Golden Spike National Historic Site

Max Chang: Reenvisioning history through the arts

Max Chang likes to joke — but he’s serious, too — about his claim as the state’s first Taiwanese-Utah native. He was born just a few months after his parents moved to Salt Lake City in 1969.

In seventh-grade history class at Churchill Junior High, Chang learned about the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad at Utah’s Promontory Summit in 1869. But “the contribution of the Chinese workers was, at best, a footnote,” he says. At age 12, young Max vowed he wouldn’t visit the Golden Spike National Historic Site until the labor of Chinese workers was acknowledged.

Illustration of Utah business leader Max Chang

Flash forward more than three decades, as the now 50-something business leader heads his family’s real estate and development company and serves on many Utah arts nonprofits and community boards.

At a meeting outlining Utah’s plans to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the railroad, Chang made a “snarky comment” about the Chinese and Irish laborers who weren’t included in the iconic photo of the historic event.

Andrew J. Russell’s “East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of Last Rail,” commonly known as “The Champagne Photo,” depicts the celebration of railroad owners, engineers and dignitaries.

Andrew J. Russell’s “East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of Last Rail.”

That comment prompted an invitation for Chang to join the board of Spike 150, where he’s worked to add arts performances to the schedule of exhibitions and events. “Art is the way we can inspire, teach and evoke the history of up to 20,000 Chinese workers,” Chang says. “We don’t know their names. We don’t know their faces.”

He suggested commissioning a railroad poem by Paisley Rekdal, Utah’s poet laureate. (See her interactive poem here.) He helped scheduled a reading before a Salt Lake Acting Company staged reading of David Henry Hwang’s play “The Dance and the Railroad” and a brief run of Jason Ma’s musical “Gold Mountain” in 2019. (Utah Shakespeare Festival produced a full run of “Gold Mountain” at the West Valley Performing Arts Center in 2021.)

He’s working with artists and composers in several schools to help students create original graphic novels and musicals about the building of the railroad. He’s coordinating culinary events spotlighting what the Chinese railroad workers ate.

And his family sponsored Utah Symphony’s 2019 performances of Zhou Tian’s “Transcend” (May 10-11), a new orchestral work by Grammy-nominated composer Zhou Tian. Zhou’s work received a series of 14 performances by orchestras along the railroad route.

Perhaps most satisfying of all, Chang worked with state officials to enrich the story of Chinese railroad workers in the latest edition of the seventh-grade history textbook, “The Utah Journey.” “The goal isn’t to change history,” Chang says. “It’s to expand the lens of history.”

— Ellen Fagg Weist

Learn more about those who were missing from history at this archive detailing the Spencer Fox Eccles Treasures of the Transcontinental Railroad Exhibit, which was displayed in 2019 at the Utah State Capitol.