By Tim Gruver
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Thousands of Chinese men sought their fortunes in the California gold mines of 19th century America, but many only found work laying the tracks of the great transcontinental railroads.
Constructed from 1863 to 1869, the first transcontinental railroad was celebrated as the country’s gateway to the American West. This groundbreaking technology was accomplished due in large part to the backbreaking work of the men who cut through perilous mountain sides and scorching deserts.
These tireless workers are the figures depicted by artist Zhi Lin, whose award-winning work now hangs in the Tacoma Art Museum more than a century after their passing.
“Art is about making a connection,” Lin said. “My work is about where we’ve been, where we’re going, and where we’ll be in the future.”
“Zhi LIN: In Search of the Lost History of Chinese Migrants and the Transcontinental Railroads” explores the physical and cultural journey of the Chinese laborers who bridged the east and west.
A printmaker by training, many of Lin’s work deals in the abstract, animated by the dangerous work performed by Chinese migrants on the transcontinental railroad.
Awash in color and vibrant imagery, Lin’s watercolor paintings tell the stories of strangers in a strange land invisible to the inattentive eye — their crude, headless outlines marching across an endless expanse of grass and mountaintops.
Lin’s black and white ink drawings depict a different picture of the American landscape — that of railway tunnels and train tracks, each from the perspective of the Chinese workers who built them.
“This is attention to detail,” said Liza Morado, a visitor at the exhibit. “I like color. But images that are just black and white make me have to stop and think and process it all.”
One in particular subverts the imagery of Andrew J. Russell’s famous “Champagne Photo.” Gone are the white businessmen who laid the golden spike completing the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah. In their place is a view of train tracks as they would appear to a Chinese laborer standing atop them.
At the center of the exhibit lies a video reel depicting a reenactment of “Champagne Photo” and a bed of stones inscribed with the names of 905 Chinese laborers known to have died working on the transcontinental railroad. Each stone will be planted at Tacoma’s Chinese Reconciliation Park following the exhibit’s completion on Feb. 18, 2018.
Lin’s paintings reverberate the racism endured by laborers throughout the railroads’ construction, culminating with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The federal act barred ethnic Chinese from immigrating to the United States, encouraging acts of violence and vigilantism against resident Chinese migrants.
On Nov. 3, 1885, a mob of men rounded up the 200 remaining Chinese people left in Tacoma and marched them out of town. The following days saw countless Chinese homes and communities destroyed by what was described as the “Tacoma Method” — a blueprint for forcing out Chinese residents. It was not until 1943 that the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed.
The next century saw a sharp decline in Chinese immigration to Tacoma today. According to a 2010 U.S. Census, Seattle has close to 20,000 Chinese residents. Tacoma, meanwhile, has just over 700.
A Floyd and Delores Jones Endowed Professor in the Arts, Lin teaches painting at the University of Washington. Lin wants his work to show how history never dies.
“People say, ‘Oh, that happened in 1885, that could never happen again,’” Lin said. “The idea that we’ve moved past this doesn’t explain why more Chinese don’t walk down the street in Tacoma today. That’s the parallel I want to draw.”
Tim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.