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Fire Obscures Message of ‘Harmony Through Union’ Float

The Chinese American Heritage Foundation’s “Harmony Through Union” float is connected to a two truck after a small fire disabled it during the 2019 Tournament of Roses Parade on Jan. 1 in Pasadena. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

PASADENA — The Chinese American Heritage Foundation’s “Harmony Through Union” float in the Rose Parade on New Year’s Day made headlines, but for the wrong reasons.

The float, which depicted the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, was on Orange Grove Boulevard approaching Colorado Boulevard when smoke began pouring out. The driver halted the float and everyone on board was evacuated. A large truck attempted to pull the float off the route, but then the truck broke down.

The mishap blocked the remaining bands and floats, and in the confusion many spectators thought the parade was over and began to leave.

Apparently, a small leak created a fine mist of transmission fluid that made contact with a hot exhaust pipe, according to Fiesta Parade Floats President Tim Estes, who promised to work with the Tournament of Roses to determine the cause and “prevent future incidents.”

The Chinese American Heritage Foundation said in a statement, “Everyone is safe and sound and enjoying New Year’s with a special lion dance from our Southern Wind Lion Dance troupe. Our float riders, Fiesta Parade Floats crew, and the Tournament of Roses – Rose Parade Team were heroes today, evacuating our riders swiftly and safely.

“Our riders re-boarded with grace and dignity, only to have our float derail a second time. We didn’t finish the parade, but we made headline news — so let our message carry: great things can happen if we all work together. We ARE Harmony Through Union!”

The Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association, which expressed gratitude to the CAHF and its principals, Wilson and Esther Lee, said in a statement, “The work of our ancestors has been ignored and their sacrifices and triumphs have been unappreciated for far too long. The thousands of Chinese laborers worked in horrendous conditions, blasting through solid granite and enduring some of the worst winters in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in recorded history. For these efforts, they were paid 60 cents on the dollar compared to their white counterparts.

“Unfortunately, it has been reported that a small electrical fire disabled the float as it approached the intersection of Orange Grove and Colorado boulevards. All riders and workers have been accounted for and are uninjured. We thank the Rose Parade officials for their quick efforts and for the first responders on the scene.

“This effort has been a labor of love for the Lees and CAHF and we appreciate their commitment to helping to tell this untold American legacy. The Asian American community is proud to have witnessed this historic moment and looks forward to future endeavors with CAHF and the Lees to bring the legacy of the Chinese railroad worksers to light. For more about this legacy, please go to”

Ken Fong — host and co-producer of Asian America: The Ken Fong Podcast, affiliate associate professor of Asian American church studies at Fuller Seminary, former senior pastor at Evergreen Baptist Church of L.A., and former executive director at Asian American Center of Fuller Theological Seminary — shared his thoughts on Facebook:

“Because I was fortunate to get to know Wilson and Esther Zee Lee, the Boston Chinese American couple who spearheaded the ‘Harmony Through Union’ RP float that sadly broke down at the turn, I know that they of course are disappointed that the world didn’t get to see this amazing float that was created by so many donors and willing nimble fingers.

“Their main purpose was to remind all Americans and to declare to the world that America — this America — was mostly built by immigrants. Like my Chinese ancestors did, even though the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1842 was the ‘wall’ that xenophobic politicians erected to keep us from bringing over our loved ones and relatives, even creating ‘bachelor societies’ because this racist law kept far young Chinese women from coming to America. And those single Chinese men, by law, couldn’t marry non-Chinese women.

“Even though the white racist railroad robber barons 150 years ago excluded any of the Chinese from being included in that iconic photo of the joining of the two segments in Promontory Point, Utah, the Lees were determined that their float would include descendants of nearly every group that had helped to reconnect this nation in the aftermath of the Civil War.

“So I am also sad that those descendants — Mormons, Black Americans, Irish Americans, Mexican Americans, German Americans, etc. — were not able to represent ‘Harmony Through Union’ to the millions that lined the route and to the tens of millions more watching on some screen.

“Immigrants built America. They weren’t the enemy back then, but determined contributors, hoping to build a better life for their progeny, and in the process, a better country for all.

“Immigrants continue to build America today. They are not the enemy, even though some treat them as such. They too are determined contributors, fleeing from poverty or violence, drawn by the torch of Lady Liberty. In the face of daunting restrictions and hateful stereotypes, the vast majority of them just want to stand on the shoulders of the countless immigrants who came before them.

“That’s the takeaway that I gained from spending time with the Lees last week, and from working alongside not just Chinese Americans, but Chinese immigrants, and a whole host of other ethnic groups. Young and old. Rich and poor. Educated or not. We all proudly wore the pale yellow shirts we were given that identified us as being part of something bigger, much, much bigger, than a float that could break down.

“I think that’s why, on the morning of 12/31, as we returned to see our creation before the judges came, the Fiesta Float staff had secretly placed a floral life-sized statue of Bud the Cat, a former resident of the float barn. They award this trophy each year to the float whose participants exhibit a singular spirit and energy as we labored together.

“That’s the message of ‘Harmony Through Union.’ That’s the message that the Lees sacrificed so much these past five years to declare to our fellow Americans. And that’s the message that will be taken into our elementary schools later this year as the Chinese American Heritage Foundation rolls out age-specific materials that tell this overlooked story of how Chinese immigrants and other marginalized groups came together and accomplished the impossible.”

Railroad workers’ descendants and sponsors gather in front of the “Harmony Through Union” float. (Photo by OC Lee)

Michael McFatridge, past president of the South Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association and former construction chairman, commented, “I am disheartened that the hard work of the many volunteers who spent countless hours designing, planning, fundraising, building and decorating all culminating in the thrill of driving your entry to the parade line was all for naught.

“The Tournament of Roses must be held accountable for this farce. Breakdowns do occur. A float I drove broke down. Because of our practice and procedures, we were hooked up to the tow truck and on the move within 3 minutes. Not getting that float moving quickly is the fault of the builder, the float aids, corner workers and the organizers as a whole. Because of this incompetence, millions of people were not able to see the remaining entries …

“What will the Pasadena Tournament of Roses do to make this right? The only option that makes sense is for the Tournament of Roses to fully reimburse the cost to building and decorate the floats that were not able to complete the parade.

“Make no mistake, when the cameras are turned off, and parade-goers leave, the parade is OVER. I hope you find a way to do the right thing.”

According to The Pasadena Star News, the Lees said that they were not disappointed the float broke down and were instead encouraged that people were talking about the float and that an estimated 50,000 people were able to view it and take in its message in the post-parade float showcase. They also said they said would pick Fiesta to build their float again if they are selected to participate in the 2020 parade.

The Lees said former State Treasurer John Chiang and Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees President Mike Fong are helping the foundation explore options to secure permission to move the float to Los Angeles Chinatown to display the float as part of the Lunar New Year celebration Feb. 9, but they have not confirmed any plans yet.

Summing up the incident, Wilson Lee said, “It pales in comparison to the hardships that our ancestors endured 150 years ago to make the railroad complete. Think about it — the difficulty in building the Transcontinental Railroad across the Sierra Nevada mountains, across valleys, across deserts, that’s the hardship. If the float endured a little mishap, so be it.”

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