In the 19th century, laborers from China helped build railroads spanning California and linking the U.S. coasts.
In the 21st century, the Chinese may be back -- not for backbreaking labor, but with financial and technological muscle.
The People's Republic of China has more miles of track for high-speed trains than any country in the world, while California has none. But the Chinese want in on the state's fledgling high-speed rail project. They're eager to help bankroll and build the system and, eventually, provide the trains to operate on the tracks.
China's not alone. Eight nations have agreements with the California High-Speed Rail Authority to share information about high-speed rail -- and each wants a piece of California's business.
"Other countries want to be a part of this because they know high-speed rail can be profitable," said Jeffrey Barker, the authority's deputy executive director. "Their ultimate interest is operating the system."
But experts suggest that China's economic might -- and government-backed companies -- give it an advantage.
"China is cash-flush, and its highly subsidized industries are bankrolled with surplus government funds," said Usha Haley, a professor of international business at Massey University in New Zealand and an expert on China's worldwide business strategies. "They're investing in infrastructure around the world ... and if they're bidding in an open-bid process, China will get that bid."
California and America are squarely in China's sights, said Christopher Barkan, director of the Rail Transportation and Engineering Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
On a tour of China's largest rail manufacturer last summer, Barkan met with a Ministry of Railways official who prominently displayed a map of the United States on his office wall.
"They are extremely interested in the U.S.," Barkan said. "We're the largest untapped market for high-speed rail in the world."
Because the U.S. lacks both technology and expertise in high-speed rail, foreign involvement from countries where high-speed trains already operate will be inevitable in California.
"It's technology like the trains, signals, electrification that we don't have in the U.S.," said Barker. Those components represent about 15% of the cost for the state's high-speed train system.
California expects to spend about $43 billion over the next decade to build the backbone of an 800-mile high-speed system linking the state's major cities.
California voters approved a $9.9 billion bond measure in 2008 to help pay for high-speed rail, and rail officials say they expect the federal government to contribute between $17 billion and $19 billion over the coming decade.
The state must find $14 billion to $16 billion from other sources -- both foreign and domestic.
It's too early to know what Chinese or other foreign investment might look like. California is still forming its business plan for high-speed rail, and construction won't begin until mid- to late 2012 in the San Joaquin Valley, between Madera and Bakersfield. Test runs could begin as early as 2015.
Barker, of the state rail authority, said bidders may put up billions of dollars in either cash or construction of needed technology, or offer to provide trains at no cost, in exchange for the long-term rights to operate the system as a business. Or they may find other ways to contribute to the cost.
Competition is expected, Barker said: "We want as many entities as possible offering financing or incentives, the best technology for the lowest cost."