Arts & Events

In Search of the History of Chinese Migrants

By Arcelia Salado Alvarado

Zhi Lin’s name is in the entryway for the exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum. Painted in broad strokes, the bright Chinese characters are fitting for a man who is trying to shine the spotlight on people who were left anonymous for so long.
“Between 1865 and 1869, thousands of Chinese migrants toiled at a grueling pace and in perilous working conditions to help construct America’s first Transcontinental Railroad,” Stanford’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America said. Anywhere between 50 to 1,200 immigrants may have died while building the railroad, labouring under extremely perilous conditions with less pay and more hours than their Eurpoean counterparts.
Lin’s search for the history of Chinese immigrants began with paintings in 2006. “[The paintings] honor the sacrifices made by Chinese men who labored on the largest engineering feat of the 19th century,” Lin said. He is dedicated to a research-based methodology; writers of history are obligated to tell the truth.
Lin visited Tacoma many times and he walked the same eight-mile journey Chinese immigrants were forced to undertake when the city kicked all Chinese nationals out in 1885. Many of his sketches feature a first-person view of the buildings the immigrants would have had to walk by.
“It would be a further erasure if I were to substitute them with an imagined portrait,” Lin said.  He wants to show the animosity towards Chinese immigrants and how that led to their convenient erasure from the successful creation of the railroads.
The largest art piece, “Chinaman’s Chance,” takes up the entire right wall of the exhibit. Using audio/visual support in the form of a projected video, at first glance it merely looks like railroad rocks pushed up against the wall. Upon closer inspection, the viewer see that they have names scrawled on them. Names that were forgotten by time are literally being set in stone by Zhi Lin.
However, even Lin can only do so much to recover an incomplete history. The plaque states that there are only 905 recovered workers’ names of the “estimated tens of thousands of Chinese workers.” These names are made even more distant because English speakers found Chinese names “very difficult to understand,” so many were written as abbreviations.
The video component consists of footage of a reenactment of the Golden Spike Railway Celebration, which Lin filmed from a periphery perspective, as if one is watching the celebration and being left out, prompting the viewer to imagine being omitted from history purely because of their identity.
Even the title of the piece is bleak; the idiom “Chinamen’s Chance” includes a slur originating from these very historical events, and means a “slim chance of making it — or surviving” Eric Liu, author of “A Chinamen’s Chance” said in an NPR interview.
“To observe the event from another point of view is to reexamine the historical celebration,” Lin said. For these immigrants, basic humanizing rights were denied even outside of work.
In the other central piece, “On November 3rd along Pacific Avenue in Tacoma,” all attention is given to Chinese immigrants, but, in contrast, as negatively as possible.
The traditional hand scroll placed in the dead center of the room has golden edges and runs about a third of the length of the room and depicts two hundred Chinese immigrants being forced out of Tacoma in 1885.
According to Dawn Delbanco of the Department of Art History and Archaeology in Columbia University, scroll painting is a visual medium that forces intimacy onto the person unfurling it. The scroll is fully exposed for the sake of visibility. The use of a traditional Chinese scroll in contrast with square, industrial buildings and unending lines of immigrants trudging out of their home leaves the viewer reeling, uprooted.
“Lin said this expulsion is ‘Ethnic cleansing. Because leading out every single Chinese ‘cleaned’ them out of the city,’” the plaque dedicated to Tacoma said.
In contrast to this upsetting negativity,  constellations take shape in the painting directly across the entrance. It’s over the Sierra Nevada, the same night sky above us all, stars reordered to imagine a bittersweet history in which Chinese workers receive the recognition they deserve.
The video by the front desk, “Of Race and Reconciliation,” documents the 1885 expulsion of Chinese immigrants from Tacoma. The full version can be found on the PBS website.
“Lin envisions deeper and richer conversations about migration and immigration guided by a shared knowledge of our histories,” the opening plaque said. After feeling knots in their core, the viewer can undo them with further research.
Lin’s pieces will be placed in the Chinese Reconciliation Park in 2018, when the exhibit ends Feb. 18, 2018.
Zhi Lin’s exhibit will run from June 27, 2017 to Feb. 18, 2018.