One of the major milestones in the opening of the American wilderness to commerce and settlement was the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. The feat was accomplished in 1869 in Utah when railroad crews moving from the east and the west linked the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads. A large portion of that achievement was due to the efforts of Chinese laborers.
Lured to the West Coast of the United States by the discovery of gold in California, thousands of Chinese men were among those drawn by the prospect of striking it rich. The rug, however, was pulled out from under them when they were barred from obtaining prospecting rights.
Lacking in alternatives, many of these men joined the crews of laborers that were needed to drive railroad lined through the rustic Western landscape. They had to contend not only with the daunting mountain ranges, but also with extremes of weather, with wildlife and with the animosity of the surrounding population.
Whether by negligence or deliberate action, the role played by these migrant workers was, for a time, erased from history. What could not be erased was the indelible mark that these men made upon the land. Their labors, on an epic scale, leveled uneven land, tunneled through mountains and bridged chasms. They prepared the way and made it straight for the spread of civilization.
University of Washington art professor and artist Zhi LIN, originally from China, has long been working to shed light on the Chinese people who spent so much of their vitality in the forging of American civilization. He has done much to reverse the attempt to eradicate an entire ethnic population from a crucial epoch of American history.
The Tacoma Art Museum recently unveiled Zhi LIN’s “In Search of the Lost History of Chinese Migrants and the Transcontinental Railroads.” The exhibit will be on view through Feb. 18 of next year. The artist managed to transform the museum space is made into something like a chapel or cathedral with a huge video projection on one wall and long, horizontal paintings running like stained glass windows along the sides. Down the center is a long scroll in a glass case and at the back are a series of watercolor paintings (all done in shades of gray).
The video, almost 11 minutes long, is called “’Chinaman’s Chance’ on Promontory Summit: Golden Spike Celebration, 12:30 pm, 10th May 1869.” It shows the annual reenactment of the meeting of the two railroads and the ceremonial driving of the golden spike that celebrated the union of the eastern and western halves of the United States. Zhi LIN points out that the men of the Chinese labor force are nowhere to be seen in historic photographs of the original ceremony. The video is shot from the vantage point of the railroad workers – out of range of the cameras. Shooting from behind the celebration, the artist suggests that the dominant narrative has alternative points of view. At the base of this wall is a shoal of crushed rock. Many of the stones are painted with the names of those Chinese workers that the artist has been able to identify via his research, only 905 names from among the thousands that were employed by the railroad companies. (These will be relocated to Chinese Reconciliation Park located along the waterfront after the art show ends.)
The long, abstract paintings along the sides consist of mingled colors that are marked with lines and gestural strokes. They are meant to be evocative of locations and atmospheric conditions that the railroad laborers would have experienced as they toiled in the vastness of the West. One depicts starry constellations in the night sky, another conjures the experience of winter in the mountains. Another captures the hot, limestone surfaces of sheer rock faces.
The watercolors are perhaps the most haunting parts of the show. Zhi has visited many of the key sites related to the building of the railroad and painted them as they appear today. At the bottom of each scene, he writes of the events that happened at the location. There is a scene of a modern intersection with lamp posts and traffic lights. Called “The Intersection before the Bridge Crossing Bitter Creek,” the image was done in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where, in 1885, a mob of hundreds of white miners, armed with guns, hatchets, clubs and knives crossed Bitter Creek to Chinatown and killed 28 Chinese workers and burned homes in an event now known as the Rock Springs massacre.
Later that same year, 1885, one of the dark episodes in Tacoma’s history took place. Chinese-American families were rounded up and driven out of Tacoma by armed men on horseback. A major component of this show deals with this expulsion. The long scroll running down the middle of the space shows the present-day buildings and traffic features of Pacific Avenue. The viewer is given a birds-eye view. The mounted, rifle-toting men are shown at their work of driving Chinese-born residents along Pacific Ave. The Chinese are shown only as empty costumes. There are no bodies under the garments. They have literally been erased. The scroll is punctuated by little pictures of birds, dogs and cats involved in their doings, unaware of the human drama unfolding. Some of these side vignettes echo the overall theme, such as the scene of a hawk catching a smaller bird in its talons.
One series of watercolors depict some of Tacoma’s landmarks and locations that mark the path that the Chinese residents took on their eight-mile trail of tears, as they were forced to walk all the way to Lakewood where they were loaded onto trains and sent to Portland, Oregon.
There in the art museum you are struck by the realization that you are standing almost exactly in a spot through which these dispossessed people were driven. Zhi’s paintings are so detailed that one can go to exact locations in town and pay homage to victims of the unwisdom and unkindness of some of our civic forebears. The juxtaposition of the past and the present in Zhi’s work has a way of bringing the story to life in the imagination of his audience. In so doing, he reshapes the narrative of our history. In so doing, he hopes to expose the injustice of the past in order to help us to be better able to consider our actions in the present and future.
For further information visit TacomaArtMuseum.org.
Public Programs related to “In Search of the Lost History of Chinese Migrants”
July 29, 7-10 p.m. Members’ Exhibition Celebration
Aug. 2, noon to 1 p.m.
Lunch and learn with author and University of Washington professor, Shawn Wong
Nov. 16, 5-8 p.m.
Q & A and art-making demonstration with Zhi LIN
Feb. 15, 2018, 5-8 p.m.
Community panel on immigration and exclusion