by Jindong Cai, Professor of Music and Arts and the director of US-China Music Institute at Bard College Conservatory of Music



2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad across the United States. Between 1863 and 1869, tens of thousands of men labored under perilous, often deadly conditions to build the tracks that would join the Eastern and Western halves of the United States and forever transform our nation.  

On May 10, 1869, Leland Stanford traveled to Promontory Summit, Utah, where he drove a golden spike into the ground and ceremonially linked the tracks of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific, thereby completing the line. All but invisible at the Golden Spike ceremony, and long missing from historic record, are the thousands of Chinese workers who toiled to lay the line over the monumental Sierra Nevada mountains and across the burning deserts of Nevada and Utah. To give a voice to these Chinese migrants, Stanford professors Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin established the important Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University in 2012, coordinating research and publishing new findings both online and in print.   

Now, to further amplify the long-silent voices of the Railroad Chinese, the Stanford Center for East Asian Studies and the US-China Music Institute at the Bard College Conservatory of Music have collaborated with the Chinese Railroad Workers’ Project to commission a musical work, Men of Iron and the Golden Spike.  This project was conceived by Professor Chang and me back in 2013 following many discussions about how best to mark this important anniversary. We finally decided to bring the story to the stage with a large-scale symphonic oratorio. The combination of orchestra and choruses from the U.S. and China reflects the magnitude of the undertaking, and also creates a piece for many participants, just like the building of the railroad.


As we sought to commission the piece, we learned that Yale-based writer Su Wei had penned an opera libretto on this very subject some 20 years ago. He had also written the lyrics for another oft-performed oratorio called Ask the Sky and the Earth, which commemorates the “sent-down youth” movement in China’s Cultural Revolution that saw millions of urban youth sent to the countryside to learn from the farmers. We knew that Su Wei was the perfect person to write the lyrics to Men of Iron and the Golden Spike and we were fortunate that he agreed to do so.   

Sue Wei

An oratorio of this scale naturally requires exceptional music, so we were thrilled when Pulitzer-prize winning composer Zhou Long agreed to accept our commission. Zhou does extensive research to inform his music, and last year he came out to Stanford and drove with me to the Sierra Mountains and the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento so he could see firsthand where the Railroad Chinese lived and worked.  

Zhou Long

Men of Iron and the Golden Spike will be performed at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall on October 6th, presented by Stanford Live.  The performance will follow the piece’s premiere at Carnegie Hall on October 1 during the second annual China Now Music Festival, a series of concerts and lectures presented by the US-China Music Institute at Bard College. The piece will be performed at Stanford by The Orchestra Now, conducted by Jindong Cai, and will feature vocalists alongside the Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale.

Jindong Cai is Professor of Music and Arts and the director of US-China Music Institute at Bard College Conservatory of Music.   


From the Middle Kingdom to the Wild West
The Orchestra Now, conducted by Jindong Cai
Sun, October 6 at 2:30pm
Bing Concert Hall
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