"Names are humanity," posted Rich Maggiani on his blog in 2009. "Names create a connection that moves beyond the mundane, the everyday transactions of life."
I agree. Few of us would prefer being addressed as "Mr. 2271" or "Ms. H7m4Y." Our traditional surnames and given names express our identities in a manner various identification numbers and electronic passwords simply can't.
In "Moon-Flame Woman" (my short story included in the Shanghai Steam Anthology) my main character is Cho Ting-Lam. Cho is her family surname. Ting means graceful. Lam, a variant of Lin in some dialects, means beautiful jade. Yet Cho Ting-Lam hears her own lovely name spoken only within her mind. First of all, she's disguised as a man. Furthermore, to the Central Pacific Railway--her employer--she has no name at all.
History tells us that the Central Pacific hired as many as 23,000 Chinese workers between 1864 and 1869, as that company built the western section of the U.S. Transcontinental Railway. The Central Pacific couldn't--or wouldn't--cope with documenting so many Chinese names. The limited number of phonetic versions they did record belonged to Chinese labor contractors (headmen). Cho Ting-Lam's "employee name" probably would have been a shared number: the number of her work gang.
Please notice that I didn't incorporate most of the above details into "Moon-Flame Woman." Such information wouldn't have moved Ting-Lam's story forward. Survival and restoration of personal dignity (unrelated to her name) concern Ting-Lam far more than what barbarians choose to call her. She's trying her best to unleash the true power of her moon-flame gun. Still, the prejudice of American railroad men in the nineteenth century belittled the humanity and individual worth of their Chinese employees, and on more than one level. Those interested in the topic should read William F. Chew's book: Nameless Builders of the Transcontinental.
Speaking of identification, the Central Pacific did not record the deaths of the approximately 1,300 Chinese laborers who perished on the job during the California-to-Utah construction process. The loss of those lives was documented primarily through an 1870 newspaper article. A train had carried 20,000 pounds of bones--the unidentified remains of about 1,200 workers--to be returned to China. In the nineteenth century, railroad construction was a risky business.
Ting-Lam, in "Moon-Flame Woman," finds the touch of a male coworker embarrassing, even when that man pulls her to safety before an explosion. I suspect the prospect of having her bones jumbled together with those of 1,199 men would not have pleased her. I can even envision her spirit warming from shame. More than names comprise humanity.
Laurel Anne Hill
Author of the award-winning novel, Heroes Arise
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