In 1862, Indiana State Representative William Holman observed that the Transcontinental Railroad “[c]ould never be constructed on terms applicable to ordinary roads…it is to be constructed through almost impassable mountains, deep ravines, canyons, gorges, and over arid and sandy plains.”
Much of that work was done by Chinese immigrants.
Artist Zhi Lin has created a series on the Chinese railway workers: three 3-by-12-foot paintings using Chinese ink and colors on Chinese paper. Currently on view at the Pacific Asia Museum, the project is part of an exhibit called “The Other Side: Chinese And Mexican Immigration To America.”
Lin was trained at the China National Academy of Fine Arts and London’s Slade School of Fine Art. He holds an endowed professorship at the University of Washington, teaching both in the Art Division and Jackson School of International Studies.
You’ve been at work on the series for 10 years: can you tell a bit about how the project evolved?
These pieces alone didn’t take 10 years. I’ve been researching and creating works of various kinds about the Chinese railway workers for 10 years.
The ethnic Chinese are one of the few groups against whom it’s still socially acceptable to openly discriminate. So I was interested in the railway workers as a facet of Chinese-American identity and experience.
From my home in Seattle, I’ve made many trips to California, driving back and forth. Reno, Truckee. Highway 80. Summertime, snow days, winter, spring. Bloomer Cut, outside Auburn, California, was where the building of the railroad began.
They thought maybe the Chinese were too weak, too tiny to do the work. So they had them dig the first very difficult tunnel that cuts through the mountains. Black powder, chisels, shovels: the workers made it through. [Bloomer Cut was completed in 1864 and was known at the time as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”]. After that the railroad hired 23,000 Chinese.
As I viewed your work, a group of children trooped through. “What do you see?” the docent asked? “Trees?” one piped up. “A fish?” ventured another. “Vertebrae!” yelled over. “To evoke the back-breaking labor of the Chinese workers.” The cross-tie motif also evoked sutures — wounds that had been stitched together.
The crossties are based on the clothes of the Chinese workers, which were connected in front with a cloth fastener called a frog. I wanted to get across the idea of clothes without heads. Faceless, nameless people. The second layer is like a ribcage, a backbone, a sternum. The pieces were never intended to look like landscapes.
The first piece is called “Bloody Summer, Cape Horn, 1865.” The legend about Cape Horn is that Chinese workers were lowered down a vertical precipice in woven baskets to complete the work on the railroad. Many casualties ensued.
The process for all three pieces involved going to sites in California and Utah, applying color to old foundations and tracks — to the literal topography — and then rubbing Chinese paper on the surface, allowing the paper, both back and front, to absorb and soak in the color.
I wanted the texture to imply the harshness of the weather and work conditions, the layering of events. I first tried this technique at a residency in China, as an experiment with my graduate students. The next step was to take the technique to an actual railroad site.
The second, “Spring Mountains, American River, 1865,” is a lighter aqua with a sand-color background. Here, the striations give the sense of a palimpsest, a half-developed X-ray, the muscle and sinew of a human body.
The Chinese had a camp near the northern fork of American River. I went there several times. Two documentarians made a film at the site, with my support, called “Ghost Story: Chinese Railroad Workers.”
The third painting is “May Sky, Salt Lake, Utah,” 1869.” It’s as if the building of the railroad was so deeply embedded in the psyche and nervous system of the Chinese workers that it became in a sense their constellation, their cosmos.
There are two more pieces in the series that were not included in the show. One of them —“Iced Bones” at the Koplin del Rio Gallery— is about the area made famous by the Donner Party. Most people don’t know that two hundred Chinese railway workers died during the winter of 1866-67.
Also I made a video about “The Champagne Photo” taken at the behest of Union Pacific officials outside Salt Lake, Utah, to commemorate the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Last December in China I mounted an installation called “Chinaman’s Chance on the Promontory Summit: Golden Spike Celebration,” with the video projected on actual railway gravel.
With their ghostly markings, the works are like half-developed X-rays. They’re dark somehow, with a kind of solemn sorrow, and yet they also hold a kind of resurrectional light, a glimmer of hope.
History is written different ways, by different people. In a way, I’ve tried to write the history from the Chinese workers’ perspective.
“The Other Side: Chinese and Mexican Immigration to America” runs through Aug. 17 at the USC Pacific Asia Museum, 46 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena. Zhi Lin will give a talk discussing his work July 13, 2 p.m. Information: (626) 449-2742 or pacificasiamuseum.org.
Heather King is the author of “Parched: A Memoir,” “Redeemed: Stumbling Toward God,” and “Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Therese of Lisieux.” She lives in Los Angeles.