Hell on Wheels: Chinamen, The Final Frontier

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t watched through Episode 6 this season, there are some character revelations and minor plot twists revealed, but ostensibly nothing that would alter anyone’s viewing of the show.

AMC’s Hell on Wheels entered its fifth and final season this summer with seven episodes scheduled to finish in 2015 and seven more in 2016 to close it out. The show follows a former Confederate solider, Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), as he reconciles his dark past while becoming a key player in the race to build the Transcontinental Railroad.

Admittedly, I have never been a regular viewer of the show. I only tuned in for this season after hearing that Hell would finally include Chinese railroad workers as part of its story; and not without some healthy skepticism. Chinese workers have been mostly glossed over in mainstream media depictions of the western frontier and they got the same treatment through Hell‘s first four seasons. While the show’s creators Joe and Tony Gayton gave practical reasons as to why this happened, the chances of whether the Chinese would ever be included on the show seemed less promising with each passing season.

Season Five, however, has been worth the wait.

Now six episodes in, Hell’s portrayal of Chinese railroad workers and their contributions to the Transcontinental Railroad has been, in a word, unprecedented. Which is to say that it is substantial and fair, if imperfect. It is not a token representation. Hell has a record of presenting relatively nuanced historical representations. The series has in this season, and in past episodes, worked stories around Irish immigrants and Mormon settlers in their own cultural context while, of course, using their fair share of artistic license. At times, the show feels like Boardwalk Empire for the western frontier. The show has held nothing back for the Chinese.

At the start of the season, Bohannon has relocated to Truckee, California to work for the Central Pacific Railroad, which uses primarily Chinese workers due to their relative low cost. Right away, it’s a point of contention among the white labor contractors. But these workers are still mainly background. There are three key supporting roles that give Chinese characters significant screen time and a balanced portrayal.

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Tao, played by Tzi Ma, is the de facto foreman for the Chinese. He is an educated man who’s leadership and ability to speak English make him essential to Bohannon. Fong, played by Angela Zhou, is a transgender character who is Tao’s daughter, passing as his son. She is revealed to Bohannon by mistake in Episode 2, but after she saves his life on the job, he agrees to keep her secret. Her ability to speak English gives her the opportunity to be a translator as well.

Tao and Fong are well-acted, if not particularly complex characters, though Fong has potential, following the climactic end of Episode 5, to be Hell‘s most compelling (and strongest) female lead since Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) was killed at the end of Season 2. There are shades of Mulan not so subtly hidden here, but Episode 6 was more concerned with asserting Fong’s femininity — and culturally inaccurate but forgivable tradition — as well as sexual tension between her and Bohannon. The actress Zhou herself alludes to more for Fong, but for now, she seems to be treading the path of merely a love interest.

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Finally there is Chang, played by Byron Mann, the Central Pacific’s primary labor contractor. All Chinese business in Truckee runs through his firm hand. He hires out workers and feeds them, but also exploits his people by skimming their wages, and running opium dens and brothels. Chang could have easily been another one-dimensional, exoticized villain, but the show writes him with depth. Mann gives Chang a layered performance with dark, assured intensity. Even in his measured placation to Bohannon, Chang barely hides the seething resentment he has for white men who would so blatantly dishonor him. By the end of Episode 5, Chang has firmly established himself to be an adversary on par with Bohannon’s over-arching nemesis, The Swede.

This season has been Hell’s most polished. With its days numbered, the show seems to have a clearer direction, and the pervading sense of finality works for Bohannon’s wandering cowboy. He’s got nowhere else to go, and he is focused in the moment. Unfortunately, this has also been the show’s lowest-rated season so far. The bright side is they’re unlikely to change anything to the story-line to improve ratings. The Chinese will go on whether we watch it or not. But we actually should be watching it. There has rarely been a representation of the Chinese-American experience quite like this on television.

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If nothing else, watch this show for Byron Mann. A mostly unknown character actor to this point, Mann has been exceptional as Chang. He is a villain bound and irritated by societal constraints. Chang knows what little stature he actually has in this place, but as much as it is used to diminish him, he eagerly plays it to his advantage. Episode 6 was a departure from Chang, and the mid-season finale appears to address more big picture railroad issues, but heading into the final 7 episodes, Chang could develop into one of TV’s best villains; he is already one of the most watchable Asian characters ever written for American television.

4 thoughts on “Hell on Wheels: Chinamen, The Final Frontier

  1. I’ve only been an intermittent watcher of this show, but since this is the final season, and they’ve finally included the Chinese workers, I’ll start watching it again.

  2. As a history aficionado, I always complained about the lack of the Chinese narrative on Hell on Wheels (on the AMC forum) and either someone listened or by mere coincidence I go my wish. I agree that AMC by way of Hell on Wheels now features the most unique representation of the Chinese American experience ever depicted on Western TV.

    1. Well they’ve got a martial arts/western /steampunk series coming in November. It has a significantly Asian cast. We’ll see how they do that.

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