‘Hell on Wheels’ Pays Tribute to the History of Chinese Railroad Workers in America

A. Zhou and Tzi Ma in 'Hell on Wheels.' (Photo credit: David Bukach/AMC.)

Hell on Wheels” is an AMC TV show about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, and follows the drama and corruption that ensue during the race between the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad networks. As the show embarks on its fifth and final season, Cullen Bohannon (played by actor and producer Anson Mount) has left his role at the Union Pacific and moved to West to work on the Central Pacific railroad.

This means that he will be amidst new surroundings, and there will be a whole host of new characters representing the thousands of Chinese workers, which historically constituted 80% of the Central Pacific work force in the late 1800s.

Byron Mann, who plays series regular Chang, found the experience ground-breaking. “This story has never been told onscreen in America,” he says in AMC’s First Look video. “In some ways, it’s emotional to be doing the show.”

This year is the 150th anniversary of Chinese immigration to the US to build the railroads — the first Chinese laborers were hired in 1865 for approximately $30 a month, much less than their white counterparts — and it’s especially meaningful to have a story focusing on these Chinese American laborers, because in real life, they made enormous contributions to the landscape of the American West in treacherous conditions but were not acknowledged for their work.

"The most dangerous job for the Chinese was drilling and blasting - planting explosives on the side, lighting the fuse, and having to be hauled up before the explosion went off," says Mount. "It's sad because I don't think we have a single name of a laborer that died on the railroad, whether they're Chinese or white. They were often left in unmarked graves."

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Byron Mann's character Chang is a former rebel who fought in the Taiping Rebellion who is now a very powerful businessman caught between the peasant Chinese workers and the railroad's white overlords. "Chang's sole leverage is that he controls the 15,000 Chinese workers on this railroad," explains Mann. "He will not hesitate to do anything he deems necessary to get what he wants."

“He sees himself making an empire in America,” he explains, “so the question for him is never will he make money, the question is how much money will he make.”

Tzi Ma plays Tao, one of the most revered on the railway workers force.

“His advantage is that he speaks English fairly fluently, because he was educated in missionary schools in China,” Ma explains in the clip.

He’s a former scholar and graduate of a British engineering school in China, so he works well with Cullen but as the season goes on, it’ll be revealed that he harbors a secret.

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And A. Zhou has a role as Fong, a railroad worker who acts as Cullen’s translator, the type of person who willing to depart from traditions and embrace the new.

Season 5 premieres Saturday, July 18. Seven episodes will air this summer, and the last half of the season is scheduled for Summer 2016.

“We’re really excited to tell the story of the Union Pacific racing against the Pacific, where they ultimately meet together at Promontory point, Utah,” says “Hell on Wheels” producer Chad Oakes.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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