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29 May 2019

Grant Din: Uncovering Asian American history from the Transcontinental Railroad to the Titanic


It’s been a busy month for local genealogist Grant Din. In addition to the usual flurry of events marking Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, this year marked the 150th anniversary of theTranscontinental Railroad—a monumental undertaking built largely by Chinese laborers. Din was among those who gathered in Promontory, Utah, on May 10 for the sesquicentennial celebration. “It was just exciting to be a part of it,” he said.

Grant Din
Din joined others of Chinese descent for a group photograph at the site where a ceremonial golden spike marked the joining of the Central and Union Pacific railroads on May 10, 1869. It was part of a years-long movement of Asian Americans reclaiming their history. In the official photos taken at Promontory Point on May 10, 1869, Chinese faces are nowhere to be seen. The Chinese contributions were also dismissed at the 100th anniversary celebration in 1969. At that event, Philip Choy, president of the Chinese Historical Society, was bumped from the official festivities by the arrival of a surprise guest, John Wayne; and U. S. Secretary of Transportation John Volpe lauded the building of the railroad with these words: “Who else but Americans could chisel through miles of solid granite?” This year, the Transportation Secretary was Elaine Chao and featured speakers included Bay Area historian Connie Young Yu, who proclaimed, “I am a descendant of a Chinese railroad worker, an American, speaking about American history.” 
Grant Din (far right by post) and others at the 150th anniversary celebration of the Transcontinental Railroad. Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
Uncovering the hidden past is a slow and ongoing process, but that’s the nature of genealogy and history. Din, who formerly worked as community resources director for the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, is an experienced genealogist whose specialties include research into “paper sons” and “paper daughters,” Chinese who came to America under assumed names and identities: it was the only way to get around the restrictive immigration policy dictated by the Chinese Exclusion Act, which held sway from 1882 until World War II.

Din’s detective skills led to recent work as a consultant for “The Six,” a documentary about six Chinese workers who survived the 1912 Titanic disaster. The film by Arthur Jones and Steven Schwankert, currently in production, looks into the fate of six Chinese workers who survived the 1912 Titanic disaster. All were experienced seamen. When they booked steerage class on the ill-fated ocean liner they were on their way to meet another ship, the Annetta, which would carry them to the Caribbean to work on fruit ships. Eight Chinese nationals boarded the Titanic in April 1912. Two of them, Len Lam and Lee Ling, are thought to have perished along with more than 1,500 other victims lost after the ship hit an iceberg and sank. The other six made it out alive. But instead of being brought ashore and sheltered at New York with other survivors, they were promptly transferred to the Annetta, which departed within 24 hours. What little mention they received in the New York press was derogatory; it was widely reported that the men had dressed as women, pushed children aside, or hidden like stowaways in order to get on the lifeboats—all completely false allegations. And then the trail goes cold.

"The Six" (Facebook)
“They couldn’t enter the U.S. because of the Chinese Exclusion Act,” said Din. “And because of the Exclusion Act, no one wanted to talk about it.” The filmmakers found one man from the Midwest who was told after his father’s death that his father had been on the Titanic. Din and other researchers followed obscure clues, making their way through a web of different names and changing identities to try to determine if this story was true, and to bring the survivors’ stories to light and to find their descendants. The crew of international researchers shared information via Skype, at one point conferring weekly. The project, Din said, was “probably the most fun I’ve had in genealogical work besides my own family.” And with the stories they uncovered and the family connections forged by the researchers, a bit more human history comes to light.

To view a trailer for "The Six," click here.

Copyright © 2019 by California Genealogical Society

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