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Chinese Migrants & the Transcontinentals

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Chinese men poured into the U.S. by the thousands in the 1860s, drawn by the promise of the Gold Rush. When that dream evaporated, they found jobs building the Central Pacific railway line — dangerous work that cost many lives. Their stories are little known and rarely told, but UW art professor Zhi Lin has spent nearly a decade researching the men’s lives and remembering them through his artwork, on view at the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) beginning this summer.  

Zhi Lin

"I don't think our society studies history enough," says Zhi Lin, whose extensive historical research informs his artworks. Media credit: Doug Manelski

“I don’t think our society studies history enough,” says Lin, professor of painting and drawing, who viewed railroad payroll records, newspaper articles, photos, and other historical documents to learn more about the 24,000 Chinese workers that built the Central Pacific railroad. Lin also visited many sites along the railroad’s route, from California to Wyoming. The casualties were huge at places like Donner Pass, where the Chinese suffered through the worst winter on record, and the Sierra Nevada mountains, where they hung from the side of cliffs to place dynamite and were not always lifted to safety in time.

Lin painted more than 60 watercolors to capture what he saw along the railroad route. Many of the artworks are landscapes in shades of grey. “They are intentionally muted and there are no people in them because I was trying to capture their absence,” says Lin. “I’m a figurative painter, but I felt this was the most appropriate way to capture the subject. That was more important than showing off my technique.”

Absence is a theme throughout Lin’s artworks about Chinese immigrants. Despite the huge numbers of Chinese men building the railroad, they are absent from historical photos or captured in the background only by chance. The most egregious omission — and one that has informed much of Lin’s work — is an iconic photo by Andrew Russell, taken at an 1869 celebration known as the Golden Spike. The event marked the spot where the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railway lines finally connected. In the photograph, a large crowd is gathered for a champagne toast — with not a single Chinese person in sight.  

drawing by Zhi Lin

In 2007, Zhi Lin visited a railroad tunnel at Donner Summit, which he captured in an 8.5" x 10" Chinese ink drawing. Image courtesy of the artist & The AltaMed Art Collection, Courtesy of Cástulo de la Rocha & Zoila D. Escobar, AArC. 12203.

“No Chinese were part of the celebration despite building the railroad,” says Lin. “Where were they? This raises issues of ethics in the presentation of history.”  

Some of Lin’s recent work, including large mixed media pieces, incorporate video from an annual Golden Spike event that recreates the famous photograph. But instead of capturing the event from the original vantage point, with the crowd cheering as VIPs on two trains share champagne, the video is filmed from behind the trains to heighten the sense of exclusion.

In the TAM exhibit, that video will be part of an installation that also includes railroad ballast with the names of Chinese railroad workers written on the coarse stone.  Lin found the names in Central Pacific’s payroll records, though those names represent just a fraction of the actual workers. “The crew leads’ names were recorded, but not the 20 or 30 others who worked with them,” Lin explains.

We’ve made progress, but it’s very easy for that to be reversed. I think art can play a role for activism and positive change.

The TAM exhibit will also feature a commissioned painting about Chinese migrant workers in the Tacoma area in the early 1880s, and their expulsion with the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1885. That painting will be 30 feet long, in the style of a Chinese hand scroll. “I’m telling a Chinese story about Tacoma, so I decided to do it in a Chinese style,” Lin says. As with his other artworks, Lin researched the topic extensively, studying historical maps and records of businesses on the route the Chinese immigrants traveled as they were marched out of town.  

video still from Golden Spike Celebration

A video still from an installation to be included in Zhi Lin's Tacoma Art Museum exhibit. The installation will include HD video projection of a Golden Spike celebration recreating the original Golden Spike event, filmed from behind the action. Five metric tons of railway ballast, painted with names of Chinese workers who built the railroad, will also be part of the installation.

Lin hopes that through his artwork, TAM visitors will gain some insight into the difficult journey of early Chinese immigrants and what it says about our country.

“I want to affirm who we are as Americans and ask how we can prevent this from being repeated,” says Lin. “We’ve made progress, but it’s very easy for that to be reversed. I think art can play a role for activism and positive change.”

 “Zhi LIN: In Search of the Lost History of Chinese Migrants and the Transcontinental Railroads” runs from June 27, 2017 through February 4, 2018 at the Tacoma Art Museum. For more information, visit the Tacoma Art Museum website.