Jiebing Chen, Jon Jang

Chinese American Symphony

In 2006, with the support of the Creative Work Fund, the Oakland East Bay Symphony and Sacramento Philharmonic commissioned Jon Jang to to compose the a work that pays tribute to the Chinese immigrant workers who built the first transcontinental railroad in the United States on May 10, 1969.

Chinese American Symphony No. 1 pays tribute to the Chinese workers of the Central Pacific Railroad whose courage built the first transcontinental railroad in the United States. Composed by American-born, Chinese composer Jon Jang, the piece was developed with the Oakland East Bay Symphony and featured soloist Jiebing Chen on the ehru, a two-string Chinese violin. Chinese American Symphonywas dedicated to Philip Choy, a longtime leader of the Chinese Historical Society of America.

Inspired by William Grant Still’s Afro American Symphony and especially Duke Ellington’s A Tone Parallel to Harlem, Jang sought to elevate Cantonese folk songs and opera into a symphonic form while honoring the unknown voices of Chinese laborers.  Through his more than two decades of compositions, Jon Jang has been dedicated to bringing the Chinese immigrant experience to life, with a particular focus on Chinese-American history in San Francisco. Jang has received many commissions and major grants, and has recorded with Max Roach, James Newton, and David Murray.  His ensembles have toured at major concert halls and music festivals in China, South Africa (1994), Europe, Canada, and the United States.

The 24-minute, one-movement symphony premiered in Sacramento on April 28, 2007, on the 138th anniversary of the day the Chinese immigrant workers set the record of laying down ten miles of track in one day. The work was also performed in Oakland’s Paramount Theater on February 21, 2008 conducted by Michael Morgan,  on the 36th anniversary of President Nixon’s visit to China.

Inspiration of the Chinese American Symphony

photo by Bob Hsiang

In 1960, my mother, older brother, younger sister and I moved from Whittier to Palo Alto. After my father died, my mother wanted to live closer to her father and brothers who lived together in a family owned building in San Francisco.  Because my mother and my relatives didn’t like to drive a car, my mother chose to buy a house in Palo Alto because it was one of the few towns that had a train station stop. Because Stanford University is located in Palo Alto, it was also my mother’s dream that her three children would someday attend Stanford University.  Years later, I learned that my mother’s decision to live in Palo Alto was because of the train station stop and the railroad.

Nearly five decades later, I composed the Chinese American Symphony to pay tribute to the Chinese immigrant workers who built the first transcontinental railroad. I never realized that my childhood growing years in Palo Alto and our family history in San Francisco Chinatown would influence one of the most significant achievements of my musical legacy: I would become the first American born Chinese composer to compose a symphony that pays tribute to the Chinese immigrant workers who built the first transcontinental railroad in the United States.

In 1963, the year the Chinese Historical Society of America was founded in San Francisco, I was 9 years old. Because I lived in Palo Alto, I was often reminded that Stanford built the railroad.  By the time I was in the 4th grade in 1963, students had to learn to sing children songs about building the railroad such as I’ve Been Working on the RailroadJohn Henry and Paddy Works on the Erie.  But there were no children songs that valorized the Chinese immigrant workers who built the first transcontinental railroad in the United States.  

I also watched a lot of cartoons on television such as Popeye the Sailor Man that used Verdi’s Anvil Chorus to depict the repetitive shipyard work, as well as working in a spinach can factory.  Recalling these childhood experiences, the very first sounds that you hear in the Chinese American Symphony is the anvil, a percussion instrument, to not only suggest the striking of the golden spike but also to obscure the racialized identity of the railroad worker because I learned who (Hu) really built the railroad six years later.

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Article about the Chinese American Symphony

Oakland East Bay Symphony summons slice of Chinese-American history


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Jon Jang Narrating: Who Built the Railroad


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