By Shirley N Lew
AsAmNews NY Correspondent
Photos by Lia Chang
Season five of Hell on Wheels has introduced three Asian American characters to the AMC series..
The show follows the life of Cullen Bohannon, a financier of the transcontinental railroad. He finds himself among thousands of railroad workers and 15,000 alone are Chinese.
Chinese railroad workers will continue to be included in the rest of the season.
Shows one and three of season five were shown at the Asian American International Film Festival in New York this past week.
Chinese Americans have found the episodes depicting the deadly work conditions and tense relations the Chinese endured pretty moving. It is one of the first times Chinese have been portrayed in the building of the railroad on major television.
Episode one, Chinatown, introduces the characters Fong (Angela Zhou), Tao (Tzi Ma) and Chang (Byron Mann).
Tao and Fong work hard along side their own, but since Tao speaks English he becomes a valuable asset to Bohannon. Chang is the primary labor contractor with fluent English and behaves bourgeois over his own kind. He is quick to please his “white overlords”, but doesn’t seem to gain much from them.
In episode three, White Justice, Chang demands justice after he is attacked by jealous and unemployed Irishmen. At that time, California law forbade the Chinese to testify, making it impossible to receive a fair trial. Perhaps justice will come in the future episodes.
Showrunner and producer John Wirth told the audience that he has been consulting with Professor Gordon Chang of Stanford University to accurately portray the Chinese railroad workers in the show.
Wirth said he’s shocked that there aren’t any manifests to be found on the transport of the Chinese or even personal letters of their livelihood in the US.
“There’s a lot of stories that were told in families of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers who worked on the railroad. These stories were passed down. They weren’t written down, not even letters. Perhaps they got lost. We’ve been digging deep to find the research. What we can’t find in research we make-up, but we try to hold to the historical record,“ Wirth told the audience.
Zhou’s character Fong is Tao’s daughter, a Chinese railroad worker. Fong poses as a young man to escape her war torn homeland and risk of being forced into prostitution.
“I was scared out of my mind. I had to walk and talk like a boy and be on top of my Cantonese,” said Zhou. “I didn’t know too much about Chinese American history, but I was given books to read about the railroad workers, the tong wars and even the PBS series “Becoming American, The Chinese Story.”
Tao, played by Tzi Ma, was personally moved by the show.
“America would not be America today without our Chinese contribution. We have 3 million viewers and it is the first time a major media production is telling the story of the Chinese building the railroad,” he said.
Hell on Wheels airs on Saturdays at 9pm/8 Central on AMC.