prof. Voss.
1. Alex Kekauoha, “Uncovering the lives of Chinese workers who built Stanford,” Stanford News, April 11, 2019, https://news.stanford.edu/2019/04/11/uncovering-lives-chinese-workers-built-stanford/; Kathleen Chaykowski, “Rooted in History,” The Stanford Daily, February 18, 2010, https://stanforddaily.com/2010/02/18/rooted-in-history/.
2. Julie A. Cain, “The Chinese and the Stanfords: Immigration Rhetoric in Nineteenth-Century California,” a university thesis presented to the Faculty of California State University, East Bay, June 2011.
3. Gordon H. Chang, “The Chinese and the Stanfords: Nineteenth-Century America’s Fraught Relationship with the China Men,” Amerasia Journal, vol. 45, 2019, pp. 86–102.
4. Chinese Railroad Workers of North America Project, http://web.stanford.edu/group/chineserailroad/cgi-bin/website/.
5. Chang, 2019.
6. Leland Stanford, “Inaugural Address,” delivered January 10, 1862, The Governors’ Gallery, accessed May 27, 2022, https://governors.library.ca.gov/addresses/08-Stanford.html.
7. “Chinese Exclusion. Reported Expressions of Senator Stanford Upon the Subject,” Sacramento Daily Record Union, January 7, 1889.
8. “The National Capital,” Sacramento Daily Record Union, 28 February 1886, 1, cited by Cain 2011.
9. Chang, 2019; Barbara L. Voss, “The Historical Experience of Labor: Archaeological Contributions to Interdisciplinary Research on Chinese Railroad Workers,” Historical Archaeology, vol. 49, no. 1, 2015, pp. 4–23, https://www.jstor.org/stable/43491356.
10. Chang, 2019; Elena Shao, “Remembering the Chinese railroad workers that built Stanford’s fortune,” The Stanford Daily, May 23, 2019, https://stanforddaily.com/2019/05/23/chinese-railroad-workers/.
11. Christopher B. Lowman, “Artifacts Spark Stories: Archaeology and Oral History at Stanford’s Arboretum Chinese Quarters,” Chinese America: History and Perspectives, 2018, pp. 65–73.