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.

Act IV
Who (Hu) Built the Railroad?

In May 1969, I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a ceremony in Utah to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad. I was shocked to learn that it was actually the Chinese immigrant workers, not Stanford, who built the first transcontinental railroad in the US. I was shocked to learn that John Volpe, the keynote speaker who was the Secretary of Transportation, declared a number of times that it was quote unquote “American workers who built the railroad.” My Uncle Phil Choy, Chairman of the Chinese Historical Society of America, was outraged about the US government complete erasure of the history of Chinese immigrant workers who built the first transcontinental railroad in United States.

At the same time in May 1969, I was the 9th grade president at a predominantly white student school in Palo Alto. During the last month of school, I had to spend the remaining weeks in San Francisco because my maternal grandfather, who was the last living Chinese immigrant born member in our family, was dying. Gung Gung was also a member of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, one of the first Chinese American civil rights organizations in San Francisco. After Gung Gung passed away, I returned to Palo Alto, to Stanford –the name of the person recognized for building the railroad.  After I spoke as class president at my junior high school graduation, I never ran for office again in high school.


Act V

Oberlin College Conservatory of Music
The Underground Railroad
The Afro-American Symphony

During my undergraduate years at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, I learned that the town of Oberlin was an important destination point for black slaves who had escaped through the Underground Railroad. I was encouraged to take an Afro-American music history course taught by Dr. Wendell Logan who became an important father-figure and mentor in my life.

During the early 1970s before I enrolled at Oberlin, I read eight books about Afro-American music written mostly by black writers. When I took Dr. Logan’s Introduction to Afro American Music Course, there were only two books about Afro-American music that was on the required reading list: The Music of Black Americans: A History by Eileen Southern and Blues People by Leroi Jones. Reading Blues People, by Leroi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka) the second time around had a profound impact on me. Jones notes that black slaves brought their work songs from West Africa to United States. This made me consider the possibility that Chinese immigrant workers who built the first transcontinental railroad in the United States may have brought their work songs from China to the American West.

In Dr. Logan’s incredible history course, I was also introduced to a recording of William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony (1930).  This symphony honored the blues and other African American folk forms that had been considered lowly expressions of the despised and primitive at that time.  

After the class was over, I stopped in front of the sculpture of the Underground Railroad that had been created by a white student which was across the street from the Conservatory. I gazed in wonderment at the sculpture of railroad tracks jutting upward from the grass. An epiphany came through me and I thought to myself: “Someday I will compose a Chinese American symphony, like William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony, which would pay tribute to the Chinese immigrant workers who built the first transcontinental railroad in the United States.”  Thirty years later, my big dream came true.


Act VI
Who (Hu) Composed the Chinese American Symphony?
Jon Jang

“I write history. You put it to music.”

 – Uncle Phil Choy, historian and spokesperson for the Chinese Historical Society of America

 In 2006, after enduring 15 years of rejections, my big dream came true when the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra and the Oakland East Bay Symphony commissioned me to compose the Chinese American Symphony. In 2007, I composed this work to pay tribute to the Chinese immigrant laborers who built the first transcontinental railroad in the United States, as well as to “Uncle” Philip Choy, longtime historian and spokesperson for the Chinese Historical Society of America.  History was made when the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra and the Oakland East Bay Symphony under the direction of Michael Morgan, gave two very powerful and inspiring performances of my composition, the Chinese American Symphony, to audiences’ of 2000 people in Sacramento in 2007 and 6000 in Oakland in 2008. 

To prepare to compose my first symphony about Chinese immigrants building the railroad, I focused my attention on studying scores of music that had train themes such as Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231 (Mouvement symphonique No.1) (1923), Li Jinhui’s Midnight Express (1928), Heitor Villa-Lobos’ 4th movement Tocata (O Trezinho do Caipira) from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2 (1930), Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s Daybreak Express (1933) and Track 360 (1958), and Steve Reich’s Different Trains (1988).

In these works, Honegger, Villa-Lobos, Ellington-Strayhorn and Reich showed me musical techniques concerned with acceleration, repetition and momentum. In works by Villa-Lobos and Li Jinhui, I also learned about composing a melody that was attached to a national identity whether a Brazilian or Chinese melody over a structure of train sounds. Because Villa-Lobos utilized Brazilian rattles and I grew up listening to Verdi’s Anvil Chorus music used in cartoons, it gave me the idea to feature the anvil, a percussion instrument, to musically suggest the golden spike.


Act VI, Scene 2
Who (Hu) Are You?Jiebing Chen on ErHu

The Chinese American Symphony depicts the Chinese immigrant harsh and working conditions in the American West, the Irish workers and robber barons (a reference to the unofficial Irish anthem “Danny Boy” played by third flutist performance on the penny whistle, a popular Irish instrument) and the iron horse. The dazzling virtuosity of Jiebing Chen’s erhu (Chinese two string violin) becomes the hero, symbolizing the unconquerable Chinese worker, whose strength reaches mythic proportions despite his small stature. As is evident in one of Chen’s showcase works, Galloping Horse, the horse in Chinese culture is a powerful symbol of boundless spirit and energy. Toward the end of the Chinese American Symphony I incorporated this spirit and energy. When the erhu plays a four-note figure and accelerates to rapid speed, the instruments suggests the iron horse.

The symphony ends with a pastoral musical setting featuring a simple Chinese folk song melody performed by the erhu. A single flute, oboe, and clarinet each echo a call of pathos to the departing erhu as a sweet whisper of a flower. The violas, cellos, and double basses become deciduous trees that shed their leaves as the harp glides away. As the memory of the unconquerable Chinese immigrant worker fades away, the erhu becomes the lily that can endure the winter of our discontent made glorious by our summer by our sun. We are left with just three sounds of the golden spike (anvil) to express the ephemeral sense of life. As it opened, the Chinese American Symphony closes with sound of the golden spike performed by the anvil. Let America remember not only the golden spike but the Chinese immigrant worker who drove it!

San Francisco composer Jon Jang’s works brings to life the transnational history of Chinese immigration in the United States, as well as pay homage to Afro American history and the present.