In case you missed it, the fifth season of AMC’s “Hell On Wheels” – a show, which wrapped earlier this year, that detailed the building of the transcontinental railroad through five seasons – featured a nearly unprecedented portrayal of Chinese American contribution to the construction.
At the center of the story was Angela Zhou, a fresh-faced 25-year-old actress who found herself playing a gender-bending role and working alongside names like Byron Mann and Tzi Ma.
Zhou is introduced as a man, Fong, on the fifth season of the show, only to be later discovered as a woman in disguise – Mei has fled her homeland to hide out among the 15,000 or so Chinese railroad workers in America.
“These stories [of Chinese railroad workers], even though it’s different from my own experience, they resonate with me,” she said. Zhou was born in China and grew up in New Zealand.
While she grew up watching faces like Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh and Ming-Na Wen on the big and small screens, Zhou was never introduced to Chinese New Zealander immigrant history in school – much like they flocked to the states, scores of Chinese immigrants, most of them from Zhou’s birthplace of Guangdong province, also landed in the country for a gold rush during the mid-1800s.
Angela Zhou as Fong/Mei in AMC’s “Hell On Wheels” (AMC)
“I only really learned about Chinese New Zealanders not through anything in books or what was taught in school or through the media, but from my high school friends who were third-generation Chinese New Zealanders whose grandparents had moved over,” she said.
Zhou, who arrived in the U.S. six years ago to attend Duke University as an undergraduate Robertsons Scholar, comes from a background in student theater, having performed at the Globe Theater in London with the Young Shakespeare Company in a production of “As You Like It.”
“My mom said [theater] was a waste of my time,” Zhou said. “Asian parents don’t encourage us to go into that stuff because it’s scary for them. My mother had just immigrated to New Zealand from China.”
For a younger Zhou, her own Chinese heritage was a source of embarrassment. She told herself, she said, that her immigrant history was somehow inferior – she prided herself in being a New Zealander, and refused to go to Chinese school to learn how to write and read the language. It wasn’t until she learned about the Cultural Revolution that her interest in her own history was sparked.
“When I went back to China, a lot of things I’d taken for granted in my family had a context to them,” she said. In many ways, “Hell On Wheels” took Zhou all the way back to her roots. At the same time, showrunner John Wirth recognized she was not Chinese American and sent her a wealth of DVDs and books on Chinese American history.
“Tzi, Byron and I, we felt incredibly honored to tell this story,” Zhou said. “The extras felt very honored to be a part of this. A lot of them had family members who worked on the railroad in Canada, and it turns out Chinese moved to Canada to work on the railroad. They felt that too, that they were representing their ancestors.”
The series may have drawn its curtains, but for Zhou, the show – her own, anyway – is just beginning.
“The part of the reason I got into acting and storytelling in the first place is, I feel like there’s such power in being able to tell stories of people, voices from the voiceless, and to expose people to a different lifestyle,” Zhou said. “When you watch movies and TV, you without knowing it step away from your perspective, and you get into the shoes of somebody else. Through that, it breaks down barriers and prejudice, and it helps you connect on a more human level.”